Sunday, June 2, 2013

Mary Lincoln: Potential for Power

Some First Ladies strongly dislike that their husband is in politics and wish they would have stayed with another profession. But some First Ladies relish the position of their president-husband. Mary Lincoln, Mrs. President or the Republican Queen, is an example of the latter. She craved power herself as demonstrated by her unbridled tongue. But she had the potential for much more power had she chosen kindness over commands.

She certainly had power over Abe Lincoln. Her sharp tongue and explosions had power over him for the negative. If only she would have tapped into the power of her support and affection for him, maybe Abe Lincoln could have held his head up higher and at least knew he had one person who supported him in this divided nation. But instead, Mary unleashed the fury of her tongue. For example, she berated him in front of a room full of soldiers. She threw a fit because Abraham would not agree to a political patronage she wanted and she refused to escort him out until he gave her her way.  Once, President Lincoln was invited to attend a political event and was assured he would not have to speak. However the crowd cheered him so, that he finally rose to his feet and gave a short unprepared speech. The crowd was pleased, but when the event was over Mary berated him on the way back to their carriage saying “That was the worst speech I have ever heard! I wanted the earth to sink and let me through!”

 Even before their marriage she held great power over him. Once Mary graduated from Madam Mentrelle’s boarding school, she moved from Kentucky to Springfield, Illinois to live with her sister. There she meets and falls in love with Abe Lincoln. They were engaged in 1840 but on Jan 1, 1841, Mary broke off the engagement. Lincoln took to his bed for six days afterwards! Finally after a friend set them up to meet again in 1842, they were reengaged and married in November of 1842. During their break up, Lincoln encouraged his friend Joshua Speed to go through with his own wedding despite his fears and later Speed would say that because his own marriage turned out happy, Lincoln was encouraged follow through marrying Mary despite his fears he would not be able to make her happy and well enough provided for.

Even though Mary was through and through the owner of Abe’s heart, she remained deeply jealous of Abraham Lincoln and any attention he gave to any other woman. Before the Lincolns, the president would escort a prominent lady into dinner on his arm while the First Lady followed escorting a prominent male guest. But Mary would not have it! She changed the promenade order to assure the President and his wife came into together first in the promenade. The First Lady’s following Mary kept her tradition.

Mary Lincoln was sensitive about being so much shorter than Abe. She refused to have them photographed standing side by side. She always was sick of his joke that the couple was the "long and the short of it."

Mary’s emotional outbursts gave her much deserved criticism. But she also received a great deal of unwarranted criticism like the constant charge that she was a spy for the South for her Rebel brothers (really half-brothers). These rumors progressed so far that Abe Lincoln stood in front of a congressional hearing to say his wife was not leaking information to the South. These rumors were accompanied by lots of hate mail to Mary Lincoln at the White House, so much so that she asked the Clerk to open all mail addressed to her to be sure it was something she actually wanted to see herself.

If only she had let the public see the good things she did in secret, her visits to the soldiers in D.C., how she shared gifts of food and spirits meant for her use at the White House with these men. She had such potential for power over her reputation for the good yet missed the chance to share these good qualities with the public who only saw her lavish spending and southern, slave-holding family.

Perhaps part of why she craved power was because she had no control over the death that surrounded her.  Aside from having her husband assassinated while she was cuddled up to him at the theater, her mother died when she was 6 years old. As the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, Mary was raised by Mammy Sally, the family’s slave. She also saw three of her four sons die: Ed at age 4 before the White House years, Willie at age 12 in the White House after a fever, and Tad at age 18 of typhoid after the White House years. Even those who did not like Mary Lincoln noted that she was an exceptional mother so these losses must have been devastating to her.

Abraham and Tad Lincoln

After the White House, Mary spent time traveling in Europe with Tad. Tad’s death seemed to have put her over the edge. Mary traveled from Florida back to Chicago to Robert, her remaining son, but wouldn’t stay in his home. She made him stay with her in a hotel even though he was married with a home of his own. She was paranoid that someone was trying to murder her, she didn’t drink her coffee because she was sure it was poisoned, she said an Indian was pulling wires out of her eyes and springs were in her head. She went on shopping sprees buying 17 pairs of gloves at once and spending thousands of dollars on things she didn’t need or use. Poor Robert trying to care for his wife, work, and his mother who needs to be looked after like a child! Finally, her doctor certifies her as insane and she is sent to live in the Doctor’s quarters in the asylum. After some months there, Mary lives with her sister for nine months until she is able to be responsible for herself again. The court lifts the insanity charge, gives her control of her finances, and Mary moves to Europe where she can live among strangers and have peace and quiet. This suits her very well until she is 60 and falls off a stepladder and injures her spine. She decides it is time to come home to her sister’s home and there she lives quietly until her death on July 16, 1882.

What a fighter! Mary’s whole life seems to have been a quest for power and control. My heart goes out to her in the deaths in her family, her insanity, and the criticisms hurled at her by our war torn nation. However, I cannot sympathize with her emotional outbursts and unkindness especially to her husband. If she would have chosen to be his cheerleader instead of tearing him down she would have unlocked a far greater power both in her marriage and in politics. As the saying goes, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

This post was written after reading Mary Lincoln: Wife and Widow by Carl Sandburg. Beautifully written! Both sensitive and informative.


  1. Wow! I always knew there was a lot of negative sentiment toward Mrs. Lincoln, but never knew any of the details. Like you, I sympathize with her losses...but feel terrible for what Abraham Lincoln had to contend with in his own home - where he should have had a haven of support in such a turbulent time. Thank you, again, for sharing!

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it. We watched Lincoln after I read the book and Tim and I both enjoyed it. What stress this couple endured!