Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary



“The great tragedy of Lincoln’s life was not his assassination but his marriage…”


Dale Carnegie, 1932



I heard it again the other day as I have it heard so many times before. Someone remarked to me: “Boy, that Mary Lincoln was crazy!” This trend of thought about Mary has persisted from her day up until now. Although Mary, herself, has to be blamed to a large extent for what has been said about her, I think historically she has been “mistreated.” Mr. Carnegie, for example, thought essentially that Lincoln was better off with a bullet in his head than being married to her! William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner, described her in the worst terms also. The stories abound (and I am not doubting that they’re true) about her horrible unpredictable mood swings. She apparently got violent at times. Lincoln went to work once with a bandage on his nose, supposedly after receiving a blow from Mary at home for some perceived wrong that he had committed. Others had commented that Lincoln had been observed at least once running out of the house in Springfield with Mary throwing things at him from behind. We all know the well documented account of Mary’s fit of rage over Mrs.Ord riding on horseback aside President Lincoln while visiting the Army of the Potomac near the war’s end. She also spent some time institutionalized after she was widowed (for an excellent study from a psychiatric viewpoint of Mary Lincoln, see ‘The Madness of Mary Lincoln’ by Jason Emerson). All that being said, I think it’s unbalanced (no pun intended) to simply summarize Mrs. Lincoln as a ‘crazy loon.” Certainly all people are more complicated than that and Mary was no exception.  


 I like to think of Mary as “contrary.” Her life was full of contrariness. She was born into a slaveholding family but was antislavery herself. She was a Southerner by birth but married to the President of the United States. She was educated, cultured, and well mannered, but could display, as already noted, the worst kinds of behaviors in public. She thought at times that she was in poverty when in reality she had money. She is often thought of as vain and superficial but she certainly did some things that were noble. Most people don’t know about her visits to the hospitals during the war to see wounded Union soldiers, for instance. And although her marriage to Abraham Lincoln was not perfect in any way, I do believe she loved him and that he loved her. Some historians have questioned even that.

Yes, I think, in general, people tend to be too hard on Mary. They don’t consider certain factors before a judgment is pronounced. Mary had suffered a lot of tragedy. Her mother died when Mary was very young (coincidentally, so did Mr. Lincoln’s mother when he was young). She lived to see three of her children die. She lost several of her relatives in the war (Confederate side). Perhaps worst of all, she was with her husband when he was murdered. She lived a widow the rest of her life. She had a conflicted relationship with her oldest son Robert Todd. She was seriously mentally ill. Later in life, she had several medical conditions. She died at her sister’s house in Springfield in 1882- in the city that had been the setting for most of her married years. I don’t believe she died happy. But who knows? She was, after all, a contrary lady.

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