On Good Friday, 1865, during a carriage ride, Abraham Lincoln told his wife Mary, “We must both be more cheerful in the future; between the war and the loss of our darling Willie—we have been very miserable.” Perhaps Mary Lincoln did hope the end of the Civil War pointed to a happier time. If so, her optimism was short-lived. That night, she witnessed her husband’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre. Even this horror was not her last: her youngest son Tad died in 1871 and a few years later, her only surviving child, Robert, had her committed to an insane asylum.

Yet Mary Lincoln did not garner sympathy from journalists of her own time or from later historians. Instead she has been vilified as a spendthrift, Southern sympathizer, even a syphilitic. In Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, Catherine Clinton provides a more balanced picture of this controversial first lady. While admitting Mary Lincoln’s faults, Clinton places her life in the context of 19th-century American womanhood.

Mary Todd came from a wealthy Kentucky family. Well-educated and vivacious, she was expected to focus her energies on being a wife and mother, roles she enthusiastically accepted. Some considered Abraham Lincoln a poor prospect for a Todd, but Mary believed in and fully supported his political ambitions. As first lady, she expected to continue her active partnership with Lincoln, something his advisers resented. Yet, even when Mary Lincoln did something “ladylike,” redecorating the White House, the press accused her of overspending. She wasn’t the only Civil War widow to have financial struggles or dabble in spiritualism, but she was forced to play out her grief and troubles on a national stage.

Clinton’s biography presents a complicated woman who endured unimaginable difficulties. She was far from perfect; still as Clinton notes, “she provided Abraham Lincoln with the space and support he required to achieve his goals, and with the emotional yeast he needed to become the wartime president he became.”

Faye Jones is Dean of Learning Resources at Nashville State Technical Community College.

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