It has never been an historical secret that the marriage between Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd, had numerous rocky patches both in Springfield, Illinois, and then in Washington DC. Yet, married on November 4, 1842, in a hastily arranged ceremony planned just days before, there were questions from family and friends soon after “I do” was said by both.
It is not hyperbolic to say that Michael Burlingame’s: An American Marriage – The Untold Story of Abraham and Mary Lincoln released last summer is one of the more revealing books in Lincoln studies to appear in years. After his magisterial 2,008-page biography: Abraham Lincoln: A Life, this book uses much of the research Professor Burlingame came across for that biography to mine deep into the couple’s marriage.
And the treasure found in the mine of Mary Todd Lincoln is damning in every regard. While the book is not a narrative with flowing prose, but rather the stringing together of account after account of the couple’s troubles, it is riveting reading. For sure, the book has its critics who have noted that the book’s findings are more based on rumor, innuendo and gossip, rather than rock-ribbed corroborative historical substantiation. But the extensive notes of primary sources that the author has posted online is ample evidence of Mary’s deeply, troubling behavior, as a mother, wife and First Lady.
Professor Burlingame also presents convincing evidence that Lincoln most likely married Mary so suddenly as to protect her honor. She did give birth to Robert Lincoln (the only Lincoln child to survive into adulthood) less than nine months after the wedding, and it seems family and friends understood the rush to martial union.
Once First Lady, Mary’s exorbitant spending on her wardrobe and White House refurbishing while the Civil War raged some 50 miles away troubled Congress and the press. That she also, leaked crucial presidential papers to newspaper sources willing to pay monies to have those scoops is also difficult to dispute as numerous sources account for her treachery to secure bribes and make quick cash.
Of course marriage is always a two-way street, and the president’s withdrawn and quiet demeanor meant to keep the peace admittedly did not help soothe Mary’s insecurities. Arguably, while Mary’s character never shines in this book, a vital premise of the book is that Mary suffered most likely from Bipolar Disorder only to be exasperated by chronic, debilitating migraine headaches. The loss of young Eddie and Willie also understandably contributed to her mental anguish.
Moreover, Mrs. Lincoln’s bouts of jealously towards other Union officer’s wives in the war’s waning days may be the most troubling of all of the couple’s embarrassing dirty laundry on full display at Petersburg, Virginia in March of 1865. The rupture of relations between Julia Dent Grant and Mary Todd Lincoln days before Appomattox is a sorrowful backdrop to the president’s triumph capture of Richmond. “I know, and I know it well, that so unhappy was this great man,” Elizabeth Keckly, Mary’s friend and confidant wrote after the war, adding, “so tired of life and its burdens that if he could expressed an opinion concerning the work of the assassin, he would have said, ‘I am glad that it is all over.’”
This important book closes with a masterful Appendix that cites the flaws of recent historical research and biographies that paint Mary Todd Lincoln in a falsely positive light. That the need for an accurate, thoroughly research biography of Mary Lincoln is sorely needed and it is an another point Professor Burlingame makes well-known.