Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage

I haven't read much about Lincoln, and I've read even less about Mary Todd Lincoln, his wife. I knew that she was unstable and had been accused of being a traitor and of spending way too much money, particularly given that the country was at war. But that was about it.

This biography is about the Lincolns' marriage - not about the presidency or politics - and it was very interesting, if a little flowery at times. Daniel Mark Epstein likes to imagine the Lincolns walking in the moonlight together, and I think he put a little too much thought into just when each of the Lincoln children was conceived.

But I learned so much, like that their marriage really was a love match. They married despite her family's objection to Lincoln; she came from a wealthy and prominent Kentucky family, and he really was a backwoods attorney trying to make it in the big city of Springfield. What amazed me most was that Mary Todd Lincoln knew from the get go that Lincoln was destined to be president, and she was willing to put up with a lot to get him there.

Of course, Lincoln had to put up with a lot himself, including Mary Todd's instability and abuse. There are accounts of her hitting him in the face with a log of firewood because Lincoln wasn't paying enough attention to her.

Mary Todd got worse during Lincoln's presidency. The pressure of living in the fishbowl of the White House, with reporters following her on errands took a toll, as did the death of her son Willie, who died of typhus. She had already lost one son to illness, and losing a second really pushed her over the edge. She also suffered a pretty severe head wound in a carriage accident, and her son Robert Todd Lincoln claimed that she never really recovered from the injury, mentally or physically.

Mary Todd really did spend too much money, money that she was afraid to tell her husband about. She ended up causing problems by promising favors to people in exchange for wiping out debts or extending further credit. Of course, Lincoln didn't help matters much by being completely uninterested in money. One of his secretaries recounted how Lincoln would have six or seven of his presidential paychecks stashed in desk drawers and in his pockets.

The final chapter of the book is hard to read. Things seemed to be turning the corner for the Lincolns - the war was ending, the country was celebrating, Lincoln was popular among the Union loyalists. Lincoln's last night was supposed to be a celebration.

Epstein ends the book with Lincoln's assassination, adding only a note that he won't address the rest of Mary Todd's life because the book is about their marriage. He does say that the rest of her life was tragic - another son, Tad, died, and Robert Todd ended up becoming estranged from her because of her behavior. As sad as it may have been, I think I'm going to go in search of a good biography of Mary Todd. She fascinates me.

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