“This engaging, wonderfully written narrative provides fresh insight into this complex woman. It is a triumph.” —Doris Kearns Goodwin
Catherine Clinton, author of the award-winning Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, returns with Mrs. Lincoln, the first new biography in almost 20 years of Mary Todd Lincoln, one of the most enigmatic First Ladies in American history. Called “fascinating” by Ken Burns and “spirited and fast-paced” by the Boston Globe, Mrs. Lincoln is a meticulously researched and long overdue addition to the historical record. In the words of Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Joseph Ellis, Mrs. Lincoln “is distinctive for its abiding sanity, its deft and in-depth handling of the White House years, and for the consistent quality of its prose.”
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Abraham Lincoln is the most revered president in American history, but the woman at the center of his life, his wife, Mary, has remained a historical enigma. In this definitive, magisterial biography, Catherine Clinton draws on important new research to illuminate the remarkable life of Mary Lincoln, and at a time when the nation was being tested as never before.
Mary Lincoln's story is inextricably tied with the story of America and with her husband's presidency, yet her life is an extraordinary chronicle on its own. Born into an aristocratic Kentucky family, she was an educated, well-connected Southern daughter, and when she married a Springfield lawyer she became a Northern wife—an experience mirrored by thousands of her countrywomen. The Lincolns endured many personal setbacks—including the death of a child and defeats in two U.S. Senate races—along the road to the White House. Mrs. Lincoln herself suffered scorching press attacks, but remained faithful to the Union and her wartime husband. She was also the first presidential wife known as the "First Lady," and it was in this role that she gained her lasting fame. The assassination of her husband haunted her for the rest of her life. Her disintegrating downward spiral resulted in a brief but traumatizing involuntary incarceration in an asylum and exile in Europe during her later years. One of the most tragic and mysterious of nineteenth-century figures, Mary Lincoln and her story symbolize the pain and loss of Civil War America.
Authoritative and utterly engrossing, Mrs. Lincoln is the long-awaited portrait of the woman who so richly contributed to Lincoln's life and legacy.
Questions for Catherine Clinton
Q: Why did you decide to write about Mrs. Lincoln in this book?
A: Of course, it was a daunting task to take on this project in the wake of so much new information on Lincoln and his world, and with the Lincoln Bicentennial looming on the horizon. But I knew that Mary Lincoln was being lost in the shuffle of the new Lincoln literature. With an outpouring of new work on Abraham Lincoln every year it's been over twenty years since the last biography of Mary. When it was written, we did not have the cache of new letters (uncovered by Jason Emerson) which showed Mary’s state of mind during her incarceration. We also did not have the past quarter century of Civil War scholarship which has contextualized and expanded our appreciation of what it truly meant when families were divided by war.
Q: Was Lincoln’s wife a southern sympathizer?
A: No, and this is one of the misconceptions I hope to counter in my study, although I do portray her as a daughter of the Bluegrass, and brought up to be a proper southern lady. However, she had always been unconventional--temperamental, articulate, not only better read than her husband (and conversing with diplomats on state occasions in French) but she had more than ten years of formal education. She also became a partisan abolitionist when he befriended Charles Sumner, and was opposed to anyone who advocated disunion. At the same time, when Elmer Ellsworth, the war’s first casualty--shot while tearing down a rebel flag in Virginia in May 1861--was killed, his murderer was shot dead--a brother of a Dr. Jackson from her hometown of Lexington. So in this first armed encounter when Virginia seceded, the Lincolns mourned Ellsworth’s passing, but Mrs. Lincoln could appreciate as well the sorrow of the Jacksons in Kentucky at losing a brother, a son, and the fratricidal nature of the conflict.
Q: So were the Lincolns racist as some modern critics have suggested?
A: I think both Abraham and Mary reflected the prejudices of their era, but not only the wealth of new work on race and gender over the past few decades has informed my approach in Mrs. Lincoln, but some of the real, human aspects of life in the White House were new to me.
Q: How so?
A: Mary Lincoln’s relationship with the black women who were a part of the White House staff, as well as her crucial relationship with Elizabeth Keckly (whose biography appeared in 2003) needed a fresh approach. I used memoirs and interview material drawn from the lives of those who knew the Lincolns in the White House. I was especially impressed to discover that Abraham Lincoln, who doted on his sons, had taken his son Tad to the Slade house on Massachusetts Ave. N.W., where he might play with the African American children of his father’s trusted aide, William Slade. So it was really these kind of details that I hope will bring both the Lincolns to life.
Q: A lot of people want to know if Mrs. Lincoln was crazy?
A: My degrees from Harvard and Princeton are not in medicine--so I cannot diagnose. I can say that I felt she did deteriorate mentally during her time in the White House and my study attempts to place into context some of her challenges and failings. But I also wanted to show her relationship with the press, her relationship with her children, and especially the many trials she faced as a widow...which is why I begin the book with Lincoln’s assassination as the defining moment of her life.
Q: Do you think Mary Lincoln could give any advice to Michelle Obama?
A: Many of Lincoln’s critics went after his wife to get at him--using the folk wisdom, if you want to destroy a house, set fire to the thatch. The wife of our 44th President has shown wit and humor and intellect that mirrors perhaps many attributes Mary Lincoln brought to the White House, but Michelle Obama has advantages that Mrs. Lincoln did not have. But the one thing I think the campaign has already taught our newest occupant of the White House is to not let those who hang on her every word and focus on fashion define her.
Catherine Clinton is the author of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom and Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars. Educated at Harvard, Sussex, and Princeton, she is a member of the advisory committee to the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, and holds a chair in U.S. history at Queen's University Belfast.
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