Global Affairs

Opinion: Why Mary Lincoln is as controversial as ever

For one, Mary Lincoln was the first spouse of a US president to be given the sobriquet of “First Lady,” a signal of how much the role and duties of the president’s wife had increased in significance.
Neither of these factors, however, hinted at how controversial a figure Mary Lincoln would become. Criticized for being a spendthrift and dismissed as hysterical, Mary Lincoln’s tenure as first lady and her role in Abraham Lincoln’s presidency remain divisive to this day.

A mercurial, vain personality whose weaknesses periodically outnumbered her strengths, Mary Lincoln’s manner and temperament exacerbated problems from her earliest days in Washington. Yet she was also a politically shrewd and outspoken partner to her husband, unafraid to step outside the boundaries of gender convention when women were expected to confine themselves to the nursery and the parlor.

As a result, historians have spent more than a century debating the personal and political contributions of this complex figure — including her part in turning Abraham Lincoln into one of the greatest presidents who ever lived.

Devoted ambition

Vivacious and autocratic, Mary showed she was an astute observer of the political chess game from childhood. Born in Kentucky, she met Abraham after a move to Springfield, Illinois, and wed the politically ambitious lawyer in 1842.
Her 12 years of formal education ensured she was as intellectually curious as the largely self-taught Abraham, and she provided him with the stability he had craved since his youth. They both lost their mothers at an early age, suffering a sense of displacement that was healed by starting a family. Mary gave birth to four sons, all reportedly spoiled by their doting parents.
Early on in their partnership, Mary volunteered sharp opinions on potential alliances, patronage and strategies. Whatever her shortcomings, Mary proved a devoted helpmeet during her husband’s political rise: He would read aloud to her his courtroom summaries and would later recite his stump speeches over their Springfield breakfast table. Mary might be seen sitting in the gallery of the Illinois state house to hear debates, or mailing unsolicited letters with pros and cons about political appointments during her husband’s presidential campaign.
She channeled her own ambitions into her husband’s career, so much so that when the news of his election as President arrived at the Springfield telegraph office in November 1860, Lincoln left for home explaining, “Well, gentlemen, there is a little woman at our house who is probably more interested in this dispatch than I am.”

The start of a spiral

As much as Mary wanted to be the wife of a president, the consequences of this election were dire — for the country, as well as the Lincolns. Mary Lincoln became desperately fearful for her husband’s health and safety, and it didn’t help that half of her siblings or in-laws were in the newly formed Confederate army. While Mary was fiercely loyal to her husband and viewed her Rebel relatives as treasonous, her mail was inspected before it was delivered, coming and going — an indignity no previous presidential spouse had endured.
During her first weeks in Washington, the new first lady became a curiosity; as British journalist William Russell reported, “If she but drives down Pennsylvania Avenue, the electric wire trills the news to every hamlet in the Union.”
That news was rarely good. When Mary poured her energy into renovating the White House during the summer of 1861, she intended to bolster the Union cause by showing the federal government at its finest, flourishing in spite of the rebellion. Attacked as irresponsible during a time of war, she tried to economize with schemes involving White House accounts — which in turn invited charges of corruption. Abraham Lincoln even intervened to clear her name, but her reputation still suffered.
Yet no matter the criticisms she faced — and there were many, particularly from an elite Washington society that saw her as an upstart from the prairie — Mary held a haughty disdain for currying favor. When she devoted her energies to visiting hospitals, two to three times a week by the winter of 1862, she eschewed the publicity that would have been in her own interest. A White House staffer suggested that “if she were worldly-wise she would carry newspaper correspondents … every time she went and … bring the writers back to the White House, and give them some cake.” But while Mary Lincoln was in need of better press, she was unwilling to feed them cake to get it.
A stunning series of personal tragedies only complicated her public persona. The death of her beloved son Willie in 1862 propelled her on a downward spiral, as did a head injury from a carriage accident in 1863. The subsequent assassination of her husband in April 1865 was the final push into an accelerated period of decline. As she mourned, she earned little sympathy from a nation critical of her extravagance, distrustful of her allegiances and mocking of her theatrical personality.
When she decided to sell items from her closet in 1868 — as she no longer wore anything but widow’s weeds — the scheme elicited so much outrage it became known as the “Old Clothes Scandal.” And when she lobbied for a widow’s pension, Congressional critics questioned not just her loyalty but her marital fidelity. In 1875, her only remaining son, Robert, initiated proceedings that led to his mother’s institutionalization, as he believed her grief carried signs of insanity.
The series of humiliations meant that, upon her own death at her sister’s home in Springfield in 1882, Mary was remembered more as an unstable “she devil” than the widow of a revered leader. While her own reputation suffered such a precipitous decline, the widow Lincoln campaigned to remind the public that her husband’s greatest achievement was the destruction of slavery: his legacy as “the Great Emancipator” was part of her personal mission.

A legacy hidden beneath myths

Looking back with new perspectives, conflict remains on how to interpret and understand this multifaceted first lady.

Was she strident, or vibrant? Forthright or aggressive? Was her idea to improve the White House as a show of strength to foreign dignitaries so questionable?

Were her bouts of keening grief and depression, considering she lost three children and her husband was murdered sitting next to her, so unexpected?

In truth, Mary Lincoln’s sins have been greatly exaggerated during the mythmaking about her over the past century, growing so large as to overshadow her early political contributions. It would seem that she is still weighed on scales rigged by sexism, scales that belittle those women who fall outside the boundaries to which they were (and still are) expected to conform. During her own lifetime, William Herndon, her husband’s law partner and biographer, fabricated falsehoods to injure and embarrass her.

More than 150 years later, Mary Lincoln’s reputation remains embattled with camps lined up on opposite sides. One Lincoln scholar has suggested that the president was tortured by his marriage to a “hellcat,” while another argues that her role as an advisor was invaluable to the 16th president’s career.

In the end, Mary Lincoln’s legacy may not be able to overcome the forces which cloud our assessments about her talents. Yet it is crucial to understand that the partnership Mary and Abraham forged not only nurtured Lincoln’s rise, but also fostered his permanent status in the pantheon of great American leaders.

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