Last Among First Ladies
Reputation, reality, and Mary Todd Lincoln
January 8, 1988
A lengthy review essay about (to borrow a word from the campuses) one of the most contested personalities in all Lincoln literature, that of his wife Mary Todd. Feminists had begun to champion the unhappy women to the extent that so many men had always denigrated her as a shrew or an hysteric. Her posthumous reputation thus is in some ways more interesting than the living woman.
Reviewed: Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography by Jean H. Baker, W.W. Norton & Co., 1987
"The path of life has become very rough to me since the most loving and devoted husband and children have been called from my side," wrote the widowed Mary Todd Lincoln to a friend in 1875. "In the great hereafter . . . we will then know why the gracious Father has caused such deep affliction."
That passage is perfectly representative of Mary Todd Lincoln, not just of her letters but of her life. The themes there set forth—the poignancy of a woman who had to bear more than she was capable of, interwoven with a subtext of female victimization—form the substance of a flawed but fascinating new book, Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography, by Jean H. Baker.
On the face of it, this unhappy woman has no claim to our attention beyond her attachment to Abraham Lincoln. Her life was a misery, and while it is easy to see why a dramatist might respond to her life—it has been made into at least one depressing play—it is not obvious why a historian would.
Baker's answer is to offer biography as social history. Mary's life, she writes, "illuminates the human conditions of family love and loss, of convention and nonconformity, of pride and humiliation, and of determination and destiny," a rationale that swings between the grant proposal and the soap opera trailer. Most readers will be satisfied that Mary Lincoln was a fascinating, if exasperating, character whose life was as tragic in human terms as her husband's.
Born into an influential and well-to-do Kentucky family, she wed Lincoln in 1842 against her family's better judgment and perhaps his own. That unlikely union endured political frustration, Lincoln's lengthy sojourns riding the circuit, and the deaths of two of their four sons, in 1850 and in 1862. The war years in Washington were as much a personal trial for her as for him. She was resented for her temper, slandered as a Confederate spy, and damned for her extravagance. Lincoln's assassination in 1865, and the death from pleurisy six years later of their youngest son, left her desolate. In 1875 she was declared insane by a Chicago jury at the instigation of her eldest son Robert, a declaration withdrawn a year later, after a brief sanitarium stay. The years between then and her death in 1882 were spent in restless travels, family feuds, spending sprees, and illness. The friends she had left when she died regarded her death as providential.
To this day she remains, according to historians' informal polls, our most disliked first lady. She was excoriated by a press and public that found her (in Fawn Brodie's words) "an erratic and tactless shrew and spendthrift" whose memory was an embarrassment to the sainted Lincoln. Biographers no less than her contemporaries have generally found it necessary to either love Mary or hate her, it being impossible to do anything in between. The life of Lincoln written by his law partner William Herndon and published in 1889 might have been named The Naming of the Shrew, for it was Herndon who drew the portrait of Mary as the harridan who used Lincoln as the vehicle for her own social ambitions. Herndon's Mary still lives, most recently in the pages of William Safire's Civil War novel, Freedom, whose treatment of Mary was found by knowledgeable Lincolnists to be "scornful" and "surprisingly harsh."
An adoring biography was put out by a relative in 1928, but it was as inaccurate in its protectiveness as Herndon's had been in its vindictiveness. In 1953, Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage, by Ruth Painter Randall, gave readers their first scholarly look at the woman, portraying her as maligned and misunderstood—although some historians have since decided that some of Mary's enemies may have understood her better than Randall did.
Some 20 years after Randall's book came out, in 1972, Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner published Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters. It is biography told largely through the more than 600 of her letters then available, augmented by the editors' own admirably economical text. The book was published to glowing reviews, and a new paperback reprint from Fromm International is available for those who wish to find out why. The Turners managed to achieve a balanced opinion about Mary Lincoln, and subsequent scholarship has not improved on it much.
One of the innovations the Turners brought to the Mary business was to focus only on her. Previous books had viewed Mary through the distorting mirror of Lincoln. Whichever Lincoln one believed in, scholars had a Mary to match it. As Baker puts it, "If the great Abraham assures his wife's tainted immortality, the maligned Mary guarantees her husband's nobility," something that helps explain the durability of Herndon's Mary. Similarly, the improved Lincoln requires a dutiful Mary as evidence (if not spur) to his rise. Neither view does credit to the complexity of wife or husband, which demanded a new, full-length treatment.
Thus Baker's Mary. If it is not in every way the biography Mary deserves, it is the biography she was probably destined to get. It shares with Randall's version the author's thorough scholarship; Baker is a published historian of U.S. politics of the 19th century, a teacher at Maryland's Goucher College presently spending a year as a visiting professor at Harvard. Like the Turners, Baker tells the story of Mary Todd Lincoln, not Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. But instead of their misunderstood matron, Baker offers us Mary as unliberated woman.
It is a vivid portrait. Mary was born in Lexington, Kentucky, a typical frontier town characterized by a blend of crudity and self-conscious gentility. Its unsettledness and the extremes of its social style paralleled Mary's personality. A member of a privileged economic class, Mary grew up in emotional poverty. Her mother died when Mary was six. She never reconciled herself to her stepmother, nor to life in a household that eventually contained 15 children besides herself. She grew up anxious and insecure, although never only that; Baker's early chapters' account of her girlhood reveal a person who is intelligent, studious, and an able mimic.
Mary left Lexington in 1836 to visit her married sister in the new Illinois capital at Springfield. There she was one of "the coterie," the select social set that livened local drawing rooms. Springfield in the 1830s was a still-forming society in which convention had not yet achieved perfect control over manners, and various chroniclers have noted that the town's open intellectual intercourse between male and female made for a social atmosphere in which Mary thrived.
No member of Springfield society was less formed than the young Abraham Lincoln. The real and mutual affection between Abe and Mary Lincoln has baffled more than one biographer, and Baker makes more sense of it than most. Lincoln's attraction to Mary was plausible enough, but what she saw in him puzzled her family if no one else. Lincoln needed every bit of the lifelong lesson in middle-class etiquette that Mary provided. But to grant Mary the percipience to see a president in her country lawyer, as most biographers have done, is probably to indulge the legend at the expense of the facts.
If they were opposites in so many other ways, the two were united by their taste for politics. Mary loved to talk politics and politicians, as she had done with her father. No one can understand Lincoln's rise without crediting the part Mary played in it, if only as a prop to his unsteady self-confidence. Indeed, there was a politician of sorts in this adroit hostess who relied on flattery, a good memory, and a sensitive nose for ambition in others. Baker recounts the fascinating process by which the uncertain wooers "transformed a mutual interest in public events into a love affair." In 1842 Lincoln gave her a list of election returns; she tied it with a pink ribbon.
Mary Todd was 24 when they wed, late for a Todd, though, surprisingly, not for the times. Lincoln's reluctance to commit himself in the face of her family's disapproval and his own financial uncertainty is understandable. But Mary had her own reasons for hesitating. Marriage was, Baker explains, "a comprehensive arrangement involving sex, companionship, affection, childbearing and raising, economic support, and work"—comprehensive and crippling, lived out entirely within and through the life of the husband. For Mary, "It was hard to surrender the specialness of being a Todd, of living apart from parents, of being educated, and, mostly, of needing to be different."
Mary may have been a born politician's wife but it was not at all clear in those years that Lincoln was a politician. Apart from a single term as congressman, he labored only (and briefly) in the weedy vineyards of the state legislature until the 1856 Senate campaign that made him famous. It was as a mother and manager of the household of a rising young attorney that Mary spent most of her time before 1860. Newcomers to the Lincolns' story are often surprised to recognize in him an upwardly mobile professional. The penniless autodidact of legend, it must be remembered, sent his oldest boy to Harvard, and their modest but comfortable house on Eighth Street in Springfield boasted a servant's room and a double parlor for entertaining.
Baker concedes (a little too apologetically) that housekeeping is "not usually the stuff of which biographical drama is created." Readers unfamiliar with the terrors of 19th-century childbirth (to cite just one part of the heroism demanded of the mistress) may disagree. Drama gives way to fascination in any event. Baker draws on recent scholarly opinion about Victorian sexuality to explain the role of women in the economy in her portrait of Mary's hidden life, touching upon medicine, child-rearing, money, and education as they pertained to the family. (Like many Victorian couples, for example, the Lincolns apparently voluntarily limited the size of their family.)
Mary made the home that was expected of her frugally and diligently. But she was never the ideal woman for very long. The compulsions of her own personality pushed aside convention in child-rearing (both she and Lincoln were shockingly indulgent), in religion, in her flirtations, in her extravagant mourning.
The time that her mother and stepmother had spent pregnant, for example, Mary spent mourning. She spent three years grieving for her favorite, middle son Willie, who died in 1862. Lincoln worried about the effects her prolonged displays were having on her health, apparently with some reason; Mary grew nearly blind in her sixties, in part because constant weeping had caused her corneas to become edematous.
Willie's death drove Lincoln to a saving identification with parents left childless by the war; it drove Mary into the company of phony mediums. This earned her no friends. Christian doctrine as well as social convention demanded that women grieve circumspectly, for to do otherwise suggested disbelief that the dead had traveled to a better world. After Lincoln's murder Mary was never seen in public wearing anything other than widow's weeds. "Like Victoria," Baker writes, "Mary made mourning a permanent condition." Her sorrow was real, if self-indulgent, and she never abandoned it. Baker notes, "She came to prize her bereavement for the very reason that it made her special."
During her whole life in fact Mary chafed at the constraints imposed by what Baker calls "male-prescribed true womanhood." She talked politics; worse, she practiced it. She traveled unescorted, and after Lincoln's death even dared to press Congress, "with unladylike implacability," for money.
Yet Mary Todd Lincoln was no feminist. She believed female abolitionists and suffragists to be "unwomanly." The external social bruises she endured for her independence were nothing, it seems, compared to the inner pain she suffered because she was not quite independent enough. Baker summarizes Mary's dilemma as "the conflict between her conventional ideas about female reticence and her psychological need for acknowledgment." This is a dilemma familiar to many females, of course, but in Mary it amounted to a tragic flaw. She once condemned as "worldly" any young woman who regarded housekeeping and babies as "an uncomfortable state." Yet it was her worldliness that distinguished her, indeed endeared her to Lincoln.
Her unconventionality, her tendency in so many spheres to be unique in spite of herself, has made Mary Todd Lincoln a difficult subject for feminists. Randall depicted her as a victim, essentially, of Herndon, while her successors have seen her as a victim of Victorian cults of womanhood—not a victim of a man, in short, but of men.
For her transgressions Mary was pummeled by the press, by some of her husband's male advisors, by the male-dominated medical and legal systems. But even one's natural sympathies for the heroine don't stifle the suspicion that argument gives way to advocacy more than once. At one point Baker observes, quite correctly, "Lunacy, eccentricity, and male-disapproved behavior [have] to be distinguished." Biographers are under a similar obligation to distinguish carefully between sexism, malice, and social convention. Baker sometimes resorts to deck-stacking; one suspects for instance that the editors of the small-town south, one of whom Baker quotes in criticism of Mary, were no more representative of national opinion on the woman's role in 1867 than they are today.
Did Washington dislike Mary because she dabbled in politics? Or because she dabbled so badly? Is it her disdain for convention that explains her unpopularity? Or was she a hard person to like? (Baker notes how relationships for Mary "became extensions of politics. . . . She harbored grudges, collected injustices, and rehearsed her anger.") The press were indeed lazy and low, but reporters did not invent what Baker calls Mary's "natural importunity raised to arrogance as a President's wife." Her tendency to personalize political differences estranged her from friends and family. And what are we to make of Baker's remarkable suggestion that Mary was betrayed even by her husband's chromosomes, which played a "fateful trick" by denying a daughter to a woman who especially needed one"?
Baker deems the free-spending Mary "unlucky" to have arrived in Washington when war demanded stricter economy in the White House. But Mary in the White House would outrage even today, for while the latitude allowed women has grown, that allowed politicians has shrunk. Mary was, in Baker's estimation, "an experienced influence peddler" adept at "exchanging a whisper in her husband's ear . . . in return for expensive gifts." She interceded with cabinet secretaries, too, and lobbied publicly on behalf of favorites. In time such goings-on attracted attention, then complaint, then condemnation; Mary became "the tainted alter ego of Honest Abe." Baker insists gamely that if Mary sold favors, "she did it for the same reason that men did: to gain an advantage for herself." But while such practices were popular they were never legal, and Lincoln himself sacked officers for corruption that differed from Mary's only in ambition.
Mary in the end was a victim, to be sure, but of circumstances more subtle than Baker depicts them. It is an irony that Baker ignores, but a surprising number of the men who were central to Mary's life were as unrepresentative of Victorian manhood as Mary was of Victorian womanhood. Her father had insisted that she acquire what he called "a substantial as well as an ornamental education"; this included public recitations which, while long demanded of boys, were then still thought by Lexington's traditionalists to be inappropriate for girls. And Lincoln had a respect for women that went beyond etiquette; Baker herself notes that marriage to him offered "more room than usual for a wife's self-government." Even Supreme Court justice David Davis, executor of Lincoln's estate and a man heartily disliked by both Mary (she once called him "the old villain") and Baker (to whom he is "the fat judge") has a certain credential as a feminist. Davis was the lone dissenter on the high court in the case in which a woman—attorney Myra Bradwell, who later was to play a role in overturning the 1875 verdict of insanity lodged against Mary Lincoln—was denied the right to practice law. The court had ruled that such freedom violated the "paramount destiny" of women to be wives and mothers; Baker conscientiously notes Davis's dissent but does not comment on it.
The years of Mary's widowhood, when she stumbled from public scandal to private misery, were hard. She endured a restless exile, in Frankfurt, in France, in Canada, and in a succession of hotels, boarding houses, and homes in Chicago. (It was a city she came to detest. Writing in 1871 from London she praised a Chicago friend as "so different from the usual cold element, that predominates in Chicago.")
Save for the death of her youngest son Tad, no episode in Mary Lincoln's postwar years caused more hurt or controversy than her insanity trial. Upon the declaration of insanity in Chicago in 1875, son Robert—founder of the prestigious Chicago law firm of Isham, Lincoln, and Beale and a noted man of business—was named conservator of his mother's estate. The charge that the trial had been engineered by Robert to get his mother's money gained easy currency, and the case became a cause celebre.
Mental soundness was more a matter of social convention than medical diagnosis, then as now, and Mary's eccentricities made her an easy target. While undoubtedly neurotic (especially about money) it seems unlikely that she ever deserved the harsh term "lunatic." That only makes her treatment seem all the more ghastly. Only one doctor actually examined her, briefly; a panel of others concurred with the diagnosis of insanity on the testimony of her son Robert. She was brought to court with no real advance notice, and defended by an attorney chosen by her son, who had initiated the proceedings. In many states at the time, a man could have his wife declared insane and committed on the authority of the signature of a persuadable doctor; in fact, in at least one celebrated case it was a convenient way for a Victorian man to rid himself of an inconvenient spouse.
Illinois at least required a jury trial to test the facts in such proceedings. But the jury was all male, as were her physicians and lawyers, and feminists in particular offer Mary as a woman victimized by Victorian notions of family in its most pernicious legal form. As Baker sees it, Mary was "again a victim who had been robbed of any defense by her sex and her consequent unfamiliarity with the legal system, by the suddenness of the trial, and by her duplicitous counsel." The question that has come to fascinate historians is not whether the mother's conduct was crazy but whether that of her son was culpable.
Baker suggests that Mary was put away because she had "embarrassed a son embarking on a career." Robert, who may be assumed to know, later admitted that the trial had been a mistake, but it's hard to tell whether he thought so because it had been unjust or because it hadn't worked.
Redeeming Robert Lincoln's honor after more than a century is as chancy a project as redeeming his mother's sanity, in part because both were displayed only intermittently and in forms likely to be misunderstood. Robert could indeed be duplicitous, a trait his own letters confirm (although he probably learned it at his mother's knee, since she was not above resorting to false names and the more practical forms of hypocrisy). Baker finds him a man of small motives (she portrays him as angered at Mary's giving away a tea service he wanted) and pinched spirit (he begrudged his mother's spending on curtains she did not need while tapping her for funds to back dubious real estate ventures). Secretive and emotionally distant, Robert was an easy man to think ill of. But even Baker concedes that in this episode, as so often in her life, Mary was "both an unwilling victim and at times an agent provocateur."
The tragedy of these months was that neither mother nor son really understood the other, so each was able to assume the worst about the other's actions. Robert was too stolid, too respectable to make much sense of Mary. Like his father he made much of principle, without having the wisdom to know when principle needs to be set aside. We are left to deduce motives from acts. Robert destroyed most of his mother's letters from her most disturbed months—to protect his reputation from her? Or to protect her reputation from the indiscretions of collectors? He censored the few he kept so they revealed only mention of gifts sent by Mary to son and daughter-in-law—proof of his grasping nature? Or of a lawyer's compulsion (Mary had threatened suit to recover) to preserve evidence? If it was true, as even the condemning Baker acknowledges, that, "In Robert's mind. . . . his mother was incorrigibly insane," then he was guilty of a mistake in judgment, not corruption of the soul.
The facts of Mary Lincoln's life being well known, we turn to biographers for help in making sense of them. As noted, Mary's life accommodates a number of meanings. But what if the historian succumbs to the temptation to tailor the facts to her meaning? Baker seems to do so more than once. Consider her reading of the famous 1860 photograph of the Lincolns' house on Eighth Street, taken during celebrations of his nomination as the Republican presidential candidate. There is a crowd in front, and Lincoln stands in a white suit at the door with number of figures poised in open windows on both floors. But which is Mary? One historian says she is at a downstairs window; Baker puts her upstairs. Each is merely a guess. The fact matters little, except for the moral that Baker then tries to draw. "In symbolic representation of her new status," Baker writes, "she has become a spectator." The remark is potent and quite possibly true, but its accuracy must be taken on faith.
There are other examples of the biographer's bias: Baker does not describe the reunion that took place between Mary and Robert in Springfield in May 1881. In Baker's grim reading, "Mary Lincoln stayed alive by hating the bad son. . . . and so ended her life childless." Other historians have seen the 1881 Springfield meeting as a reconciliation, a peace trip by Robert, which ended with the two back on speaking terms. Baker notes only that Robert "saw his mother only once" after their post-trial estrangement, and offers no details. (It may be relevant to note here that Mary did not disinherit her son, as she might reasonably have done.)
In a letter to a friend Mary referred to "a disease of a womanly nature," but the phrase is crossed out in the original. Baker offers the deletion as evidence of her Victorian reticence. But the offending words could still be read, so her reticence seems halfhearted; in fact, the Turners said of the same letter, "It cannot be determined whose sense of discretion dictated the excision." Baker elsewhere interprets Mary as making an explicit reference to menstrual periods in a letter to Lincoln, which belles either Mary's assumed reticence or Baker's reading of the reference.
Baker suggests in her text that the late-life estrangement between Mary and Robert's wife, Mary Harlan Lincoln, was the result of the senior Mary's possible discovery of "the dark secret of her daughter-in-law's alcoholism. The evidence for that alcoholism is, as Baker herself describes it in her notes, only circumstantial.
Such suspect interpolations may be unconscious. That explanation exonerates the historian but still leaves us wondering about the history. Baker's book is still worth reading even if it isn't always worth believing. Misrepresentation seems to be Mary's fate; it is hardly more becoming when committed by her friends. ●