Note: posted on History for the Present, December 11, 2018
There must have been something about Mary Todd, radiant in a delicately pleated dress of fine silk, reciting poetry and arguing about Whig politics at a party. Her blue eyes twinkling with mischief as her sharp tongue disparaged President Martin Van Buren and Democrats in the Illinois state capital of Springfield. Poised among Abraham Lincoln’s circle of political friends, holding her own, Miss Todd was interesting, a unique creature in the room. She was a lovely, spoiled Southern belle whose political passions contradicted the demure character of a typical antebellum lady. Her well-bred grace, knowledge of poetry and politics, social sophistication, and formal education, which cast her eyes far beyond her Kentucky home, must have looked a picture to Mr. Lincoln’s self-taught, self-paved path to the law, rough-hewn manners, and social awkwardness.
There must have been something about Abraham Lincoln, arguing about Whig politics in a rumbled coat and high-water pants. His steely eyes sparkling with intellect as he used his rapier wit like a dagger in the belly of Democratic Party politicians. A towering figure in a dainty Victorian parlor among Mary Todd’s “coterie” of social friends, Mr. Lincoln, who commanded the room by telling stories, was interesting, a unique creature among political men. He was the uneducated son of a dirt farmer, but his intelligence and determination fueled an ambition beyond the dreams of his humble Kentucky origins. Within his love for the poetry of Robert Burns, his partisan political convictions, his unruly head of hair, and his utter disinterest in appropriate apparel befitting an up-and-coming lawyer, Mary Todd saw what the world had yet to know.
She saw the glimmer of Mr. Lincoln’s rising star, and she wanted to fly up into the cosmos with him.
I’ve spent more than twenty years researching and writing about Abraham Lincoln, I have published a biography about Mary Lincoln, and I have read more scholarship on the Lincolns than is is even close to normal. Through my work, I have developed over the years my own particular interpretations about this famous historical couple. I have quite often in that effort found myself at odds with mainstream Lincoln biographers, mostly because I like Mary Lincoln and find her historically and personally compelling. I have no patience for Mary Lincoln hating, and I think many of her contemporaries and most biographers of her famous husband have been too hard on her. Mostly, it makes me angry because so many of them have deified the man and crucified the woman, diminishing the humanity of both of them. I believe the single most important truth I have come to understand about the Lincolns is that they were both beautifully, imperfectly human, with all of the complexities and contradictions of what it always means to be human.
The individual personalities of Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln, their relationships with people, their marriage and shared parenting of four idolized children, their public roles as President and First Lady, and their historical legacies reflect their humanity. These two fascinating human beings deliberately linked their lives together and shared the joys and grief of human existence for nearly twenty-three years as husband and wife. For better or for worse, from the good to the bad, and through all of the human messiness in between, they were a couple, and they are, now and forever, historically connected to each other.
On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Mary Lincoln’s birth in Lexington, Kentucky (December 13, 1818), let’s pause to consider this famous and infamous First Lady on her own terms. For one day at least, please, let’s set aside the vitriol most male biographers of Lincoln have thrown at her. Because you may not like Mary Lincoln—and I do not really care if you like her or not—but she was married to Abraham Lincoln. She was the wife of a man we revere as one of our greatest and best-loved Americans. For that, at least, she deserves a little fucking respect. Abraham Lincoln married up, you know; and it is a credit to Mary Lincoln that she chose him as her husband. Mary Lincoln deserves for us to see her not as a two-dimensional cartoon villain—a hellcat foil for her mythical, godlike husband—but instead as a whip-smart woman with a great big personality at a time when society expected women of her social status to sit quietly in the wings and behave, to be well-spoken and charming and pretty, but not too well-spoken or too charming or too pretty.
Mary Lincoln deserves to be seen as a human being—like all of us and yes, dear friends, also like Abraham Lincoln—who possessed angels and demons in her nature. She deserves to be understood in the context of the historical era that proscribed for her a particular experience, but also to be understood as a woman who lived and suffered through not only ordinary human experiences but through extraordinary historical circumstances, as well. Let’s celebrate Mary Lincoln’s 200th birthday by acknowledging a few basic truths about her fascinating life, by seeing some of the good in her, and by considering the possibility that Abraham Lincoln loved her, enjoyed her company, respected her intellect, and possessed compassion and empathy for her when she struggled to cope with emotional frailties and profound grief.
First, we should take off our stove-pipe hats to Mary Lincoln’s intellect and her extraordinary education, which consisted of ten years of formal schooling when most Americans, like Abraham Lincoln himself, had very few educational opportunities. Let’s acknowledge the fact that Mary’s education, combined with her unique family circumstances in the peculiar context of Lexington, Kentucky, emboldened her nature. Let’s remember that her father and her sophisticated French female teacher gave Mary confidence and encouraged her to raise her own voice. It is true, indeed, that raising her voice often landed Mary “in trouble,” but doesn’t that tell us more about the gendered nature of nineteenth-century America than it does about Mary Lincoln? And do you really think Abraham Lincoln knew nothing of Mary’s confident voice when he married her in 1842? Do you really think the brilliant Mr. Lincoln knew nothing of Mary’s strong will and opinionated nature before he put the ring, engraved with “Love Is Eternal,” on her finger?
Let’s acknowledge the intellectual connection Mary shared with her husband. Let’s give Lincoln some credit for wanting a wife who was pretty and smart. Throughout their marriage, the couple shared a passion for partisan politics, a deep appreciation for literature, and love of music and the theater. Remember, too, Mary gave Abraham Lincoln four of his greatest joys: his sons. The Lincolns shared a love of their four boys and were, together, indulgent and thoroughly modern parents, who believed in the idea of childhood. The Lincoln marriage was not perfect, because both Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln struggled with their own very different emotional difficulties. Mary was high-strung and prone to wild mood swings; while Abraham was emotionally distant and depressive. But throughout their marriage, they were companions and shared common interests and beliefs. In the dark days of Civil War, Mary carved out periods of family time, which not only gave her boys some semblance of normalcy but were a refuge for her overburdened husband, as well. Lincoln needed Mary to force a little leisure upon him, and the brief periods of escape at Soldier’s Home or the theater brought some solace to his suffering soul.
Let’s acknowledge Mary Lincoln’s own suffering and give her some credit for living through it. During most of her adult life, she suffered migraine headaches and a difficult delivery of her fourth son left her with an injury that plagued her. She also definitely suffered some degree of mental illness, which no doubt would have been much alleviated had she lived in a time of modern medicine instead of a time when so-called doctors dismissed women’s health issues as hysteria. Yet despite her ill physical and emotional health, Mary got up out of bed almost every day of her life, and she put on pretty dresses, and she raised her boys (often all by herself), and she found joy in books, at White House receptions, while shopping and visiting the theater, and through her husband’s politics.
Mary Lincoln also suffered terrible emotional blows. She buried her four-year-old toddler Eddy in Springfield in 1850, and she buried Willie, her beloved 11-year-old boy, in Washington in 1862. She lost family members to the Confederacy and had a public, front-row seat for the horrors of the war, witnessing the physical and emotional damage on soldiers she visited in Washington. In 1865, Mary Lincoln was sitting next to her husband when an assassin put a bullet in his head; people removed her from her husband’s deathbed, where he died without her, because she was wailing at the loss of him; and people criticized her for lingering too long afterwards in grief in the White House. In 1871 just as she was finding her way through life as the widow of a martyred president, she buried her third son Tad, a blossoming eighteen-year-old man in whom she found joy and so much comfort.
I buried a child myself, and let me tell you, if I had to bury a second one there would be no breath left in my body. Losing three children and witnessing her husband’s violent murder, along with the post-traumatic stress of it all, was not the end of her suffering, either. Mary Lincoln then had to endure fears of financial disaster as a widow in nineteenth-century America, fears exacerbated by her emotional instability, emotional instability that was not her fault! She also faced public ridicule for visiting spiritualists, which was in fashion at the time and brought her some comfort. She had to listen to snipes for visiting health spas, even as mainstream physicians failed to offer her relief. She was also unfairly judged for shopping with her own money and for selling her own dresses; and then her last surviving son Robert had her incarcerated in a mental asylum, an injustice that cut her off from her grandchildren.
Frankly, I find it remarkable and quite inspirational, in fact, that Mary Lincoln not only survived, but that she lived through it all. Except for brief periods of grief following the deaths of her husband and boys, she never stopped reading books and newspapers, feeding her intellect, and writing letters. She maintained her passion for American partisan politics until the day she died; and the letters of her widowed years reflect the mind of a lucid, engaged woman. She was plagued with sorrow, yes, but she wasn’t dead and she wasn’t crazy, either. Most impressively, she had the courage to live in France on her own for four years in self-imposed exile late in her life, and while there she located little joys and small pleasures in her travels, enjoyed some relief at the health spas she visited, and found a little peace on her own terms. Peace she very much deserved. Mary Lincoln was super sassy and smart and, yes, brilliantly imperfect. But she was also strong. Stronger than I would be in her shoes. Stronger than most of us would be in her shoes.
Mary Lincoln’s life is compelling partly because she made that life with Abraham Lincoln. Partly because she was a complicated woman who lived an interesting life in a fascinating period of American history. But partly, and more importantly I think, Mary Lincoln is compelling because she was real. She was human, full complexity and contradiction. Strong but emotionally fragile. Intellectually curious but petty. Sometimes social, but sometimes reclusive. Full of love and full of hate. Full of sorrow but possessing a great capacity for joy.
Mary Lincoln was unique and bold and smart and strong and fragile. I believe Abraham Lincoln understood what he was in for when he married her. I believe he respected and appreciated her, despite the fact and because of the fact that she was also, sometimes, a great challenge to him. Abraham Lincoln did not marry an illiterate, apolitical simpleton; and he knew it. I believe he loved her. I know she loved him. I also believe that for Mary, Abraham Lincoln’s compassion knew no limits. Shouldn’t that alone keep us from sending her to the gallows of history?
Though it is fanciful to consider it, if Mary Lincoln was here today, first I think she would assert that this is actually only her 185th birthday, because she and her sisters always lied about their ages. She’d be overdressed in forward clothing, with flowers somewhere on her person, and she would be pretty but just a little out of reach of fashionable. She’d be reading all of the best new books and consuming tons of newspapers, brushing up on her French, screaming about the state of American partisan politics, and, no doubt, giving us an earful about some of the historical characters who did her or her husband wrong.
She’d eat one small slice of white cake, say no thank you to the spiked punch, and reminisce about her happy times with Abraham Lincoln in Springfield before heavy sorrows cast their shadow down so harshly upon her life. Commanding the room, Mary Lincoln would confidently and in very harsh terms offer assessments about Lincoln’s generals and cabinet secretaries, claim early support for Emancipation, and tell us about her staunch devotion to the Union and her traitorous Southern family members who betrayed her husband and her country. Mary Lincoln would also, through tears, regale us with tales of her cherished and rambunctious boys. All of them. Even Robert, whose life, I think, she would ultimately have deemed successful and ever so grand.
If she could be here for this birthday, Mary Lincoln would charm some of us with her style, impress some of us with her knowledge, offend some of us with her biting sarcasm, shock some of us with her audacity, and, certainly, piss off a few of us for just being who she was. It was never her way to make the room comfortable. As a fairly sassy woman myself, I might like that characteristic of Mary Lincoln’s personality best of all. She knew her mind, even when it struggled to make sense of the emotions and the grief and the challenges of being a smart woman in the nineteenth century.
I don’t apologize for her shortcomings and I don’t absolve her of her mistakes, but I like Mary Lincoln. I respect her despite her human failings, because as a historian I recognize the gendered contexts of her life and the sexism embedded within the historiography, which has so harshly interpreted her historical legacy. As a human being, I also recognize how impossible it is to be perfect, especially when you are a woman and times are hard and sorrows threaten to swallow you whole. I’m not perfect. You’re not perfect. Even Abraham Lincoln, I dare say, was not perfect. So why should Mary Lincoln have been perfect in order to be worthy of a little human respect? Let’s cut her a little slack on her 200th birthday, OK?
Happy Birthday, Mary Lincoln. I’m sorry life gave you so many sorrows to endure, but I’m glad you were here. And it’s been damn cool getting to know you.