Mrs. Lincoln: A Lifeby Catherine Clinton
Abraham Lincoln is the most revered president in American history, but the woman at the center of his life—his wife, Mary—has remained a historical enigma. One of the most tragic and mysterious of nineteenth-century figures, Mary Lincoln and her story symbolize the pain and loss of Civil War America. Authoritative and utterly engrossing, Mrs. Lincoln… See more details below
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Abraham Lincoln is the most revered president in American history, but the woman at the center of his life—his wife, Mary—has remained a historical enigma. One of the most tragic and mysterious of nineteenth-century figures, Mary Lincoln and her story symbolize the pain and loss of Civil War America. Authoritative and utterly engrossing, Mrs. Lincoln is the long-awaited portrait of the woman who so richly contributed to Lincoln's life and legacy.
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History has certainly been kinder to Abraham Lincoln than to his troubled wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. This is partly because of the animus between Mrs. Lincoln and her husband's law partner and early biographer, William Herndon; partly owing to her Southern heritage, troubling in a time of secession and civil war; and partly for the mental distress that marked her life. In this evenhanded treatment, noted historian Clinton (Queen's Univ., Belfast; Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars) sifts through the many criticisms of Mary Lincoln to offer a sensitive reassessment that debunks unjust attacks and reveals Mrs. Lincoln's many strengths-charitableness, devotion to family and nation, unwavering love and encouragement for her beleaguered husband-alongside the mental illness and flaws of temperament for which she is better known. This biography builds on the recent scholarship of Jason Emerson (The Madness of Mary Lincoln) and standard primary and secondary sources to provide what will undoubtedly become a standard work on Mary Todd Lincoln. Written in a style that will appeal to the general reader, Clinton's book features sufficient nuance to satisfy scholars looking for a greater interpretation of the life of this controversial historical figure. A necessary purchase for most public, school, and academic libraries.
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By Catherine Clinton
Copyright © 2009
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Chapter One Kentucky Homes
The rolling hills of Bluegrass Kentucky remain astonishingly beautiful, unfurling with promise and glory along the road from Hodgenville to Lexington. The lush countryside was marked with tobacco and horses, which brought the region its fame. The miles between the two towns can be measured, but the distance between them-and what it represents-is more difficult to calculate, especially in the lives of Mary and Abraham Lincoln.
In 1809 a rough-hewn log cabin carved out of the woods near Hodgenville sheltered the newborn son of Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks. The hardscrabble roots of Abraham Lincoln have become legendary. His reputation has soared dramatically in the years since his presidency, and his role in American history has risen to mythic proportions. More than a century and a half after his death, the Lincoln birthplace has been turned into a shrine-with piles of marble dwarfing and literally engulfing the reconstructed cabin at the National Park site.
The contrast between this backwoods crossroads and the thriving metropolis of Lexington, dubbed the Athens of the West, is striking. When Mary Anne Todd, the daughter of Robert Smith Todd and Eliza Parker, grew up in an elegantly appointed mansion full of European imports and family mementos, she was connected by blood or intermarriage with nearly all the important political leaders of the day and, unlike her future husband, grew up with a sense of rank and privilege. Mary Lincoln's girlhood home is also maintained as an historic site-where the trappings of her family's pedigree and taste are on prominent display.
The Todd name carried great weight within elite circles of the early republic. James Madison, the Virginia aristocrat who became the nation's fourth president, married widow Dolley Todd. Madison's wife became a legendary Washington hostess and maintained warm relations with her Todd kin.
Robert S. Todd, Mary Lincoln's father, grew up just down the road from Henry Clay's plantation, Ashland. Clay was a dynamic figure within the region and the era-a dashing and handsome character. He had been born into a family of middling wealth in Virginia but had come out onto the Kentucky frontier and carved out a fortune for himself, possessing over sixty slaves on his impressive estate. His skills as a public speaker were renowned, and once he headed to Washington to represent his state, his patrician looks and oratorical flourishes won him plaudits throughout the slaveholding South. He provided a role model for the rising young men of Robert's generation.
Nearly six feet tall and extremely handsome, Robert Todd entered Transylvania College in 1805. He went on to study law and passed the state bar in 1811. With the outbreak of the War of 1812, Todd enlisted in the local military. When struck down with pneumonia only weeks after embarking on his military career, he was brought back home to Lexington to recover.
Robert's return had a fortuitous result: while recuperating, he renewed his courtship of his distant cousin, Elizabeth Parker. The -couple had vastly different temperaments: "Eliza was a sprightly, attractive girl with a sunny disposition, in sharp contrast to her impetuous, high-strung sensitive cousin." Regardless, on November 26, 1812, the twenty-one-year-old Todd wed his teenage sweetheart at the home of the bride's widowed mother. The next day, Robert rejoined his regiment, the Fifth Regular Kentucky Volunteers, and returned to health and duty.
After his army stint, Robert Todd built a house on Short Street, on a lot adjoining the home of his mother-in-law. Soon his household was filled with a parade of babies. On December 13, 1818, Mary Anne Todd joined older siblings, Elizabeth, Frances, and Levi. By this time, Robert Todd was well established and in possession of a flourishing dry-goods business; he was also a clerk of the Kentucky House of Representatives and a member of the Fayette County Court. He became an up-and-coming voice within state politics.
Mary's mother, Eliza Parker Todd, who had a child every other year following her marriage-not an uncommon pattern for southern brides-died in 1825 following the birth of her seventh child (George, who survived). She was buried next to her sixth child, Robert, who had died at fourteen months. The thirty-four-year-old widower, Robert Todd, was left with a half-dozen offspring, including six-year-old Mary.
Robert Todd's unmarried sister, Ann Maria, moved in to supervise the household and slave staff: Jane Saunders, the housekeeper, Chany, the cook, Nelson, the coachman and valet, Sally, the nanny, and Judy, the nurse. But the burdens of family life were considerable, and Mary's father felt he could only cope by taking a new wife. While Robert was in the state capital, he wooed the daughter of a well-connected political ally, and on November 1, 1826, married Elizabeth (Betsy) Humphreys in her father's home in Frankfort, where John J. Crittenden, a former speaker of the Kentucky house and future governor of the state, stood as Todd's best man. Crittenden himself had recently been widowed and remarried Todd's kinswoman. At her marriage, the never-wed Elizabeth Todd became stepmother to six children, ranging in age from eighteen months to fourteen years.
Mary was nearly eight when her father remarried. This pattern of disruption and displacement was common for children of the era, but nevertheless painful. Abraham Lincoln, who lost his beloved mother at nine, ever after referred to her as his "angel mother." His loss was compounded when his father left both Abraham and his sister Sarah behind on their Indiana farm, while he went back to Kentucky to seek a new wife. Young Abraham and Sarah were left to the care of a cousin, Dennis Hanks, for a prolonged period, barely able to scrape by until Thomas Lincoln returned to Pigeon Creek with his new wife, Sarah Bush Johnston, a widow with three small children of her own.
Mary Todd never suffered this kind of neglect but nonetheless found the transitions within her childhood traumatizing. She might have welcomed a new mother nearly eighteen months after her own had died, but her Grandmother Parker strongly opposed anyone who sought to take her daughter's place. This friction stimulated a crisis. Despite his former mother-in-law's objections, six motherless children and Elizabeth Humphrey's charms were more than enough to convince Robert to take a new bride back to Lexington. Betsy also brought with her a good dower, no small matter in the face of economic challenges for Robert Todd.
Excerpted from Mrs. Lincoln by Catherine Clinton Copyright © 2009 by Catherine Clinton. Excerpted by permission.
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Being an American History major with a special interest in the American Civil War, I had heard many stories of Mary Lincoln's "sanity". After reading this book, I have found a real understanding for Mary Lincoln and why she behaved as she did. She was pretty much "driven" to it. Anyone who reads this book will see a woman ahead of her time, who was watched and ridiculed by not only the public and media, but by her husband's advisers as well. As if this wasn't upsetting enough, she lost her mother at a young age, three of her four sons, watched her husband's murder, was thrown out of his room when dying, put in an institution by her only surviving son, and left pretty much broke. There's more, but I don't want to give it all away. The only thing I don't agree with the author about is the claim that Mary Lincoln was the first, First Lady. I always thought Dolly Madison was, but Mary Lincoln was definitely the most watched and ridiculed First Lady of that time so far. I highly recommend this book.
The Mrs. Lincoln I "met" in this book was somewhat different than how she has been portrayed in other books. There was much more to her character as a person than we had been led to believe previously. Who of us wouldn't have become more fragile emotionally and vulnerable had we experienced the tremendous losses she did. I grew to have empathy for her.
I have read several books on Mrs. Lincoln. This is one I could not put down. Thank you.
I had a hard time reading this book as it did not keep my attention. I usually do not read history but wanted to start trying to read woman's history. I'm pretty sure i started with the wrong kind of book. Pictures were interesting though. Just not a page turner for me. Lots of nice facts.