People Have Spent Years Trying to Diagnose Mary Todd Lincoln From Beyond the Grave

I came across this story at Smithsonian regarding Mary Lincoln. I’m pretty sympathetic toward Mary. In my view she’s gotten a lot of undeserved bad press. She was a highly intelligent, very educated woman and apparently quite engaging. One of her brothers-in-law, Ninian Edwards, allegedly once said of her that she could make a bishop forget his prayers.

The story references Jean Baker’s biography of Mary Lincoln. I also recommend Catherine Clinton’s biography of Mary.

I’m not a big fan of diagnosing historical figures based on documentary evidence without any physical evidence to be able to test. I’m especially not a fan of trying to psychoanalyze historical figures. I think we can say it’s possible the historical figure had whatever type of neurosis or whatever, but to go beyond it’s possible, I think, is unwarranted.

I think we need to cut Mary some slack. Abe was really no picnic to be married to. Three of her four sons died before she did, two of them in childhood and one before he was 21, and her husband was murdered before her eyes. She lost brothers and brothers-in-law during the war. Her family was split apart by the war. As her sister Elizabeth said, Mary had a lot to deal with, and she didn’t deal with it very well. So let’s let Mary off the hook for a bit. How many of us could cope with what she had to cope with?

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4 comments

  1. I agree, Al. I have yet to read a biography specific to Mary, but from reading a few Abe biographies and Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker (have you read that one?), it’s clear she dealt with numerous devastating life events and did the best she could. I feel she’s a character deserving of our sympathy, not criticism, considering all she went through.

    One quote that I think gives us a lot of insight into her intellect and character was the one about why she chose Abe when she had other more refined gentlemen to choose from; she said that she knew life would be more “interesting” with him. When I think of the kind of woman who’d put that above money, looks, status, etc., well I think that’s pretty special.

    1. Thanks, Bert. I agree.

  2. It is easier to do a caricature than an actual character, and I think a lot of writers and others have fallen prey to that. I think Al hits that nail on the head with the underlying causes of any issues she may or may not have had. Isn’t it the case that a lot of the folks who wrote about Lincoln who knew her did not like her? That could go a long way to explaining her “bad press.”

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