Top critical review
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on April 3, 2009
In the past two months, I have read many books about Abraham and Mary Lincoln. Many of them are newly published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. If I read Catherine Clinton's "Mrs. Lincoln: A Life" first, I might have been more complimentary of this biography of our former first lady. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and there is nothing much new to be found in Mary Lincoln. In fact, what is evident is not what Clinton included in "Mrs. Lincoln", but what she omits.
Most people know the details of Mary Lincoln's life. This pert, educated and sassy girl was born of privilege to a prominent Lexington family. She was more educated than even most men of this era. She was fluent in French, loved poetry and was especially engaged by national politics. A family friend was Henry Clay. In 1839, she moved to Springfield, Illinois to live with her older sister, Elizabeth Edwards. Here, she met the gangly, humble, poor and self-educated Abraham Lincoln. Theirs was a stormy courtship, but after breaking off their engagement once, they finally married on November 4, 1842. Apparently, she saw the promise in Lincoln when many (including her immediate family) did not.
Mary did have a lot of talents and did many things well. She loved poetry and could recite long passages of her favorites from memory. She was politically astute and acted as an advisor to Lincoln as he navigated state, and then national politics. She was a gracious hostess and her parties and balls were well received. On the domestic scene, she sewed her own clothes and those of her children (until she became first lady). She also did most of the household cooking in Springfield. Clinton paints the Lincoln marriage with soft-brushstrokes, and Mary as a doting, affectionate and loving wife. Unfortunately, this is a total white-wash! Their scenes of domestic discord are downplayed and she totally omits those where Mary was totally out of control (as when she broke Lincoln's nose with a piece of firewood). These episodes of rage and jealousy became even worse when she reached the White House and Mary was "all but excluded from his circle of trusted advisors because of her troubling mood swings." Lincoln never stopped loving his wife, but he was truly troubled and embarrassed by her actions.
It is hard to diagnose someone 150 years after the fact, but it would appear to even the most elementary psychologist that Mary suffered from Bi-Polar disorder. Clinton never even hints that Mary may have suffered from something of this nature. Also, for the insanity trial, Clinton hints that Mary was "bushwacked" by her son, Robert Todd Lincoln. But Clinton tends to downplay everything about Mary including her temper, her mood-swings, her compulsive spending, and especially, the schemes in which she engaged to illicitly raise money to pay off her many White House bills. As for the scheming to raise funds, Clinton maintains that anything rumored to be illegal was untrue. The things I have read claim otherwise.
Almost everyone agrees that Mary Lincoln was a tragic figure. She had more than her fair share of adversity. But Mary was also her own worst enemy and she alienated herself from friends and family by her actions and words. When she most needed help after Lincoln's assassination, "many withheld kindness, and some ignored minimal courtesy. Some doubtless believed they were repaying her own vindictiveness toward them, while others maintained that she had been unworthy of her husband, and now that he was the Martyr President, she was deemed even less deserving." In any case, the debate will continue to rage about Mary Lincoln.