Elevate Difference

Mrs. Lincoln: A Life

Mrs. Lincoln: A Life by Catherine Clinton, is a fascinating account of this very complicated and very misunderstood woman. I knew little about Mary Todd prior to reading this book and what I did know was mostly based on my own mythical ideas about Honest Abe and his wife Mary. Catherine Clinton’s work had me shaking my head many times; it was quite astonishing to see what this woman endured as the wife of the man who was probably our most beloved president.

The book opens dramatically with Abraham Lincoln lying on his deathbed, while close by, his wife sobs uncontrollably. She is eventually taken from the room, never to be summoned again before Lincoln passes away. And from this you are forewarned of the difficult life of Mary Todd because she lost both her husband and the position of first lady.

Both Mary and Abraham were born and raised in Kentucky, but their backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. Lincoln is famous for his poor, humble beginnings in a log cabin, whereas Mary Todd grew up in a family that was well-connected both politically and socially. As a result of these familial associations, she received a good education. Mary Todd craved recognition and prestige; she was also headstrong, and these traits would often have extremely negative effects during her stay in the White House.

The one thing that surprised me was that even in 1860, politics were politics and the public press was ruthless in their reporting of the first couple. These “Westerners” were not well received and not well liked among the Washington high society and political community. Mrs. Lincoln was shunned by many women in the prominent social circles, which was a severe blow. She craved the respect that should have gone along with being the first lady.

Because of the Lincolns' position in favor of abolition, the president received death threats during the Civil War, creating severe stress for Mary. She also experienced the loss of many close relatives during her time at the White House, which contributed to the incredible obstacles that she faced on a daily basis.

However, in presenting these facts, Clinton is not trying to garner sympathy for Mary. She shows the reader a complicated woman who gives her political advice to Lincoln’s cabinet. She could be unpleasant in public situations, but she also had the compassion to visit wounded soldiers in the local hospitals, and fought for abolition.

The friendships that Mary developed with other women were an essential part of how she coped with her day to day living. They were an integral part of her life until her later years. There is still controversy over the mental state of Mary Todd. In 1863, on her way back to the White House, she was thrown from a carriage causing her to hit her head on a rock which might have contributed to her mental state. She was also prone to depression, and Lincoln scholars continue to debate on her mental health.

When the last page of Clinton’s Mrs. Lincoln: A Life is read and the book is closed, the reader cannot help but sympathize with this underappreciated woman.

Written by: Su Lin Mangan, April 29th 2009

Thank you Lawrence for your comment. Actually, the author, Catherine Clinton, only mentions syphilis once in a single sentence and that is when referring to another work. She doesn't acknowledge it as a cause of Mary's mental state.

My own opinion is the author stresses Mrs. Lincoln's loss of her children and the assassination of her husband as a cause of her instability mentally. In addition, she mentions the fall Mary had from the carriage. Clinton also adds that Mary Todd's mental health will always create discussion and disagreement suggesting that there is no definite conclusion on the state of her mental condition. I would be interested in reading Deborah Hayden's book.

Thanks for your review, Su Lin. I'm curious whether or not the author dipped into the considerable evidence to support the increasing contentions that Mary Todd was "mentally ill" due to ravages of tertiary syphilis, she having been infected pre-maritally. Abe, after all, also worried privately that he'd been afflicted. Deborah Hayden's book, Pox, covers Mary Todd's case in one entire chapter devoted to the suspicions and then evidence of this. Cheers. Lawrence Hammar