Sunday, June 20, 2010

Mrs. Lincoln by Catherine Clinton

One of the most, if not the most abused First Ladies was Mary Todd Lincoln. I think most people know that she was at one point committed to a mental institution by her oldest son, and about her confirmed status as a shopaholic. If that's all you know about Abraham Lincoln's wife, you're missing a great deal. By the way, she never referred to herself as Mary Todd Lincoln, only Mary Lincoln.

Catherine Clinton has written a fairly objective biography of this complicated and controversial lady. My only quibble about it is her use of "must have's," "probably's," and "would-have's" to describe things Mary might have been exposed to as a child. Slave auctions, for instance, in her hometown of Lexington, KY. We don't know at this point whether she ever actually saw such a thing. However, we do know that her family owned slaves, who they apparently treated well, and that her beloved grandmother freed her own slaves. Clinton writes that Mary moved to Springfield, IL to live with her older sister partly as a way to get away from slavery. I think that's a stretch. She wanted to get out of her stepmother's house because she felt like a fifth wheel as her stepmother had many children. The fact that her sister in Springfield was married to a powerful, wealthy man who knew many other powerful, wealthy men and up-and-comers was also a huge impetus. Mary was in her 20s and unmarried, almost beyond hope as people of her day saw it.

She was quite intelligent. Her father had seen to it that she was well educated, and she had an inborn intelligence that served her well. For instance, of all the young men she met in Springfield, she married tall, ungainly, poor Abe Lincoln. She was one of the few who saw what he would become, and not only that, she loved him so much she couldn't marry anyone else.

Lincoln knew even before they were married that Mary had a great sense for politics. She wrote letters to the editor of the local newspaper under a pseudonym; he did too. After their marriage, they talked politics and planned each step of his political career together. It was only after he became president that she was more of less shoved aside because he was surrounded by cabinet, advisors, military men, etc. and had little time for her as the war took up all of his time and energy.

That's when she started having mental problems, something than ran in the Todd family. Like many women of her era, she suffered the loss of children and each loss seemed to push her more into mental illness. The last straw, of course, was the assassination of her beloved husband. The men present when Abe died forced her out of the room because she became hysterical. They even tried to convince her he wouldn't die. Not being at his side at the end was cruel and unnecessary, and she would never get over it.

She had an obsession with money, never confident that she had enough to live on. She doted on her surviving young son Tad, but when he died at 18, all was lost. Her oldest son Robert was in an impossible situation as her grip on reality seemed to be lost, yet she had lucid periods. Finally he went to court to have her committed. Later she lived with her older sister and became a recluse. In short, Mary's was a tragic life that she wasn't emotionally equipped to cope with.

I learned many things about Mary in this book and I think I have a more balanced view of her than I had, even after years of study about her husband. Included are several well-chosen illustrations and notes, index, and bibliography for further study if you like. It's a fine stand-alone book though, and I recommend it.

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