"Many say, they would almost worship you, if you would put a fighting General, in the place of McClellan—This would be splendid weather, for an engagement. . ."
—Would-be National Security Advisor Mary Todd Lincoln to Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 2, 1862.
Some good advice from the First Lady (though I don't imagine Ambrose Burnside is who "they" had in mind). Full transcript of the letter is here; an image of the letter itself is here: Mary Todd Lincoln remains something of an enigma, or a caricature, in a way that's rarely challenged. Her eccentricities and illnesses later in life are, I think, often projected on her personality retroactively, as if she were always that way. As if the unspeakable losses she suffered wouldn't have put anyone's sanity or daily demeanor to the test.
Civil War history offers many caricatures—the hero, the scapegoat, the scoundrel, the marble man—some so comfortable we never question them, others are so well embraced, they have achieved the status of assumed truth. But the truth is never so simple, and not surprisingly, the people who have studied particular individuals in any depth invariably paint a more complex picture. So it is with Mary Todd Lincoln, and her relationship to the president, which is sometimes seen as one in which the president is merely tolerating an unstable spouse, while privately reflecting on his lost love, Ann Rutledge (John Y. Simon wrote a thorough essay on the subject of Lincoln and Rutledge that can be read here).
When Jean Baker, a biographer of Mary Todd Lincoln, participated in a Q&A in the Civil War Forum on June 9, 1998, I asked her what the biggest misconceptions are today regarding Mrs. Lincoln. She replied:
certainly the biggest misconception is that Mary Todd Lincoln was a terrible wife and mother, which was a devastating criticism of a 19th century woman. It's a hard stereotype to beat down, even though there's a lot of evidence to the contrary. Certainly Mary Todd Lincoln had a temper, and she was very strong-minded, and had a lot of independent ideas, and when she got to the White House, tried to arrange things in a way that few of her predecessors had done. So, I think this is the image that the American people have of her, as undermining her husband, often embarrassing him, because she spent a lot of money.
But I think that's the wrong way to think about her, and I think that's what my research certainly indicated to me. I found her forceful, interesting, intelligent, and to turn the stereotypes upside down, a very supportive wife, and an excellent mother. The evidence for this is clear—it exists in the relationship that Lincoln had with his wife. There are not a lot of surviving letters between the two, but the ones that we do have are clear evidence of a very warm, loving, and certainly sometimes tempestuous relationship.
As far as a mother, Mary Lincoln was totally engaged with her children. She played games with them, she dressed up as characters from Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. She gave parties for them, and we're all familiar with birthday parties today for kids, but in the 19th century, and especially in the small provincial capital of Springfield, Illinois, mothers were mostly much less engaged than Mary Lincoln.
So, to sum all this up, I think that we need to get beyond the image of Mary Lincoln that was promoted by her arch enemy, William Herndon, whom many of you will remember was [Lincoln's] law partner in Springfield—we need to get beyond his view of her, as he once called her the "hellcat of all time." And it's his image of her in a biography of Lincoln that he wrote that has really stamped her reputation as an impossible mother and wife. And that's something that I think is wrong.
Likewise, when Harold Holzer, who has written much highly-regarded material on Lincoln, fielded questions in the Forum on August 26, 2000, he commented on the damage done to Mary's reputation by this same arch enemy, saying Herndon was
an invaluable source on their law practice together, but less reliable on his controversial 'interviews,' which were probably skewed to shine positive light on the people he liked, and do harm to those he didn't. For example, he hated Mary Lincoln (though she probably hated him first). [He was] presumptuous in that he gave the ridiculous public lecture after the assassination claiming Ann Rutledge was the only woman Lincoln ever loved, brutally hurting the widow. Even if we believe (and I'm not sure) that Lincoln did once love Ann, he certainly loved Mary later, and ardently.
Another participant in the session queried Holzer about Lincoln as suitor—what it was about him that appealed to Mary—asking "what attracted her to him? As you say, he was marrying up—to her family, certainly, he could well have appeared as 'undesirable' from a marrying standpoint." I interjected that it must have been the hat, but Holzer offered more:
That's a very good question indeed. The answer must be that Mary deserves lots of credit (she doesn't often get) for seeing something in Lincoln that few, maybe none, of his contemporaries perceived in 1840: that he could 'go places.' He was brilliant, he probably wrote her great letters (they didn't survive, of course), and she was after a big future, and saw it, wisely, in him. Then there's the hat, as David says.