History has not treated Mary Todd Lincoln kindly. Too often, scholars follow the lead of her husband’s Springfield law partner, William Herndon, or his wartime secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay. All three men revered Abraham Lincoln, and the young clerks in particular regarded Mary as “the enemy” who made the beleaguered wartime leader’s life miserable. “The Hellcat is getting more Hellcatical day by day,” Hay once complained. Popular culture has not been much more compassionate. In Stephen Spielberg’s 2012 Lincoln, Sally Field earned an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of a Mary Todd Lincoln troubled by the death of two sons and frantic about the fate of her eldest. But at sixty-six, Field was nearly two decades older than Mary was during the final year of the war, and the film’s complicated and nuanced portrait was a rare one. With only a few exceptions, historians, filmmakers, and novelists alike have been content to depict Mary as an ambitious, irrational spendthrift who so badgered her husband that he routinely found solace in the quiet of Secretary of State William H. Seward’s parlor. In one curious twist, two recent historians and a novelist have even painted Mary as a temptress who bedded a reluctant suitor, forcing Abraham into a shotgun wedding.
In truth, while the stressful White House years and the wartime death of her beloved twelve-year-old Willie imposed strains on what was rarely a perfect relationship, the marriage of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd, which began on a damp Friday, November 4, 1842, was one of the more solid political partnerships of the nineteenth century. If not quite as equal as that of John C. Frémont and Jesse Benton, the politically-astute daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, it was a relationship in which Abraham listened to Mary’s advice on party matters and personnel. (Rather more typically of her time, Mary had less to say about political ideology or issues). Abraham and Mary shared a devotion to Whig Party principles, and early on she had taken note of his ambition and drive. Painfully aware of his lack of formal education and his humble origins, Abraham took pride in Mary’s upbringing and instruction at Kentucky’s Shelby Female Academy, where she had studied history, geography, natural science, French, and theology. By comparison to Abraham’s later rival, Jefferson Davis, whose second marriage to the far younger Varina Banks Howell was both far more traditional and far less companionable, the Lincolns enjoyed many happy years together and made for a formidable political team.
Nearly forgotten today was Mary Lincoln’s popularity during the turbulent campaign of 1860. In keeping with tradition, Lincoln did not himself campaign after receiving the Republican nomination, leaving the speeches and editorials to surrogates. That forced thousands of journalists to descend upon Springfield in search of interviews with the candidate, who was so unknown in the East that editors routinely misnamed him as “Abram.” Thanks to the fact that both Lincoln’s handlers and Republican artists had depicted him as a simple rustic given to splitting rails, reporters who arrived at the Lincolns’ elegant home on the corner of Eighth and Jackson Streets half expected to find the candidate chopping wood on his front porch. Indeed, sophisticated eastern journalists often thought that Lincoln lived down to their low expectations. His clothing rarely fit well, and he grabbed their outstretched hands in both of his, shouting “howdy” in his thin, frontier twang.
But those reporters who patronized “Honest Old Abe” as “always clean [if] never fashionable” were surprised to find his wife “a very graceful woman, with no such thing as awk[w]ardness about her.” Mary frequently served as hostess to as many as one hundred visitors each day. Reporters thought her comments on the numerous candidates insightful, and in a year when newspapers devoted at best a few lines to candidate Salmon Chase’s daughter’s beauty or Francis Seward’s absence from Washington, the eastern press paid numerous compliments to Mary’s poise and wisdom. “Whatever of awkwardness may be ascribed to her husband,” admitted a writer for the New York Evening Post, “there is none of it in her. [Mary] converses with freedom and grace, and is thoroughly au fait in all the little amenities of society.”
So willing was Lincoln to take seriously his wife’s advice in the fall of 1860 that his chief advisors fretted that news about it would cost the Republicans support among more traditionally minded voters. Several Republican editors went out of their way to assure their male readers that Mary “eshew[ed] all politics” even as they clumsily tried to appeal to wives, whom they assumed often influenced their husband’s votes, by playing up the candidate’s domestic values. Abraham Lincoln, editorialized one Vermont newspaper, “would be chosen from among a crowd as one who had in him the kindly sentiments which women love.”
Although one longtime Washington observer would praise Mary as the most charming White House hostess since Dolley Madison, the Civil War wrought as much havoc on the Lincolns’ marriage as it did on that of many Americans. But on the early November day in 1842 when they wed, Abraham and Mary, like so many young couples, looked ahead with hope and optimism. Abraham slipped a ring, inscribed with “Love is Eternal” onto Mary’s finger, and Mary repeated her vows from the Book of Common Prayer. One week later, the happy groom wrote to one friend, noting that “Nothing new here, except my marrying, which to me, is a matter of profound wonder.”