Believe it or not, the Civil War came because Abraham Lincoln suffered from an Oedipus complex. He had no use for his father, refused to visit him in his last illness, subconsciously wished him dead. He found a surrogate in George Washington, the Father of His Country. Still, Lincoln was a jealous as well as a worshipful son, for he was inordinately ambitious, and he had to compete with Washington's incomparable fame. No longer could any American gain immortality as a founder of the republic, but there remained the possibility of making oneself the savior of it. Lincoln indulged in fantasies of saving it from a would-be destroyer and dictator — fantasies, that is, of saving it from himself. Consciously or unconsciously he aspired to destroy and refound the republic, to slay the founding fathers and take their place. "The way that Lincoln cast himself into the center of the political conflict between the sections over slavery transformed that conflict into a civil war that created a modern nation while it destroyed forever the old Republic of the fathers." [1] In the process he won the immortality he sought, and he won it "by becoming the very tyrant against whom Washington had warned in his Farewell Address."[2]

Lincoln the tyrant! Lincoln the father-killer! If he was Oedipus Rex, one wonders who, in this latter-day scenario, was Jocasta, the Mother whom he married. More seriously, one wonders whether all this amounts to anything more than the latest in a long series of base and baseless characterizations of Lincoln. Certainly he has taken Washington's place as first in the hearts of his countrymen. Since 1948, historians have rated the presidents in at least a half-dozen polls, and in every one of them Lincoln has Page  [End Page 15] emerged as the greatest. [3] Yet, 175 years after his birth, he continues to be, as he was during his lifetime, the subject of denigrating myth.

A pioneer among the mythmakers and psychologizers was, of course, Lincoln's one-time law partner William H. Herndon. "If there is anything that a poor ignorant Sucker like myself can arrogate to myself," Herndon once wrote, "it is this, namely, an intuitive seeing of human character." He thought he, if anyone, could look right into Lincoln's very "gizzard." From Herndon's remarkable insight came a number of familiar stories, among them the story that Lincoln never loved any woman except Ann Rutledge and that Mary Todd married him not out of love but out of revenge.

Though not adopting those particular themes from Herndon, the recent psychologizers look to him for much of their information and insight, especially in regard to Lincoln's ambition — that "little engine that knew no rest," as Herndon called it.[4] But mainly they draw their inspiration from Sigmund Freud and other psychoanalysts, most notably Erik H. Erikson, author of Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (1958). The new interpreters of Lincoln also acknowledge a debt to the literary critic Edmund Wilson, who included a Lincoln essay in his study of Civil War literature Patriotic Gore (1962). For Wilson and his psychologizing followers, the key document in Lincoln's self-revelation is his address before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield on January 27, 1838.

On that occasion, about two weeks before his twenty-ninth birthday, Lincoln took as his topic "The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions." We the "legal inheritors" of "fundamental blessings" from our Revolutionary forefathers, he proceeded to orate, now face a possible threat to our republican inheritance, not from some enemy abroad but from developments at home. Recent lynchings in various parts of the country indicate a trend toward "mob law." If this should reach a point where government can no longer protect lives and property, citizens generally may become alienated from government. Then, promising law and order, some extraordinarily ambitious man may take over as Page  [End Page 16]

The Father and Saviour, 1865
The Father and Saviour, 1865Page  [End Page 17]
dictator. "Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would aspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon? Never!" The way to avert this danger, Lincoln concluded, is to cultivate a "political religion" that emphasizes "reverence for the laws" and puts reliance on "reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason." [5]

Reading between the lines, Edmund Wilson says "it is evident that Lincoln has projected himself into the role against which he is warning" here. According to Wilson, the young Lincoln already was "extremely ambitious" and "saw himself in the heroic role." So he issued an "equivocal warning against the ambitious leader, describing this figure with a fire that seemed to derive as much from admiration as from apprehension." Not only was he revealing his own self-perception but he was also being "startlingly prophetic" when he spoke of a "towering genius" who would "burn for distinction" and if possible would "have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen."[6]

One of the recent psychobiographers, George B. Forgie, in his Patricide in the House Divided (1979), concedes that "Wilson was partially correct, for Lincoln's image of danger is on the one hand so precise and on the other so far removed from any plausible threat that it must have appeared first on some inner mirror." But Forgie insists that, to "clarify or amend" Wilson's proposition that Lincoln was identifying with the would-be dictator, it is important to add that "Lincoln was doing so unconsciously. So close is the description to certain traits of the describer that only a man completely unconscious of what he was doing would have presented it." Forgie maintains that, at a "conscious level," Lincoln was "among the most devoted of all sons of the revolutionary fathers. There is no evidence that at this level he ever questioned that it was his duty to preserve" — not to destroy the republican edifice the fathers had erected.[7]

Another of the new interpreters, Charles B. Strozier, in Page  [End Page 18] Lincoln's Quest for Union (1982), accepts the Wilson thesis but agrees with Forgie that Lincoln was expressing only his "unacknowledged (or unconscious) wishes." "His desire to be the greatest and most powerful leader of all time, to be the towering genius, appears in the speech as motivating someone else," Strozier explains. "The other figure he feared because it spoke for his forbidden self; the wish, as Freud has observed, is father to the fear." Strozier underscores the "oedipal implications" of the speech. After quoting Lincoln's metaphor comparing the fathers of the republic to "giant oaks ... shorn of ... foliage ... with mutilated limbs," he comments: "The imagery here suggests emasculation and castration at the hands of the aspiring son."

Strozier freely indicates the influence of Erik H. Erikson. His chapter title "Young Man Lincoln" obviously derives from Erikson's book title Young Man Luther. To his own analysis of Lincoln he applies principles that Erikson uses in analyzing his subject — for example, the principle that avoidance of personal commitment and intimacy "may lead to a deep sense of isolation and consequent self-absorption," which, Strozier says, "fits well with what we know about Lincoln." Strozier finds a significant similarity between Luther's and Lincoln's paths to greatness. "After 1854 Lincoln turned outward and attempted, as Erik Erikson might say, to solve for all what he could not solve for himself." That is to say, after failing to overcome the divisive forces within his own personality, he succeeded in his "quest for union" by overcoming the divisive forces in the nation at large.[8]

A third analyst, Dwight G. Anderson, in Abraham Lincoln: The Quest for Immortality (1982), states frankly that his "definition of the subject matter is dependent upon Freud's theory of the origins of monotheism and Erik Erikson's study of Martin Luther." Monotheism is presumably relevant because, according to Anderson, Lincoln wanted to be God. "His project of becoming 'God' worked itself out in both a private and public context, against both his natural father and his political father, with the result that a personal death anxiety became transformed into a symbolic immortality both for himself and for the nation." Anderson adds: "Some assistance in understanding Lincoln's preoccupation with death is offered by Erik Erikson's comments on the 'young great man' in the years before he becomes the 'great young man.' Erikson had Martin Luther in mind, but his words describe Lin- Page  [End Page 19] coln just as well."

Anderson agrees with Forgie and Strozier in accepting the Edmund Wilson thesis, but disagrees with them by insisting that Lincoln consciously identified himself with the "towering genius," the potential tyrant. To clinch the point, Anderson directs attention to one particular clause in the Lyceum speech. Lincoln is saying that many have sought and achieved fame in pursuit of independence and the new government. "But," he continues, "the game is caught; and I believe it is true, that with the catching, end the pleasures of the chase." Anderson provides the following gloss: "Here was Lincoln ... projecting himself ('and I believe it is true') into the very role against which he warned his audience — a Caesarean role in which the player would have his distinction no matter what the cost — whether by freeing slaves or enslaving free men."

Anderson is not content with disagreeing with Forgie but goes on to denounce him and his views with considerable virulence. "Forgie's work," he declares, "is an illustration of why psychohistory is so widely held in disrepute. He argues that Lincoln created the tyrant out of 'undesirable wishes he could not recognize in himself,' which 'he expelled and then reified ... into the image of the bad son.' In a footnote he explains, 'Psychoanalysts call this operation "projection."' Actually, however, it is Forgie's projection rather than Lincoln's that is the relevant factor in this interpretation. For not only does Forgie ignore Lincoln's explicit statement of identification with those who might become tyrant ('and I believe it is true ...'), it is hardly bold to assume that he may also have been unconsciously hostile to Lincoln's actual words, because his central thesis is that Stephen A. Douglas is the 'bad son' of the Lyceum Address whom Lincoln symbolically killed in the 1850s. This preposterous conclusion ... would seem to be a monumental case of intellectual regression in service of the professional ego (to alter slightly a characterization Forgie applies to Lincoln)." [9] Page  [End Page 20]

Now, that is surely an instance of the pot calling the kettle black. If Forgie, as charged, reads Lincoln in the light of private preconceptions, Anderson certainly does the same — and with results that are even more far-fetched. Nowhere does Lincoln make, as Anderson claims, an "explicit statement of identification with those who might become tyrant." Lincoln's words "and I believe it is true" lead up to no such statement. Lincoln is not saying: "I believe it is true that I am one of those aspiring dictators." He is merely saying: "I believe it is true that the pleasures of the chase end when the game has been caught." His meaning is perfectly plain to any reader who is neither riding a hobby nor being ridden by one.

Anderson's book lacks the redeeming qualities that both Forgie's and Strozier's possess. Dealing not only with the words of Lincoln but also with those of many of his contemporaries, Forgie has sought out the metaphor of the house and the family in a wide range of antebellum American writing, and he has shown imagination and skill in arranging the quotations to fit a Freudian pattern. Strozier, generally a careful historian as well as a competent psychiatrist, has written what is on the whole a warm, sympathetic, and moving as well as illuminating account, one that adds to our understanding of Lincoln's private motives and their relation to his public stance.

It seems too bad that these two historians should have taken at face value the ipse dixit of Edmund Wilson, illustrious though he may have been as a fiction writer and a literary critic. The credulity of Anderson is perhaps more understandable, since he is a political scientist, not a historian. All three authors, in adopting Erik H. Erikson's model, abandon the historian's standards. According to Erikson, "the making of legend is as much part of the scholarly rewriting of history as it is part of the original facts used in the work of scholars. We are thus obliged to accept half-legend as half-history, provided only that a reported episode does not contradict other well-established facts; persists in having a ring of truth; and yields a meaning consistent with psychological theory."[10]

Well, the assertion that Lincoln aspired to dictatorship, even to godhood, contradicts no known facts — except perhaps for the fact that as president he showed great restraint in the exercise of his powers and great respect for the constitutional limits on them. The assertion has the "ring of truth" for those who think it has, Page  [End Page 21] and it yields meanings that appear to be consistent with one psychological theory or another. Thus it may meet the requirements of "half-history," but it does not meet those of whole history. Historians are taught to accept only the testimony that two or more independent and competent witnesses confirm. The hypothesis of Lincoln the would-be patricide and tyrant gets no support whatever from historical evidence. Rather, the record of his career suggests that he himself was one of those "great and good men" he referred to in the Lyceum speech — one of those who would have been satisfied with a presidential chair or even a senatorial seat.

We may reasonably conclude that in this speech Lincoln means exactly what he says. If we are to draw inferences from his remarks, we ought to keep in mind the context of the time. When he speaks of a rising "mobocratic spirit" he gives examples of it, and we could easily add other examples. When he warns against a leader who may seek power and fame "whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen," we do not have to jump to the conclusion that he is prophesying his own future, as Edmund Wilson does. We may safely assume that he is thinking of the abolitionist and proslavery feelings of the very moment — feelings that accounted for the recent mob murder of Elijah Love-joy in nearby Alton, Illinois. [11]

And when Lincoln talks of overweening ambition — of a homegrown Alexander, Caesar, or Napoleon — we do not have to probe his psyche to find out what he really means. He was a Whig, and the Whigs were used to referring to Andrew Jackson as "King Andrew the First," a veritable tyrant or at least an incipient one, as they saw him. Whigs and other Americans — those of them with even a bit of schooling — were familiar with the name of Julius Caesar and with the fate of the Roman republic. They were even better acquainted with the career of Napoleon Bonaparte, who after all was nearly a contemporary, having been dead less than seventeen years when Lincoln addressed the Lyceum. Page  [End Page 22]

Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Engraving
Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Engraving

How curious it is that any present-day American historian should think, as Forgie does, that Lincoln's "image of danger" was "so far removed from any plausible threat that it must have appeared first on some inner mirror"! Whether plausible or not to Forgie, the potential threat was real enough in the view of early-nineteenth-century Americans who knew something of the history of republics, ancient, medieval and modern. Politicians from the generation of George Washington and John Adams to that of Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun made their constituents aware of the possible danger. To discover it, Lincoln did not have to peer into his inner consciousness or subconsciousness.

Not for any cryptic meanings but for its manifest message the Lyceum speech is a remarkable production to have come from a twenty-eight-year-old man of Lincoln's background. One of its insights, neglected by commentators, qualifies the author as something of a psychologist, a social psychologist, himself. In explaining why it was easier to maintain republican institutions during the Revolutionary period than in his own time, he says that during the Revolution "the deep rooted principles of hate, and the powerful motive of revenge, instead of being turned [by Americans] against each other, were directed exclusively against the British Page  [End Page 23] nation." Since then, however, in the absence of a menacing external foe, the "passions of the people" could be expected to divide and weaken the republic rather than to unite and strengthen it. Here Lincoln is adumbrating the sociological law that the degree of solidarity of the in-group is more or less proportional to the intensity of conflict with an out-group. As a practical proposition, this had been familiar to politicians from time immemorial. Lincoln as president was to decline to apply the principle when Secretary of State William H. Seward, in his memorandum of April 1, 1861, recommended foreign war as a means of preventing civil war.[12]

Psychologizers of Lincoln today ought to exercise at least as much caution as the first of them, William H. Herndon, advised. "He was the most secretive — reticent — shut-mouthed man that ever existed," Herndon said of Lincoln. "You had to guess at the man after years of acquaintance, and then you must look long and keenly before you guessed or you would make an ass of yourself." [13] And all of us who are eager for the truth ought to heed Lincoln's own request of 1858: "I only ask my friends and all who are eager for the truth, that when they hear me represented as saying or meaning anything strange, they will turn to my own words and examine for themselves."[14] Page  [End Page 24]


  1. George B. Forgie, Patricide in the House Divided: A Psychological Interpretation of Lincoln and His Age (New York: Norton, 1979), p. 284 and passim. See my review of this book in the Journal of Southern History 46 (August 1980): 438–440.return to text
  2. Dwight G. Anderson, Abraham Lincoln: The Quest for Immortality (New York: Knopf, 1982), p. 99. See my review of this book in the Wisconsin Magazine of History 66 (Winter 1982–1983): 154–155.return to text
  3. Robert K. Murray and Tim H. Blessing, "The Presidential Performance Study: A Progress Report," Journal of American History 70 (December 1983): 535–539. return to text
  4. This Herndon quotation and the preceding one are from William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon's Life of Lincoln, with introduction and notes by Paul M. Angle (Cleveland: World, 1949), pp. xxxviii, 304. return to text
  5. Roy P. Basler et al., eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 8 vols. (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 1: 108–115. return to text
  6. Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), pp. 106–108, 129–130. Wilson's essay on Lincoln had been published earlier in his Eight Essays (New York: Doubleday, 1954).return to text
  7. Forgie, Patricide, pp. 84–85. return to text
  8. Charles B. Strozier, Lincoln's Quest for Union: Public and Private Meanings (New York: Basic Books, 1982), pp. 31, 40, 50, 59–61, 123. After reading Strozier's study in manuscript, I endorsed it upon publication, and on the whole I still do.return to text
  9. Anderson, Quest for Immortality, pp. 11–12, 79–80, 246–247. In a paper, "Abraham Lincoln's 'Lyceum' Speech Reconsidered," which he presented at the American Historical Association's annual meeting in San Francisco on December 29, 1983, Anderson reemphasized his claim that Lincoln had consciously identified with the tyrant. As a commentator, Forgie sharply criticized both Anderson's paper and his book. In reply, Anderson complained of being the victim of an "intellectual mugging," though Forgie in his comments was no more severe on him than he had been on Forgie in the passage from his book here quoted. When questioned by Kenneth M. Stampp from the floor, Anderson protested that his interpretation was only intended to be hypothetical, and he admitted that it could not be sustained by historical evidence.return to text
  10. Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (New York: Norton, paperback ed., 1962), p. 37.return to text
  11. For some sensible observations on the Lyceum speech, see Harry V. Jaffa, Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1959), pp. 222–224. Jaffa, pp. 214–215, does concede this much to Wilson's claim that "Lincoln has projected himself into the role against which he is warning": "We believe this is true, in the sense that Lincoln envisaged himself playing the highest political role. But we do not believe he envisioned himself as the destroyer, except in so far as every true strategist imagines himself in the position of his enemy."return to text
  12. Basler ed., Collected Works, 4: 316–318.return to text
  13. Herndon to J. E. Remsberg, September 1887, quoted in Angle, ed., Herndon's Life of Lincoln, p. xxxix. return to text
  14. Speech at Clinton, Illinois, July 27, 1858, referring to Stephen A. Douglas's use of Lincoln's "house divided" phrase, in Basler, ed., Collected Works, 2: 525. return to text