The marriage of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd was not made in heaven
Illinois Times June 24, 2021
This is an expanded version of the review that appeared under this title in the June 24, 2021, issue of Illinois Times.
In the Springfield I grew up in, Abraham Lincoln was not a saint or a martyr but a neighbor, and much of the local lore about him was indistinguishable from gossip. Historians have since given us more reliable pictures of life inside the famous house on Eighth Street, including this one from Lincoln's Boswell, Michael Burlingame.
Reviewed: An American Marriage: The Untold Story of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd by Michael Burlingame. Pegasus Books, 2021
Hear the name “Lincoln” and you see the man splitting rails, say, or on a debate platform towering over Stephen A. Douglas. Few recall the soon-to-be President being shooed out the front door of his house in a hail of potatoes. But that image of Lincoln was as valid as the others, as we learn from An American Marriage: The Untold Story of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd (Pegasus, 2021), the newest work from Lincoln biographer Michael Burlingame.
The long-maligned William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and biographer, was the first major biographer to suggest that the marriage was hell for Lincoln. Burlingame, who holds the Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois Springfield, has burrowed through what is known about the Lincolns’ married life and added much new material harvested from newspaper accounts only now becoming accessible to researchers. His conclusion? Herndon didn’t know the half of it.
Herndon's placed most of the blame for that hell on Mary Todd, an opinion that got Herndon damned in polite circles as a Mary-hater. Later biographers tended to understate the difficulties of the union and Todd’s role in causing them. Male writers did it out of misplaced gallantry, not wishing to insult the First Lady, female writers did so out of sisterly solidarity.
The Lincoln world, and Springfield in particular, was divided into pro-Mary and anti-Mary factions as early as 1866 when Herndon first offered his thesis that the first and the only love of Lincoln’s life had been New Salem’s Ann Rutledge, not Mary Todd. When journalist A. J. Liebling visited Springfield in 1950 he found that the topic was still debated. “"One section of local thought agreed with Herndon that Lincoln was. . . . driven into public life because his home was intolerable,” which view in turn was hotly disputed by “most church people and nearly all married women.”
Many of those women insisted to any (male) biographer who would listen that Lincoln in fact loved Mary. By the 1950s women were writing biographies themselves. One was Ruth Painter Randall, the wife and colleague of a noted Lincoln scholar of that day. She put the Lincolns' happy marriage at the center of her Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage (1953), the first popular biography of Mary Todd. Painter Randall protected Todd's reputation at the expense of the facts in the opinion of Burlingame, who describes the book as “a biography that verged on hagiography.” Burlingame's cross examination of her use of sources is conclusive and devastating. Having knocked down the walls Painter Randall built to protect Todd’s reputation as a wife, he plants his flag on the rubble.
Some readers will find Burlingame unsympathetic, even cruel in his relentless cataloging of Todd’s failures as a human being and as a wife and mother. But an historian is not a therapist; his or her responsibility is to understand, as in “comprehend,” not as in “sympathize with.” Burlingame at least treats Mary Todd as a person and not just the Little Woman, as too many historians have done.
* * *
All happy marriages are alike, you could say, but every unhappy marriage is unhappy in its own way. Burlingame's reconstruction of the Lincolns’ marriage gives us a Lincoln tried by a Todd—a very trying family, by all accounts—and a Todd tried even more sorely by life. Mary's father was neglectful and her stepmother was a villainess right out of a fairy tale. Her whole family showed tendencies toward mental instability; she was described by a neighbor as “nervous and crazy acting,” especially fearful of storms, peddlers, and pets.
We have learned to be skeptical of male complaints about inconvenient women, but Mary Todd plainly was a pain to deal with. As a younger woman, Mary Todd was an ornament to a party but she had been raised with the help of servants and thought housework to be beneath her. Lincoln did the dishes and the grocery shopping, sat (sometimes inattentively) with the kids. She was capable of assaulting the hired help the point of injury, and once attacked Lincoln physically as well. People who knew him speculated that Lincoln continued to endure riding the judicial circuit in central Illinois after he could afford not to because it gave him a chance to get away from Todd for months each year.
Lincoln, alas, could not escape his wife in the White House. She referred to herself not as First Lady but as “Mrs. President” and expected to be treated as such. She was a terror to visitors and staff (Lincoln’s secretary john Nicolay referred to her as “Her S[atanic] Majesty”) and a pest to many of Lincoln’s colleagues and subordinates. Stories of her jealousies, her shopping orgies, her feuds and backbiting and rages were common. She made herself so hated that when the widow Lincoln applied for a government pension, sentiment was against granting her the money.
Burlingame casts light on a question that had puzzled dozens of their friends and family—why ever did they wed? People who knew each partner best thought them a poor match. Albert J. Beveridge, a close student of Lincoln’s pre-presidential years, noted that “[f]ew couples have been more unsuited in temperament, manners, taste, and everything else.”
That Lincoln would be attracted to her was assumed at the time. Miss Todd was vain and frivolous, yes, but she had the kind of education and polish that he longed to have. His attraction to her had less obvious causes. As a young man, the qualities that make him great were not yet evident; while some of Todd's admirers insisted after his death that she had seen the greatness in him all along, we can ask whether she in fact saw only an up-and-coming professional man who was susceptible to her.
One plausible reading of the engagement was that a desperate Todd, believing herself to be too old and plain to get any better mate, seduced him into making a proposal. (Lincoln’s good friend Orville H. Browning said: that there was “no doubt of her exceeding anxiety to marry him.” Why “anxiety” instead of eagerness or hopefulness?)
Lincoln, realizing that they were ill-suited to each other and, smitten by another woman, broke off the engagement for a time. This did not ease his dilemma, only changed it; friends and acquaintances reported that Lincoln was tormented by the thought that he had treated Mary badly. One's honor was considered (at least by Lincoln) to be worth much more then than it is today, when honor—how others see us—matters less than how we feel about ourselves.
The pickle Lincoln thus found himself in left him so wretched that friends fretted for his well-being. Herndon provides a knowing explanation, which Burlingame seconds. “Lincoln knew that he did not love the girl: he had promised to wed her: he knew what would eventually come of it and it was a conflict between sacrificing his honor and sacrificing his domestic peace: he chose the latter—saved his honor and threw away domestic happiness.”
Did he really? That Lincoln was unhappy in ways we recognize is plain, but it’s hard to reconcile Burlingame’s suffering Lincoln with the man who showed endless solicitude and patience toward his wife. That he could care very much about a woman he didn’t care for confounds our simple-minded notions of conventional romantic love. A good marriage does not necessarily mean a happy one, whatever the marriage's trials to the partners, and this marriage was useful to both. Some speculate plausibly that she, timid and immature and all but helpless, aroused his protective instincts. If Todd needed a father, Lincoln needed to be a father, which he was, first to her, then to their unruly sons, and in the end to an unruly young nation.
And who knows what new, unexpected bonds grew between them when Mary Todd became mother of his beloved boys? Its children are sometimes offered as the proof of any marriage, but the Lincolns’ boys did not flatter the parents, perhaps because the Lincolns disagreed about child-rearing as much they did as about everything else. Their two youngest, Eddie and Willie, died when not yet formed as personalities, but Tad (“probably darling only at a distance” in the words of historian Walter Johnson) was the sort of child that would give qualm to leave any young married contemplating parenthood. Robert, the first-born and longest-lived, is described by Burlingame generously as prudish and superior, more a Todd than a Lincoln.
As a man, Robert became a servant to the grasping capitalist George Pullman, an arch-enemy of laborers’ right to organize to better their condition. We have no way of knowing whether Lincoln would have been pained by his eldest son’s politics, which so contradicted his own, but I doubt that he would have been surprised by them. Robert’s formative years occurred when his father was almost constantly away from home on the court circuit or the stump; later, when Robert was a young man, the boy was away at school. In any event, no one lists his sons among Lincoln’s accomplishments. If Todd was ill made to keep house, Lincoln was ill-made to parent, he apparently concluding that because his father, Thomas Lincoln, was a poor father, he, Abraham, would be a good father merely by not being Thomas.
* * *
Some readers will ask, who cares? For a long time, few historians did, Lincoln’s private life being judged irrelevant to his public career. In his preface to Here I Have Lived, for instance, the late Paul Angle eloquently argued that Lincoln could not have become Lincoln had it not been for nine circumstances of his life in Springfield that informed and tested him. Angle did not include among them Lincoln’s courtship and marriage.
For his part, Burlingame argues that the marriage is important because Lincoln is important, and because Lincoln was shaped by his marriage. Consider politics. That Todd played a part in his political rise is pretty much undisputed, although how big a part is disputed vey much. Claims that Todd favored her husband with political insight, even that she was counselor to Lincoln, seem fanciful. Certainly, she liked to talk politics with the men, although one suspects that politics might have been for her merely another form of gossip or because it made her the center of attention in male company.
Burlingame credits her with much more. Her ambitions for her husband were pretty clearly self-regarding. (Burlingame notes that by 1854, Lincoln had prepared himself to “not only facilitate the abolition of slavery, preserve national unity, and vindicate democracy; he would also slake his wife’s thirst for fame, recognition, and deference.”) Still, Lincoln may never have become president, he writes, “if his wife had not turbocharged the restless engine of his ambition.” She was talking about making him President back when they were courting; she wrote a friend, “You will see that, as I always told you, I will yet be the President’s wife.”
Burlingame also gives Todd some credit for not only making Lincoln a president but for making him a great president. Lincoln’s marriage to this daughter of slave-owning Southerners was his own private Civil War, a domestic saga of insurrection and betrayals and heartbreak, and Burlingame suggests that President Lincoln’s preternatural ability to deal with difficult people owed to his having had “so much practice at home.”
Charles B. Strozier's Lincoln's Quest for Union: Public and Private Meanings (Basic Books, 1982) anticipated Burlingame in this. Strozier was a budding young psychoanalyst on the teaching staff of Sangamon State University with time on his hands. As he put it in a preface “what else can one do in Springfield, Illinois but study Lincoln?” His study convinced him that Lincoln's grasp of political sectionalism owed much to his unhappy home life.
Strozier’s old book and Burlingame’s new one are alike in another way. Writing of the former, David L. Wilson wrote, “Strozier [became] so engrossed with the manifold problems of Mary that he sometimes loses sight of his main subject.” But who could resist? Burlingame notes that Todd displayed what today is recognized as bipolar behavior: prolonged bouts of depression, excessive mourning for losses, wild spending sprees, ego inflation, and delusions of grandeur. Speculation that her miseries owed to premenstrual stress syndrome or narcissism or borderline personality disorder. Those last maladies are today’s version of the Victorian ladies’ maladies such as neurasthenia and probably ought to be regarded as gossip. and Burlingame notes but does not dwell on them.
Recent scholars, most of them female, found the source of Todd’s ills in her social situation. In her Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (1987), Jean Baker essays that Todd’s problem was that she was an unliberated woman, a victim of what Baker has called "male-prescribed true womanhood." That’s too simple by half—a victim of Victorian sexual mores she might have been, but that was at most a factor, not the cause of her miseries. In his history of Lincoln’s Springfield, Angle lists "Mary Todd" in his index, but that woman disappears after she wed Lincoln to be reborn elsewhere in the index as “Mrs. Abraham Lincoln.” This was faithful to the conventions of the day, but anyone who knew her would have told him that even after their marriage, Lincoln’s wife remained Mary Todd to the end.
* * *
The publisher describes Burlingame’s book as the “untold story,” but the story has been told by not only by Herndon and Strozier but by Burlingame himself in his previous major works—Abraham Lincoln: A Life and The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, which books borrow in turn from the revelations in William Herndon’s 1888 biography of his late partner.
Burlingame’s version is, if not more nuanced, certainly more amply documented. When it comes to Todd, it sometimes seems that no stone was left unthrown. Even people who had nothing to say said it in ways that vividly described that unhappy woman. Lincoln relative Harriet Hanks, who lived with the Lincolns for a time, wrote to Herndon that she “would rather Say nothing about his Wife[;] as I Could Say but little in her favor I Conclude it best to Say nothing.”
Burlingame, in contrast, is determined to say everything. In his method, Burlingame resembles Springfield attorney Logan Hay, long-time president of the Abraham Lincoln Association, who in the 1920s set that organization to collecting all the known facts about Lincoln’s life (to borrow from Liebling again) “as if he was preparing a lawsuit.” Burlingame does not intend merely to contribute to the debate about the nature and significance of the marriage but to settle the question once and for all. The present book runs to some 300 pages, and that total does not count his research notes, which Burlingame has published separately on the website of the University of Illinois Springfield. In an appendix he adds his critical appraisal of the literature on the Lincolns’ marriage, for which the serious student will be grateful.
Some readers will conclude that, surely, Burlingame’s will be the last word on the subject. But there is no last word about the Lincolns. For example, the delicate matter of Mrs. Lincoln’s corruption as First Lady needs to be examined more deeply, he writes. And now that the facts have been laid out, let the interpretations begin. He adds, “There is a crying need for a modern, thorough, psychologically sophisticated biography . . . written with the goal of understanding rather than vindicating her.”
Burlingame’s own research is deep rather than wide. He limits the scope of his inquiry to what is known about the Lincolns; his consideration of the marriage in the larger social context is perfunctory. Interesting questions thus are left unaddressed. One reviewer has already chided Burlingame for failing to fully take into consideration how the sexism of the era might have distorted the contemporaneous views of Todd's behavior on which his account relies. But that is to criticize a book that Burlingame did not write.
This is not the first book that a newcomer to Lincoln should pick up, nor one that will much inform the students of Lincoln the war leader, the politician, the orator, or the lawyer. Anyone interested in Lincoln the man, however, also will profit from it. ●
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