Thomas Schwartz: State historian offers new look at Mary Todd Lincoln

Historians in the News

Illinois State Historian Thomas Schwartz says almost all 19th century first ladies lived in the shadows.
But Mary Todd Lincoln was the first lady of controversy.

In looking at Mrs. Lincoln, "people will see many similarities with things we take for granted today as being general characteristics of a modern woman," Schwartz said. "But at the time, they weren't accepted and provoked quite a bit of discussion and comment in private letters, in conversation and in the public media."

Schwartz recently offered a re-evaluation of Mary Todd Lincoln at a Lincoln Symposium in Pittsfield.

What Mary Todd Lincoln offered to her husband and the country during his presidency long has been a polarizing topic for historians.

"I don't think one needs to ignore her bad behavior at times, she could be a very good hater but it shouldn't blind us to those things she did to help advance her husband's career," Schwartz said. "There are many things about Lincoln that we give him credit for that we need to give her credit for, including the push to become president. She probably wanted it more than he did, not that he didn't have an inclination and an ambition himself."

It's much easier to talk about the Lincolns individually, but as a couple they went to Washington in 1860 where she found a White House in dire need of refurbishing that "reinforced all the negative attitudes the Europeans had about Americans and American democracy," Schwartz said.

She spent nearly $28,000 $8,000 more than the White House maintenance budget for Lincoln's first term on carpets, draperies, wallpaper, china and other items.

She wasn't shy about offering an opinion, writing to cabinet members to urge them to consider someone for a job or telling her husband when she thought his cabinet members were out of line.

"Historians in the past have always seen Mary as this embarrassment to avoid, so she's left out of the narrative. Only now are they beginning to realize she perhaps wielded more influence than others have been willing to give her," Schwartz said....
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