16 February, 2009Issue 8.4HistoryNorth America

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Hellcat Recast

Katie Wake

Mary Todd LincolnCatherine Clinton
Mrs. Lincoln: A Life
Harper Collins, 2009
415 pages
ISBN 978-0060760403

“Damned if she did, damned if she didn’t” would have been a fitting epitaph on Mary Todd Lincoln’s grave. In life, she was hounded by a popular press that charged her with treason, adultery and theft. In death, she has become Mad Mary, the crazy harridan wife best remembered for holding séances in the White House. Her portrayal as a “Hellcat” First Lady cameos in many of the 9,000 books about her husband Abraham Lincoln.

Catherine Clinton’s transformative biography consigns this mythologised figure to the ash heap of historiography. In Mrs Lincoln: A Life, Clinton sensitively reconstructs the tragedy of Mary Lincoln’s life, one overwhelmed by the horrors of the American Civil War and shattered by her husband’s assassination and the deaths of her children.

Rehabilitation is no small task, for Mary Todd Lincoln was by all accounts a difficult woman. Born into a patrician Kentucky family in 1818, her courtship with the penurious son of an uneducated frontiersman was an unlikely match. Marrying into debt, for love and against her family’s wishes, Mrs Lincoln carried herself with an imperious hauteur which frequently alienated those around her. As First Lady during the Civil War, she reportedly demanded that Julia Grant, the wife of celebrated Union General and President-to-be Ulysses S. Grant, back out of a room when taking her leave. Mary Lincoln’s notorious shopping mania—characterised by Clinton as “financial bulimia”—was coupled with a reputation for parsimony. Lincoln spent the years after her husband’s death petitioning for a widow’s pension and vigorously appealing for handouts from those her husband had patronised as President.

Such behaviour made Mary Lincoln an early victim of an unforgiving media. In 1861 the Chicago Tribune declared, “No lady of the White House has ever been so maltreated by the public press.” This treatment would only worsen with time. Clinton convincingly claims that the “lava flow of venom” Mrs Lincoln received as First Lady has been unsurpassed by First Ladies before or since.

The scrutiny Mary Lincoln was subjected to during her life is a startling reminder that media hounding existed long before Princess Diana and Britney Spears. Smear tactics, libel and defamation were deployed by Democrats and Republicans alike. Amidst crisis, the foundering nation found an easy target on which to project its anxieties. Split by divided loyalties, the Todd family encapsulated the rupture of the Civil War.

Clinton judiciously confronts the historical mistreatment of Mary Lincoln, from the slanderous editorials during her lifetime to the burgeoning scholarship on her husband. Mrs Lincoln was from a family of 15 children, all brought up in the slave south, and many of her siblings or their husbands fought on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Mrs Lincoln’s consequent estrangement from her Todd relations failed to dispel unfounded charges of treason in the press. Shortly after her husband’s assassination, the press launched an attack upon the grieving First Widow, accusing her of ransacking the White House when she departed with more than 50 trunks. Such vitriolic assaults made a scapegoat of the grieving Mrs Lincoln and ignored the thousands who had traipsed through White House rooms to bid farewell to President Lincoln, some taking souvenirs of the furnishings as they left.

In 1875, having witnessed the deaths of three sons, Mrs Lincoln was committed to psychiatric care for “insanity” by her only surviving child, Robert. Clinton avoids diagnosing Mary Lincoln from beyond the grave as others have done. Instead, she delineates Mrs Lincoln’s mental decline alongside the series of family deaths that increased Mrs Lincoln’s propensity for manic episodes and phobias. The séances that were conducted in the Lincoln White House remain a central feature of Mary Lincoln mythology. Again, Clinton challenges knee-jerk assumptions by questioning whether Mrs Lincoln’s attempts to connect with her deceased children were so risible given the rapid growth of spiritualism among women as thousands of men died in the bloodiest war in American history.

Mrs Lincoln is a humane portrait of a family that imploded due to external forces. Disease took three of the Lincolns’ four sons in their youths. Following the death of the second, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, shortly after the Union victory in the Civil War. Clinton introduces the biography with this event. Mary Lincoln’s trauma upon witnessing her husband being shot in their box as they watched a play was so pronounced that she was forcibly removed from the room in which he lay dying, usurped by her husband’s male inner circle at his deathbed.

The denigration of Mrs Lincoln has continued to eclipse the many admirable facts of her life. Having grown up in a slave-owning household, she became a committed abolitionist. When a doorman escorted an African-American visitor to the kitchen entrance to the White House, the First Lady took pains to accommodate her over tea and pointedly accompanied her guest to the front entrance for a public farewell on her way out. Mary Lincoln bequeathed some of her husband’s personal effects to black friends and employees. Abraham Lincoln’s canes went to Frederick Douglass and the cloak worn the night he died was given to Elizabeth Keckly, the prominent dressmaker and former slave who had become Mrs Lincoln’s close friend and confidante.

Clinton has selected her sources imaginatively. Household bills, architectural blueprints and visual sources are mined to recreate Lincoln’s redecoration of her home in Springfield, Illinois and the White House. This intimate portrait of Mary Lincoln’s daily life exposes some of the remarkable women around her, including Elizabeth Keckly and the successful deaf journalist Laura Redden. Clinton’s methodology illuminates areas of women’s lives in the 19th century which are mostly absent from history books. Mrs Lincoln’s friendships and her quotidian occupations as the household matriarch establish a female culture that operated on the periphery of political life. Contention arose when this female culture encroached on the political realm, a difficult separation to maintain as First Lady.

It is hard to escape the notion that the vilification of Mary Lincoln stemmed from her breaking of convention. Well educated, politically engaged and ambitious, Mary Lincoln did not possess the independent opportunities for advancement that were open to her successors in the 20th century. Yet in the same way that Hillary Clinton (and increasingly, Michelle Obama) has been criticised for political outspokenness as First Lady, Mary Lincoln was castigated for her attachment to politics.

Clinton’s biography explicitly connects Mary Lincoln to other unpopular First Ladies, especially Hillary Rodham Clinton. Both women invited an avalanche of odium for their attempts to carve out independent roles. Political wives in Lincoln’s era were valuable assets in facilitating networking, attending levees and, in the case of First Ladies, opening the White House to visitors. However, direct attempts to exert influence were deemed beyond the pale. Mrs Lincoln was censured for interfering with presidential appointments. Her parlour politics affronted the sensibilities that accompanied her status as a woman.

Mrs Lincoln struggled with the burden of fulfilling the expectations that weighed down First Ladies. Her style became a national preoccupation. The sartorial quagmire that afflicts women today was no less potent in the 19th century; then, as now, clothes became a decoy to diminish women’s political significance. Clinton recounts how “Any meetings with dignitaries were overshadowed by attention paid to Mrs Lincoln’s wardrobe in press reports”. But “damned if she did, damned if she didn’t”, Mrs Lincoln faced the ire of the press, as her bills and shopping habits underwent severe criticism.

There remains something unnerving about our enthusiasm to pick apart the spouses of iconic men, especially where these women are powerful and possess an intellect. Mary Todd Lincoln’s spending predilections and neurotic behaviour have equipped historians with blunt tools with which to assail her. It has taken a century and a half for a biographer to step forward and redress the balance. Catherine Clinton has written a riveting and scholarly biography of an often painful life.

Katie Wake is studying the historiography of the United States at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She is the Writers editor of the Oxonian Review.