I gave you a short review of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln in the August twitterature post, but I’ve been circling back to some of its themes since I read the last page and wanted to dive a little deeper today.
Specifically, I’d like to talk about Mary Todd Lincoln.
Honestly, all I knew about Mary Todd prior to reading this book was that she came from a slave-holding family, was institutionalized at some point, and that historians speculate whether Lincoln’s unhappy home life fueled his ambition. More than one history teacher called her “crazy Mary Todd.”
In Team of Rivals, Ms. Goodwin presents a much richer and more complicated picture of the first lady.
Mary Todd had an unhappy childhood: her mother died at an early age, her relationship with her stepmother was tense, at best. But when she met Abraham Lincoln in Springfield in 1838, she was high-spirited, intelligent, and widely read, with a downright unladylike fascination with politics.
She was undoubtedly high-strung and temperamental, and her propensity to fits of temper was well known. But she wasn’t crazy.
Indeed, it wasn’t until the Lincolns’ second son, three-year-old Eddie, died from pulmonary tuberculosis in 1850 that she even began to resemble the Mary Todd that lives on in popular imagination. Ms. Goodwin writes that Eddie’s death “left an indelible scar on her psyche—deepening her mood swings, magnifying her weaknesses, and increasing her fears.” Having lost her son to illness (after a long line of losing other close family members to the same) she became increasingly paranoid about sickness.
As someone who has struggled with anxiety, my heart goes out to her.
Lincoln was elected president in 1860. Mary was the first “first lady” who was known as such, and the first to figure prominently in the public eye. She was roundly criticized—before she even arrived in the capital—for being “awfully western, loud and unrefined.” The North hated her for being raised in a slave-holding family; the South viewed her as a traitor. The poor woman couldn’t win.
Though Mary Todd relished her role as first lady, its burdens did nothing to assuage her uneasiness. Rumors of an assassination plot against the president elect forced Lincoln—and his family, who was traveling with him—to change his route as he traveled to Washington, D.C. in preparation for his inauguration. I can only imagine how horrifying that must have been for Mary.
Things didn’t get any easier once Lincoln took office on March 4: the opening shots of the Civil War were fired scarcely a month later. Even then, military forces began to gather in the capital. The city became a staging area for the Manassas Campaign; shots could be heard from the White House. Washington soon served as a hospital for the wounded, who spilled into the streets, along with dead bodies awaiting burial.
I can’t imagine living with the horrors of war crowding into my own backyard.
Two of the Lincolns’ sons, Willie and Tad, contracted typhoid fever in 1862, which was likely caused by Washington’s unsanitary wartime conditions. Tad eventually recovered, but Willie’s death was Mary’s undoing. She sunk into a deep depression, overcome by guilt and grief, unable to cope with daily life.
And then, after two more years of war, her husband was shot dead by an assassin. While seated next to her. At the theater, of all places.
Mary Todd Lincoln did not fare well after Lincoln’s death, but the details surprised me. She was institutionalized—that much I knew—but only for several months, and historians debate whether the insanity trial her son initiated was trumped up so he could get control of her finances.
History hasn’t treated Mary Todd Lincoln well. But after reading her story, I have so much empathy for her, which wasn’t the reaction I expected. It’s not hard to imagine how easy it would be to follow her path, even today, after enduring that kind of grief, and loss, and soul-crushing stress: losing a child, enduring a presidential election, living backyard of a civil war, losing a son to wartime illness and a husband to an assassin’s bullet.
We tend to see (or are taught outright) historical figures as caricatures. Add the stigma of (possible) mental illness to that propensity, and no wonder it’s hard to see a real person when we look back at Mary Todd Lincoln.
That’s bad history, of course. But we lose more than historical accuracy when we opt for the cartoon instead of the real woman.