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.
The start of a spiral
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.
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.