Question of the Week: March 16, 2015


The question of the week is in honor of Women’s History Month.

Who was the better first lady during the American Civil War? Mary Todd Lincoln or Varina Davis?

The criteria being more than just their particular personalities, but their role in support of the war, their husbands’ respective careers, and also their own personal/public goals and achievements.

5 Responses to Question of the Week: March 16, 2015

  1. I have been fascinated by MTL for years, and have great fondness for her. That said, I would say Varina Davis was a better first lady. The good things MTL did, such as visiting wounded soldiers and supporting freedmen’s camps, were largely unreported by her choice. The havoc she caused by overspending on WH redecoration, overspending on personal items, leaking the inaugural speech, protracted mourning for dead son Willie, alienating many of Lincoln’s staff, and several other well documented episodes overshadows her very real devotion to her husband and country. While VD was not universally loved in the south, she was not the lightening rod for controversy that MTL became, and therefore was a better first lady in my opinion.

  2. Interesting evaluation. I agree with most of it but VD spent a lot of time away from JD. she was not always in agreement with him on policy. Both seem devoted yet distracting to their spouses. I think it’s a tossup as to who was better. The better question may be who was less distracting a First Lady…

  3. I would say Varina Davis was the better first lady, simply because she was less of a distraction than Mary Lincoln was. Mrs. Davis didn’t engage in the kind of over the top, larger than life behavior that Mrs. Lincoln engaged in. if TMZ existed during the Civil War, Mrs. Lincoln would’ve been on it far more than Mrs. Davis.

  4. Varina Davis. No question in my mind. While Richmond society didn’t adore Mrs. Davis, she made choices for the good of her husband, her family, and her country (and in that order). Although she sometimes disagreed with his policies, Mrs. Davis supported her president. I think one of the most interesting things about Mrs. Davis is her commitment to keeping the Confederate White House as a place of refuge for her president, even if that meant cutting back on the entertainments normally expected at an executive mansion.
    There are many ways to compare Mrs. Davis and Mrs. Lincoln, but I think one of the most interesting is their responses to their children’s deaths. Both were heartbroken, but both responded in different ways. Mrs. Lincoln became severely depressed, adding addition burden to her grieving, weary husband. Mrs. Davis grieved with her husband and both of them tried to comfort and strengthen each other.
    Mr. and Mrs. Davis had a stronger marriage with a mutual respect for each other and the other’s opinions, love, and willingness to unselfishly care for each other in all seasons of life.

  5. I have actually wondered about this myself. Varina Davis was quintessentially southern in deportment, ideas, and values. To a great extent, so was Mary Lincoln. It worked for Mrs. Davis, as she lived in the South, but not so much for Mrs. Lincoln. I am guessing that, when a lady of quality went off the deep end, she was simply “put away” somehow, or sent back to her family. A northern lady was given a little more leeway, and had different ideas about place and deportment. Kate Chase always irritated Mrs. Lincoln with her “free ways,” for instance.

    Lincoln, an almost perfect specimen of a “self-made, Yankee man,” should never have married a southern belle. Running even a large plantation is not the same as running a country, and I do not think anyone was truly prepared for Mrs. Lincoln. John Hay called her “the Hellcat,” which speaks volumes.

    My vote goes to Mrs. Davis. She was a good fit; Mrs. Lincoln was not.

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