Mary Todd Lincoln and Varina Davis Howell

Steven Chabotte asked:




Not unlike their husbands, Mary Todd Lincoln and Varina Davis Howell had much in common. Both were first ladies of countries besieged by war. Both women grew up in prosperous, slave-owning families. Both were well-educated, better educated, in fact, than most women of the day. Both were often ridiculed and intensely disliked by those who worked closely with their husbands. Although the Civil War divided them, Mary Todd Lincoln and Varina Davis Howell were more alike than different.

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1813 to Robert Todd, a well-to-do shopkeeper and state senator who was eminent in Lexington. Her father, uncharacteristically for the time, insisted that Mary have an education; consequently, eight year-old Mary was sent to Shelby Female Academy, and went on to complete her education at Madame Victorie Mentelle’s Select Academy for Young Ladies, near her home in Lexington.

After finishing her education, Mary went to Illinois to live with her sister, Elizabeth, the wife of a prominent Springfield citizen. Because of the social standing of her sister, Mary was introduced into society in Illinois, where she enjoyed the status of a young belle. Two of the beaus who courted her in Illinois were Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.

It was Lincoln who won Mary’s heart, and after a tortuous engagement, opposed by her family and broken off at least once, Mary and Abraham Lincoln finally married in 1842.

Mary’s life as the wife of a poor country lawyer would have been in sharp contrast to her upbringing; the Lincolns’ first home as newlyweds was an $8 a week room in a tavern. However, despite the privations, the Lincolns were happy, and had four sons together – Robert Todd, born in 1843, Edward Baker, born in 1846, William Wallace, born in 1850, and Thomas, known as Tad, in 1853. She would lose two of these sons, Eddie and Willie, in childhood.

Mary Todd Lincoln was as much, or more politically ambitious for her husband as he was for himself. In addition to keeping up with the political news of the day, discussing politics with him – and influencing many of his views – she was convinced that he would someday be president.

She supported her husband in his position as a member of the House of Representatives, and when he ran for president, used her connections and education to dispel the notion that she and her husband were backwoods ignorants, a popular notion at a time when few presidents came from the “west.”

Mary took her position as first lady in anything but a welcoming climate. Many thought that Mary was a spy for the South, despite the fact that she herself was a strong supporter of both the Union and abolition of slavery. Her mercurial temperament convinced many that she was insane, and her lavish entertainments at the White House during wartime made others perceive her as frivolous.

The death of her son Willie in 1862 and the assassination of Lincoln in 1865 were blows from which Mary Todd Lincoln never fully recovered. Her mental and physical health declined drastically. At one point, she was confined to an asylum. She died in 1882, having outlived all her children but one, broken by the losses she’d suffered.

Varina Howell Davis

Born in 1826 on her family’s prosperous Mississippi plantation, Varina Howell, like Mary Todd Lincoln, enjoyed an education that many women of the time were denied. Educated by a private tutor, then at an exclusive finishing school in Philadelphia, Varina grew up with an interest in politics and literature alike.

While home from school for Christmas, Varina met Jefferson Davis. Davis, a widower who was 36 to Varina’s 17, began to court Varina, a courtship her parents strongly opposed, both due to the age difference and to Davis’ political beliefs – he was a Democrat, the Howells were Whigs.

Despite her parents opposition, Varina and Davis married in 1845. They had six children. Davis, then Secretary of War, spent much time in Washington, and Varina joined him there, where she gained a reputation as a wonderful hostess while also assisting her husband in his political aspirations.

When Davis was elected President of the Confederate States of America, he and Varina moved from Mississippi to Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capitol. Her influence over Davis was such that some of his commanders and cabinet ministers not only feared and resented her, but found that being in her good stead was not only useful but essential.

Like Mary Todd Lincoln, Varina Howell Davis found herself the subject of scrutiny during the war. She, too, was criticized for entertaining at the Confederate White House during the was – some criticized her for entertaining too much, others contended she did not entertain enough. Her family’s northern roots – her grandfather had been a several-term governor of New Jersey – caused her loyalty to be called into question, and the fact that she openly addressed gossip caused her to be labeled as ill-bred.

After the war, the Davis’ fortunes declined forthwith. Jefferson Davis was imprisoned for a spell (Varina actually joined him there for a time – not because of any wrongdoing on her part, but to be near him), and Varina worked tirelessly to have him released and have her family’s rights restored under Reconstruction duress. She supported herself by writing her memoirs and pieces for periodicals after her husband’s death in 1889. She died in 1905, having outlived all but one of her children, still bitter about her family’s treatment after the war.

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One Response to “Mary Todd Lincoln and Varina Davis Howell”

  1. Geoffrey says:

    Good write-up.

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