Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Hellcat or Helpmate?

Mary Todd Lincoln, 1863Sally Field, 2007

Many thanks to Itchy over on the Discussion Board for calling my attention to an article in last week’s issue of Newsweek.

“Hellcat or Helpmate: The Mary Todd Lincoln Saga” is worth taking a look at.

At the beginning of the article, we learn that Sally Field will play Mrs. Lincoln in Stephen Spielberg’s upcoming Lincoln film, starring Liam Neeson.

The remainder of the article really cuts to the heart of the controversy over Mary Lincoln’s legacy as first-lady.

Highlights include Jean Baker’s assessment of the Lincoln marriage. “This was a political marriage,” she said. “It’s sort of like Bill and Hillary—a sense that this is something we can do together.”

Historian Catherine Clinton takes the argument a step too far, calling Lincoln’s wife his “political adviser all the way through.”

This is a stretch. There is no evidence to suggest that Lincoln ever asked Mary’s advice regarding policy matters. I can’t picture him asking her how he should respond to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Did he read a rough draft of the “House Divided” speech to her and ask her advice? Did Mary sit in on Cabinet meetings?

Well, no. But she always believed in him. Even in 1842 she loved to tell people she was married to a man who would one day become president of the United States. His political career was hardly a steady ride to the White House, yet despite all those setbacks, Mary never wavered from her view that her husband was destined for greatness.

William Herndon called Lincoln’s ambition “a little engine that knew no rest.” Let’s extend the metaphor and acknowledge that Mary always made sure that the engine had plenty of fuel to burn.

I hope Sally Field is up to the challenge.

1 comment:

Deb Goodrich said...

Sam, I've been working on a book on Mary & Varina Davis for a WHILE. I'm in agreement with you: Mary was certainly not advising Lincoln once he reached Washington, nor was he seeking her input. Mary helped Lincoln become socially acceptable; she taught him how to dress, proper manners. She could fill him in on the personaliites, the gossip, make him more of an insider. She was never a good judge of character nor was she skilled in policy, diplomacy, etc. By comparison, Varina Davis is deciding who will see her husband when he is ill, and making executive decisions in his absence. I think Mary has been unfairly judged, but I think Jean Baker, Catherine Clinton, and many others overstate her role in attempts to redeem her.