Thursday, February 12, 2009

Mrs. Lincoln by Catherine Clinton

While much is being made of Abraham Lincon's 200th birthday this month, and rightly so, I thought it would be interesting to examine the life of Mary Todd Lincoln, the much maligned and possibly misunderstood wife of President Lincoln. While there have been several biographies published about Mrs. Lincoln, some damning and some sympathetic, I chose the most recently published version to start with.

Mary Todd was born into a highly respected and politically connected family in Lexington, Kentucky. While both she and her future husband lost their mothers at a tender age, Mary's new stepmother went on to give birth to eight additonal children, when, added to Mary and her 5 siblings, made for a very large and disjointed family. When Mary, as a young woman, had the opportunity to escape the household to stay with her married sister in Springfield, Illinois, she jumped at the chance.

Mary took Springfield by storm. Highly educated and politically knowledgeable, her lively personality soon catapulted her to the top of Springfield society. Before long, she was introduced to another up and coming resident, Abraham Lincoln. The courtship of the Lincolns was long and tumultuous, even breaking apart for a brief while before ultimately ending in their marriage in 1842. As a young bride, Mary learned to pinch pennies, made her own clothes and supported her husband in every way - encouraging him to take more care with his appearance, making sure he did not skip meals, and even bringing him out of his well-known melancholy spells.

As Mary stands by her man, Lincoln vascillates between running his law practice and political activities, not winning very often, but becoming more and more well know with each foray. Despite being defeated in the 1858 Senate election, Lincoln, as we all know, was elected president 2 years later, and the family made the move to Washington D.C. Here, Mary, despite finally making it to the top, was shunned by Washington society and became a favorite target of journalists. Weathering this while helping her husband cope with the Civil War while several of her family members fought against the Union was exhausting for Mary; when the war ended and Lincoln was reelected, both of them were looking forward to the future. Mary's dreams of a long and enriched life with her husband were shattered when Lincoln was assassinated, an event that haunted Mary for the rest of her tragic life.

If you would like to gain further insight into this tragic figure, as well as learn more about President Lincoln via his wife's role in his successes, this is a great place to start. Catherine Clinton's interpretation is timely and well-researched, and provides a balanced look at a woman who balanced her own ambitions with her family's needs, suffered great losses, and never quite recovered from the deaths of her husband and children.

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