Thursday, November 27, 2008

The "Melancholy" of Meriwether Lewis

The study of mental health is, for the most part, a relatively new field of science. For centuries the human race has had little to no understanding of how the mind processes or responds to the various stimuli and experiences of an individual's life. For the most part, the common understanding of mental health throughout history has been to categorize individuals as "lunatics," "insane," or "melancholy." This lack of knowledge regarding the proper diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues often led to tragic tales of individuals locked away in asylums, or of men and women taking their own lives out of desperation.

The early American republic, despite its great advances in government and politics, was still a world of ignorance when it came to medical and mental science. Doctors possessed little to no understanding of the causes or treatments of mental illness. As a result, many early Americans were forced to deal with the various forms of mental illness on their own.

Such was the case for the heroic early American explorer, Meriwether Lewis. As a young man, Lewis was labeled as being, "prone to long bouts of melancholy." In fact, Lewis' good friend, Thomas Jefferson, described him as, "a man of good sense, integrity, bravery and enterprise" but also, "prone at times to sensible depressions of the mind...that seem to persist in the family."

Even during his infamous trek across the American countryside, Lewis seemed troubled by what his subordinates called "deep bouts of melancholy." Though Lewis never mentioned such troubles himself, one can easily see a pattern of highs and lows in his journal. For instance, Lewis would go weeks without writing a single thing down (even though President Jefferson had insisted that he keep a record of every day), while on other occasions he would fill several pages with his ramblings on mundane issues. In addition, William Clark and others noted how Lewis would refuse to get out of bed one day, while being the first to rise and go full throttle on another.

By most standards, it appears that Lewis suffered from Bipolar Disorder. One of the typical features of this disorder is a pattern of extreme highs and extreme lows. The individual will commonly experience a profound period of deep depression, in which they are unable to cope with common daily issues. After a period of time, the individual will experience a complete change in their emotional state, in which the depression is replaced by a state of extreme euphoria. During this period, the individual may feel that they can literally conquer the world. Again, after time, this stage will cycle back to depression.

And while "psycho history" is virtually impossible to document with any degree of certainty, Meriwether Lewis appears to be a textbook case for this disorder. During his "low" times, Lewis was inconsolable, often seeking seclusion from society. During the "high" moments, Lewis was a fireball of energy and ambition. Throughout the trek west, Lewis would commonly attempt to cross several dangerous rapids or stare danger in the face without flinching. At other times, he was virtually impossible to motivate or talk to.

When it came to religion, Lewis' apparent struggles with depression often got the better of him. On a number of occasions, Lewis' friends (including Thomas Jefferson and William Clark) would urge the brave explorer to rely more on the power of God to overcome his "melancholy." Not understanding that Lewis' problems stemmed from a chemical imbalance, those who suggested prayer, fasting, etc. as a cure for Lewis' problems were inadvertently pouring gasoline on a fire. As a result, Lewis was known by those closest to him as agnostic or even profane when it came to his religious beliefs. One can only wonder how Lewis' struggles with depression could have effected his communion with God.

Unfortunately, Lewis's mental illness would eventually get the better of him. On the night of October 11, 1809, while his party stayed the night in the cabin of a Mrs. Grinder, the life of Meriwether Lewis came to an abrupt and tragic end. According to Mrs. Grinder, Lewis appeared to be in a state of profound depression. The depression was severe enough that the men accompanying Lewis that night actually contemplated tying him to the bed for the duration of the night. Mrs. Grinder stated that she witnessed Lewis "pacing around the home...speaking to himself in a violent manner."

Later that evening, while preparing to retire, Mrs. Grinder heard a shot ring out, and Lewis shouting, "O Lord!" Lewis had shot himself in the chest. In the early hours of the morning, Lewis finally succumbed to the self-inflicted wound.

Though the story of Meriwether Lewis ends sadly and abruptly, it serves as a wonderful illustration to historians of the realities of mental illness. By no means are these illnesses exclusively reserved for the modern individual. We would all do well to remember that people of the past, just as they do today, suffered greatly from the afflictions of the mind.

Sources:

Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. New York: Simon & Schuler Inc., 1996.

Frank Bergon, ed., The Journals of Lewis and Clark. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.

Richard Dillon, Meriwether Lewis. New York: Cowart-McCann Inc., 1965.

25 comments:

Jonathan Rowe said...

Although probably not as severe as Lewis' problem, if you do some digging you'll see that Madison, Jefferson and Lincoln all suffered from what psychiatrists today would categorize as anxiety and depressive disorders. Jefferson and Lincoln were depressed; Madison had an anxiety disorder.

Tom Van Dyke said...

God, Brad, this bummed me out. It's all so pointless...

Brad Hart said...

Wow, Tom. I am sorry you feel that way. I guess I don't see mental illness as pointless.

Yes, I wanted to do something a little different for the blog...something that didn't require as much deep thought. Sometimes its refreshing to have a simple post. That way all us "experts" don't have to debate the finer points of history.

Jonathan Rowe said...

And let me note that I can sympathize with Madison and feel lucky that science created xanax, something Madison certainly could have (and probably would have) used at times.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I've done some blogging in the past on the philosophy of mental illness, especially as it relates to moral issues. There is, it seems to me, a really terribly case of abuse of language when we conflate mental illness with moral problems. We call folks "sick" when they do something depraved. I think we know what we mean but it's really not a good thing.

The problem is I think that mental illnesses sometimes can lead folks to do immoral things, like someone in a bipolar moment who lashes out (even if it's just verbal) at an innocent party, perhaps a family member or loved one, or does something to hurt themselves. But mental illnesses in and of themselves are not moral issues; they are morally neutral conditions not unlike having high cholesterol or diabetes (that why we protect them under disabilities related anti-discrimination laws). The fact that figures like Lincoln, Jefferson, and Madison (and many others) may have suffered from various degrees of mental illnesses (without it reflecting badly on their personal character) should help drive this point home. It should be like finding out they had high cholesterol or male pattern baldness.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, I wasn't criticizing the content, Brad. Mebbe Brother Meriwether was right. Life's a bitch and then you die, the sooner the better.

As for manic-depressives, you might be able to make a case that history was made by them. Man is so unimaginative, reasonable and dispassionate in his normal state. Achilles sat in his tent playing video games until the Trojans killed his best friend and seriously pissed him off.

Kristo Miettinen said...

As a Finn, I would caution you against thinking melancholy a mental disorder. For arctic peoples, it is an adaptation. Besides, for those of us who have mastered it, there is nothing tragic, sad, or negative about melancholy. Depressing? Yes. But in a spiritually affirmative way. I enjoy melancholy.

Suicide is another matter. Perhaps Meriwether had something else wrong in his life, or perhaps melancholy is not the right description of what ailed him.

Brad Hart said...

Kristo:

I think you may have misunderstood why I chose this title. "Melancholy" was a term used in the 18th century (and earlier) to cover all aparent forms of depression, etc. Since they did not know what bipolar disorder was, melancholy was the word of choice. I'm not calling Lewis melancholy. I believe he had something much more serious.

Larry Cebula said...

Lewis was also gay, which may or may not have added to his problems.

Brad Hart said...

Dr. Cebula:

I was not aware that Lewis was gay. Do you by chance have any sources on this? I would be interested in them.

Brad Hart said...

Jon:

You mentioned the fact that Lincoln suffered from depression. Have you ever read the book, Lincoln's Menancholy? An excellent read!

You also write:

"The problem is I think that mental illnesses sometimes can lead folks to do immoral things, like someone in a bipolar moment who lashes out (even if it's just verbal) at an innocent party, perhaps a family member or loved one, or does something to hurt themselves. But mental illnesses in and of themselves are not moral issues; they are morally neutral conditions not unlike having high cholesterol or diabetes (that why we protect them under disabilities related anti-discrimination laws). The fact that figures like Lincoln, Jefferson, and Madison (and many others) may have suffered from various degrees of mental illnesses (without it reflecting badly on their personal character) should help drive this point home. It should be like finding out they had high cholesterol or male pattern baldness."

I agree that mental illness is not a moral issue, however, I do believe that people -- especially in ages past -- have subscribed to the notion that God, prayer, fasting, etc. is all a person needed to overcome such problems. This simply is not the case. This is why I believe the story of Meriwether Lewis -- and so many others who suffered as he did -- is tragic.

Tom Van Dyke said...

There is a counterargument that asks, why, when someone goes off their nut, do they not choose good?

If good v. evil is a 50-50 proposition, it seems there would be an equal number of insane do-gooders out there.

I have no position on this, but it seems a legitimate question. Skepticism towards our new "understanding" of mental illness seems fair.

That's not to say I haven't known people who went off their nut who simply became irrational and incomprehensible. But I've also known more people who had psychological pathologies become manifest who were quite disagreeable before they lost it.

Just axin'. In the olden days they just assumed such folk were possessed by demons. I guess there were a few who were thought to be possessed by angels, but you see where I'm going with this...

Brad Hart said...

TVD writes:

"If good v. evil is a 50-50 proposition, it seems there would be an equal number of insane do-gooders out there."

To be honest, I think there is. Having worked in law enforcement for several years, and being married to a social worker, who deals with mental illness every day, I believe strongly that mental illness touches every segment of society. While some mental illness causes certain individuals to commit crimes (many times without them knowing it) there are even more people who silently deal with their illnesses without acting out.

Our case of Meriwether Lewis is a good example. Here was a man who clearly dealt with a severe form of bipolar disorder (psychologists have even used Lewis as a case study of this mental illness for students). Yet despite his affliction, Lewis was still able to become quite successful, gaining the friendship and trust of Thomas Jefferson, who made Lewis commander of the expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase. However, the illness, since it went untreated, got the better of Lewis.

The main reason that I posted this here is that I believe we history geeks often times forget the "human" realities of past figures. Often times they become cadavers to be dissected, puzzles to be broken, and codes to be cracked. Yet these were living, breathing individuals, who each had "baggage" to carry throughout their life. And mental illness was MOST CERTAINLY a factor then as it is now in the lives of human beings.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I have to agree with Brad here. Mental illness is a touchy subject. I know that folks with severest problems who "lose it" are often the ones who do terrible things to others (or themselves).

But there are it seems to me, lots of folks who deal with lifelong issue of anxiety and depression who are the nicest folks you'll ever meet.

The worst people -- the sociopaths -- are ones who aren't mentally disturbed; the ones who can plunge a knife in you without a sense of remorse or negative emotion and go on to live productive lives. Someone like Saddam Hussein (or countless other tyrants). I don't pretend to know much about his psychology, but, it seems to me that when things were going well for him (before the first Gulf War) when he was "living it up" making his people pay homage to him as the "civil God" of Iraq and raping and killing anything that got it his way, he was quite "happy" and "adjusted."

Jonathan Rowe said...

Brad,

I didn't read that book on Lincoln but I'll definitely check it out.

I too am skeptical of what much of the mental health profession has done. It seems to be they are the main culprits in medicalizing moral issues and trying to turn every bad act into a "disorder" (which term itself is morally relativistic). Saddam Hussein certainly would have had a "mental disorder."

I think if we realize that good and bad are entirely separate categorizes from mental disorders and that good people who practice moral behavior can suffer from terrible mental disorders, and bad people who practice evil can be in a state of perfectly well "mental health" it helps to clarify what's a real mental health issue and what is not. Again, mental health, in this sense might be a lot like physical health. Someone can be in top physical shape but be a creep nonetheless.

Pinky said...

.
Cognitive science has something to say about mental "illness".
.

Pinky said...

.
Anyway, thanks for the interesting tidbit of history.
.

bpabbott said...

TVD: "If good v. evil is a 50-50 proposition, it seems there would be an equal number of insane do-gooders out there."

Mental illness generally produces irrational behavior (is that not a prerequisite?). Irrational behavior is that which is destructive to the individual.

I don't think insanity treats good/evil equally.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"Irrational behavior is that which is destructive to the individual."

Not necessarily. Some irrational behavior is harmless. For instance people who think they need to jump over the cracks of sidewalks else something bad happen. Further, some folks have a neurotic impulse to do entirely "rational" or healthy things, like someone who obsessively compulsively washes his hands, watches what he eats, goes to the doctor or exercises.

bpabbott said...

Jon: "Some irrational behavior is harmless. For instance people who think they need to jump over the cracks of sidewalks else something bad happen."

... or they might pray to a mythical figure ;-)

Jon continues: "Further, some folks have a neurotic impulse to do entirely "rational" or healthy things, like someone who obsessively compulsively washes his hands, watches what he eats, goes to the doctor or exercises."

This is still irrational, in that society would view them as crazy and reduce their livelihood.

Given *that* justification of my remark, I suppose that jumping over cracks is irrational, while pray is rational ;-)

Larry Cebula said...

Brad: I am working on a post for my blog about Lewis' sexual orientation. The evidence is highly circumstantial--Lewis found women to be icky (see his description of Clatsop women in the journals), he found cause to compliment the physiques of expedition men, he tried but failed to marry, he tried to move in with Clark and his new wife in Saint Louis in a weird and awkward way, he was a bit of a fop.

I spoke about this with a panel of recent Clark biographers at a conference a few years back and all of them said that they had wondered the same thing, but had not written about it because we don't really have proof.

Anonymous said...

You plagiarized this. http://myhartfamily.blogspot.com/2008/06/melancholy-of-meriwether-lewis.html

Brad Hart said...

I didn't. That's my old blog. No plagiarism here.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this discussion. I am a descendant of the Lewis family and I have bipolar disorder. I have wondered if there is a connection between my illness and Meriwether Lewis'. The percentage of people with BP who commit suicide is very high. I do wish he could have had all the medical help that I have. Also--I hope I can stay morally clean--I'm a minister!

Jim Austin said...

Thanks for the discussion.


Another possibility is that Mr Lewis suffered from malaria, and your "historical " perspective is not only wrong, but harmful to Lewis's descendants in not clearly understanding that some of the symptoms may have had an environmental link.

https://becker.wustl.edu/about/news/new-perspective-death-meriwether-lewis