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tv   Abraham Mary Todd Lincoln  CSPAN  July 18, 2021 12:04am-12:31am EDT

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a podcast anywhere anytime. you're watching american history tv. ♪ >> watch booktv now on sunday on c-span2 or find it online anytime at it's television for serious readers. ♪ >> c-span's american history tv of continues now. you can find the full schedule for the weekend on your program guide or at >> the actions of the great figures of history often seem preordained and almost always play out on the public stage. the human side, the daily life at home, is harder to uncover. michael burlingame has set out to draw back the curtain on the domestic life of abraham lincoln. he contended with political and military battlegrounds during the civil war. his home life did not provide
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the relief that he sought. drawing upon memoirs, newspaper accounts and records, michael burlingame explores the domestic life of abraham and mary lincoln. he was born in washington, d.c. and raised in nearby arlington. his first book, "the inner world of abraham lincoln," appeared in 1994. since then he has written and edited over a dozen other lincoln books including "abraham lincoln: a life," that won the 2010 lincoln prize and was deemed one of the five best books of the year by "the atlantic." this october pegasus books will release his study: the black man's president." he is currently president of the springfield-based abraham lincoln association. now let's hear from michael burlingame. thank you for joining us today.
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>> before i begin, i would like to thank the archives for inviting me to participate in this series. over the years i've spent many hours at the archives both in downtown washington and out in college park conducting lincoln research. and the research that is most relevant for the book that i'm talking about today was in the records of the interior department. and there's a great deal of information about how spending was done at the white house indicating that it was not always above board. and it was very useful to be able to see official documents rather than just newspaper speculation about what was really going on.
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so i'm very grateful to the archives not only for inviting me, but preserving these records and making them so easily available to scholars like myself. okay, enough said. let's talk about the book. abraham lincoln was apparently one of those men who regard bliss as an oxymoron; that is, a contradiction in terms. during the civil war, he pardoned a union soldier who had deserted to return home and wed his sweetheart who reportedly had been flirting with another. as the president signed the necessary document sparing the miscreant's life, he said i want to punish the young man. probably in less than a year, he will wish that i had withheld the pardon. my book describes and analyzes why lincoln had good reason to regret his marriage as much as he expected young soldier to rue
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his. the book common trades a number of things -- demonstrates a number of things, that as first lady mary lincoln padded payrolls and expense accounts, accepted bribes and kickbacks, sold trading permits, state secrets and pardons and peddled influence to help rogues and scoundrels secure government contracts and offices. but lincoln wed mary todd because, in all likelihood, she seduced him and insisted that he protect her honor. but the 5-2 inch mrs. lincoln physically abused her 6-4 inch his as well as her children and her servants, some of whom actually fought back. that she humiliated her husband in front of others on repeated to cakeses, that she caused -- occasions, that she caused him as president to fear that she would disgrace him publicly, that the 31-year-old lincoln who
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broke his original engagement to mary todd because he became infatuated with a gorgeous, 18-year-old belle. but lincoln was known in springfield as woman-whipped, woman-cowed and hen-pecked. that mrs. lincoln suffered from disorders including manic depression and narcissism as well as premen trial stress syndrome. she may have committed adultery. but although her best friend in the white house was an african-american seem stress, as first lady she manifested anti-black prejudice that, unlike her husband, she was not profoundly opposed to slavery and hardly qualifies at the ardent abolitionist that some have portrayed. but she cannot be considered a feminist, ahead of her time, that lip done may not have -- lincoln may not have become
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president had he not wed mary todd and also made his home life so unhappy that he invested much time and emotional capital in his political career. while providing a useful stimulus to his ambition, she, quote: cracked his spirit as his law partner william herndon put it. and finally, lincoln may not have had as successful a presidency as he did when he showed a preternatural ability to deal with difficult people if he had not had so much practice at home. before proceeding, i wish to emphasize that mary lincoln, for all her faults, is more to be pitied than censured. although william herndon originally portrayed her unfavorably, in his later years herndon insisted that, quote: the world does not know mrs. lincoln's sufferings, her
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trials and the causes of things. i sympathize with her. indeed, as her older sister elizabeth, who was in effect her surrogate mother, told herndon not long after lincoln's death, quote: mary has had much to bear, she doesn't bear it well. she has asked foolishly and unwisely and made the world hate her. mary lincoln did, indeed, have much to bear. her mother died when she was only 6 years old. and her father quickly remarried a younger whom who disliked mary and her siblings. feeling emotionally abandoned by her father who tubed her -- tuned her out in order to accommodate his new wife and rejected by her stepmother, mary developed an intense psychological neediness rooted in her sense that she was unloved and unlovable. she did not ask to have a
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childhood that she later described as, quote, desolate nor to inherit the gene for bipolar discan order, nor to endure migraine headaches for much of her adult life, nor to suffer from menstrual disorders, nor to lose three of her four children before they reached adulthood, nor to have her husband murdered by her side at the height of his popularity and influence. as elizabeth candidatety standson observed four years after lincoln's assassination, mrs. lincoln should call out our sympathy rather than denunciation. her unhappy organization, her tendency to insanity for which she is not responsible increased and aggravated by the great sadness of her husband which rested like a dark cloud most of the time on his household. all these things should furnish
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is significant excuse for many of her idiosin rah says of character. my book attempts neither to excuse or to denounce mary lincoln, but rather, to describe fully her idiosin rah says of character and to make the latter understandable. readers should bear in mind that the repressive, emotionally reserved and uncommunicative lincoln was far from an ideal husband. as his wife said, despite his, quote, deep feeling and amiable nature if, he was, quote, not a demonstrative man. when he felt most deeply, he expressed the least. others concurred. for example, elizabeth todd edwards who deemed him a cold man with no affection.
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that said, it must be acknowledged that mary lincoln's behavior helped make her husband truly a man of sorrows. also helping to make him such a man were the soul-crushing responsibilities he shouldered as president during the nation's bloodiest war. but it is impossible to understand the depth of that sorrow without realizing just how woe-filled his marriage truly was. one of the most poignant discovers i made in more than 30 years of lincoln research is an unpublished interview with one of the president's longtime friends and political allies, orville h. browning. even though lincoln was notoriously, quote, shut-mouthed about his private life, browning recalled that during the civil war the president often told him, quote, about his domestic troubles and that he was constantly under great
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apprehension lest his wife should do something which would bring him into disgrace. and she did just that by her unethical, tactless, unpopular, scandalous behavior as first lady. tray to imagine contending with -- try to imagine contending with the pressures to which lincoln was was subjected as he toiledded to -- [inaudible] and the even more vociferous north which included slave holders in the loyal border states and abolitionists, anti-terror free traders -- anti-tariff free traders, radical european refugees and nativist anti-catholic, anti-immigrant bigots, teetotaling prohibitionists and beer-loving germans as well as racial i galtarians -- egalitarians and dye in thing
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wool negro phobes. on top of that, he had to inspire popular morale to raise armies and find capable leaders for them to mobilize the economic resources of the north, to distribute patronage wisely while besiege by swarms of unfortunate, would-be civil servants and the deal with hypercritical newspaper editors, back-biting cabinet members, fractious governors, egomaniacal legislators, bad, recalcitrant generals among others. and on top of all that, he had to cohabit the white house with a woman who was indices greet and whose -- us disgreet e and whose behavior taxed his legendary patience and forbearance to the limit. a few months after lincoln's assassination, orville browning -- while discussing mrs. lincoln's mental weakness -- predicted, quote,
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people will never know what lincoln suffered and indoored. he had the wisdom of socrates and the patience of christ. the sad story of the lincolns' domestic life has long been glossed over. in 1946 ellely sedgwick, the editor of the atlantic monthly, lamented that writers dealing with lincoln's, quote, tragic marriage had drawn, quote, a quiet curtain over a supreme exasperation of his life and, as a result, the full magnificence of his conquest over circumstances remains incomplete. mary todd lincoln sedgwick wrote was, quote, a horror and yet how is she remembered? the other day i turned the pages of a biography which made her this sweet heroine of romance and even carl sandberg is so charitable that he thinks of her as a poet should think of every woman.
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sedgwick's appeal to strip away the quiet curtain hiding the truth about lincoln's marriage has gone unheeded. a few years after his memoir appeared, painter randall -- ruth painter randall depicted mary lincoln as, quote, an appealing love story. assuring readers, quote, the nation can well be proud of this american romance. finish many subsequent authors have followed mrs. randall's lead. more recently, historians like james baker and katherine clinton have lionized mrs. lincoln, implausibly making her out to be a pioneer feminist. the effect of such works has been to create what historian john simon called the, quote, legend of the happy marriage. the worst offenders are mrs. lincoln's biographers who resemble defense attorneys and
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cheerleaders rather than impartial scholars. michael burke heymer aptly deems them apologists for mary lincoln. some of her defenders go so far as to justify the physical abuse she administered to her husband, commenting on her reputation for having, quote, a quick temper and a sharp tong concluded, quote -- tongue, concluded possibly she threw coffee at lincoln and drove him out of the house with a broom and possibly he deserved it. the marriage was, quote, a domestic hell on earth, as terrible as death and as gloomy as the grave. after practicing law with lincoln for well over a decade in a two-man firm, herndon explained, quote: poor lincoln. he is domestically a desolate man, has been for years to my own knowledge because of his marriage to a very curious,
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eccentric, wicked woman. herndon had ample reason to call mary todd lincoln a she wolf, a tigeress and a female wild cath. although -- wildcat. a although mrs. lincoln's biographers have criticized herndon, douglas o. wilson, an eminent lincoln scholar, cogently argued that, quote, it is hard to see that the stories herndon collected or his own view of mary and the lincoln marriage differ materially from that of lincoln's other close friends or, so far as we can gauge it, from that of springfield in general. as lincoln historian paul n. engeling noted in 1930, quote: as for lincoln's domestic difficulties, no fair-minded student can disregard what herndon wrote. the supporting testimony of
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other contemporaries is too overwhelming. that supporting testimony is, indeed, overwhelming. and it's far greater now than what was known in engel's day. though it has not been systematically collected and presented to the public, a function that my book aims to serve. thanks to the development of word-searchable newspaper databases, it is possible to learn much more about lincoln's life in general and his marriage in particular than previous writers could do. a great deal of the evidence deduced in my book comes from informants other than those who herndon consulted. the accounts of mary lincoln's character and behavior given by people who knew her is vast, but it might have been greater for some potential informants refused to share what they knew about her. the best with placed informant was harriet hanks who, as an adolescent, lived in the
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lincolns' home for a year and a half. but two decades later she wrote to herndon saying information that i can give you in regards to the loathed and lamented lincoln will be freely given. but i would rather say nothing about his wife as i could say but little in her fave. i conclude it best -- in her favor. i conclude it best to say nothing at all. lincoln's friend and sometime-chess opponent if, dr. samuel h. tree, similarly balked when an interviewer asked his opinion of mrs. lincoln. quote: beyond the simple admission that he was aa quainted with her coupled with the names of three or four other persons who he claimed could adequately describe her, quote if they dared to, he declined to commit himself. mary nash stewart, the wife of lincoln's first law partner if, was equally reticent. when asked about mary lincoln,
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mrs. stewart refused to say more than, oh, she was a todd. eliza francis, wife of lincoln's close friend simeon francis, could have shared much information about mary todd but refused to do so. her niece, marietta -- perhaps relying on what aunt eliza toll her -- stated, quote, mary todd made lincoln's life miserable. the journalist j.k.c. forest recalled that it was an open secret in washington that throughout lincoln's presidency the first lady was the source of great and perpetual anxiety and annoyance to her husband. quote, the sufferings of the man on account of her eccentricities to designate them by no stronger appalachian, would literally push such a man of less elastic moral and physical constitution. the most charitable conclusion is that the lady was mentally unbalanced and, thus, at times
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not responsible for her acts. simply, the pennsylvania republican leader and newspaper editor alexander mcclure stated that lincoln, quote, had a crazy wife hen he entered the -- when he entered the presidency and many were his sorrows, the crowning sorrow the one of his domestic taste and love of home and family was the dark shadow that mrs. lincoln cast upon his life. lincoln's friends, quote, all knew the situation and her failings were overlooked although few, if any, of mr. lincoln's close political friends entertained the respect for mrs. lincoln that should have been accorded to the mistress of the white house. one of those political friends was carl schultz who spent time with mrs. lincoln during the civil around war and heard testimony before the u.s. senate committee on pensions when she applied for relief in 1869,
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1870. many witnesses told that committee that she, quote, had been a curse to her husband. a report from that committee recommending against the proposal to grant mrs. lincoln a pension stated, quote: there are some other facts bearing on this subject which it is probably not needful to refer to, but which are generally known, and the evidence part of which is in possession of the committee. schwartz wrote of lincoln, quote, it was no secret to those who knew the family well that his domestic life was full of trials. the erratic temper of his wife not sell tom put the gentleness of his nature to the severest tests and those troubles and struggles which accompanied him through all the vicissitudes of his life from the modest home in springfield to the white house in washington and the untold private hear burnings to his public cares and sometimes
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precipitating upon him incredible embarrassments in the discharge of his public duties for one of the most pathetic features of his career. schwartz, who voted in favor of the bill granting mary lincoln a pension, put it even more strongly calling the president's marriage, quote: the greatest tragedy of mr. lincoln's existence. lincoln once gave his wife a copy of a book called "the elements of character" by mary jane chandler published in 1854, and in this book he had underlined a package indicating that marriage could deteriorate from, quote, the highest happiness that can exist on earth to a fountain of misery, absolutely infernal. the lincolns' marriage was such a fountain of misery, yet from it flowedded incalculable good
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for the nation. lincoln may not have had such a successful presidency as i mentioned earlier if he had not had so much practice at home. as his friend and colleague at the illinois bar and biographer henry c. whitney wrote, quote: lincoln possessed an equanimity and patience which captivated the masses while it --ing perpetual grimlers -- grumblers which allowed him to bear his faculties with -- and finally restore peace to his country and give physical freedom to the blacks and political freedom to the whites. whitney speculated that if lincoln had not undergone the, quote, harsh domestic discipline he experienced at the hands of his difficult wife, he might well have failed as prime
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minister. quote, the nation is largely indebted to mary todd lincoln for its autonomy if, whitney concluded. equally important, lincoln may not have become president if miss lincoln had not turbo-charged the little engine that his ambition was. and so in conclusion, i would like to emphasize that the importance of this book is to make it clear not that mrs. lincoln was a bad person, but that her marriage was a very woe-filled one. and it's not because lincoln and mrs. lincoln were pad -- bad people, it was just that the marriage was a bad one. they were incompatible. and again, i wish to emphasize heavily that mrs. lincoln is more to be pitied than to be censured. however, let me emphasize again that she did make his domestic life truly woe-filled.
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i thank you for your attention. .. >> the nation's passing coming up to date on the presidency, dwight eisenhower's grandson david talk about demand in his leadership during world war ii. his grandfather served at the ranch in the army's european theater. on an oral history, and you -year-old wally will put a space for the first time on july 20th with jeff bezos and the space programs, talk about being one of nasa's mercury 13.
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a group of women to become astros in the early 50s but unlike their male counterparts, the never flew a nasa mission. america history tv every weekend, find a full schedule program guide or visit >> it is my genuine pleasure to introduce our speaker and author this afternoon, james banner and currently visiting scholar in history the george washington university and is no stranger to the washington seminars and is a cofounder of national history center in one of his sponsors. in regular participant in the seminar. and in person in the past year over the virtual realm and today you won't be able to ask questions to him we get to them of you. founder of the american association for the advancement of the humanities i


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