• U.S.

The Saga of Mary Todd

5 minute read
Walter Kirn

Few patterns in American history have proved as durable as this one: while Presidents are attacked by their opponents for what they do or fail to do, First Ladies are disparaged for who they are. What’s more, the unattractive traits that presidential spouses have been assigned don’t seem to change. They’re vain and frivolous (Jacqueline Kennedy in her designer gowns). They’re pushy and calculating (Hillary Clinton and her health-care plan). They’re irrational and superstitious (Nancy Reagan and her astrologer).

Or they’re all of the above–and loony too. That was Mary Todd Lincoln’s uniquely miserable lot: to be despised in nearly every way that a First Lady is capable of being despised, both during her lifetime and ever since, while suffering in nearly every way that a human being can suffer. The fact that Mary was married to a President who has been admired in nearly every way that a President can be admired has never helped matters any. It may have sealed her fate.

“The most charitable construction that Mary Lincoln’s friends can put on her strange course is that she is insane,” wrote the Chicago Journal of the widow who, in the wake of her husband’s assassination, had returned to Illinois in a state of conspicuous mourning that drew the opposite of public sympathy, particularly when she tried to raise money by selling off her fanciest clothes at auction. When Robert, the only one of her four sons whom she hadn’t had to bury before his time, committed his aging mother to an asylum while taking control of her assets and affairs, Mary’s humiliation was complete.

What did she do to deserve such vilification? As her modern biographers have pointed out, Mary Todd Lincoln’s greatest sin, perhaps, was to be born in the wrong century. The daughter of a prominent Kentucky family whose mother died when she was just a girl, Mary was a bright, well-educated woman who dared to involve herself in her husband’s career. In 1847, when Abraham Lincoln traveled to Washington to take his seat as a newly elected Illinois Congressman, Mary had the presumption to accompany him–an unusual move for a political wife back then. She was on a mission, though. Having already tutored her mate in the fine points of proper manners and dress (“I do not think he knew pink from blue when I married him,” she once told her sister), she made no secret of her ambition to see him ascend to the presidency one day. Later, during Lincoln’s unsuccessful campaign for the Senate, Mary monitored his treatment by the press, lobbied on his behalf and cheered him on during his last public skirmish with Stephen Douglas, one of her rejected romantic suitors.

Once the Lincolns relocated to the White House, Mary made a grievous public-relations error that later First Ladies such as Nancy Reagan might have been wise to remember: she redecorated, expensively, extensively and–in the eyes of many–frivolously. Despite a historical catastrophe (the Civil War), Mary dedicated her formidable energies to buying china, ordering wallpaper, updating her wardrobe and bringing good taste and material splendor to a dowdy, poorly maintained residence whose appearance a White House secretary compared to that of “an old and unsuccessful hotel.”

But America wasn’t ready for Camelot, and Mary was cast as an out-of-touch princess who picked fabric swatches while, on the battlefield, the Republic burned. Yet perhaps no woman in American history had a better excuse for trying to boost her mood with a little retail therapy. Mary had already lost a mother and a son, and was about to lose another son, as well as her husband. She seemed to know that too, possibly as a result of her excursions into the mysterious spirit world, a popular pastime in the traumatized living rooms of the Civil War. Seeking comfort wherever she could find it, Mary switched off the lights and called her period’s version of a psychic hotline.

Smart, ambitious women who love to shop, have difficulty sticking to a budget and react to emotional upheaval by dabbling in New Age spirituality don’t attract much attention nowadays. If eventually they become fond of prescription medications, as her best modern biographer Jean H. Baker believes that Mary did (thereby clearing the way for Betty Ford), they may even have a rehab center named after them.

Mary Todd Lincoln had no such luck, though–except, of course, to become the negative role model for every First Lady ever since and also, perhaps, for the First Husbands of tomorrow. If Mary’s tortured ghost (and she believed in ghosts–they were among her only companions at the end) could offer those First Spouses any advice, it might come down to this: Stay in the background, avoid having your fortune told and don’t–at least not before speaking to your spouse–purchase new clothes or change the White House wallpaper. Your nation may soften its view of you someday, but it could take a long, long time.

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