I just finished listening to the BBC’s The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage by Daniel Mark Epstein. Seventeen CDs long, it has left me immersed in the world of the 1800s and the Civil War for nearly three weeks. And now, having heard the final chapter, I am filled with a quiet ache of grief – for Abraham and Mary, for their children, and for the nation.
We all, I think, grew up with the myth of Lincoln the hero, the man who freed the slaves. And heard those stories of log cabins, reading by candlelight, splitting wood, telling humorous stories. The image of him in his stove pipe hat, his unruly hair, his gangly frame – he is an American icon. I remember vividly my first trip to Washington D.C., when I saw the Lincoln Monument, lit up in the night.
But now, having listened to this story of his life, I imagine that same statue in a different pose – leaning forward instead of sitting upright, with his head lowered, the weariness and pain etched deep into his face.
The Lincolns had four sons. They lost their second son Eddie just before his fourth birthday to consumption. Willie died at the age of 11, while Lincoln was in the White House, of typhoid fever. Lincoln himself did not have to suffer the final loss, but his wife Mary did – their youngest son, Tad, died at the age of 18 of pneumonia or complications from tuberculosis, six years after his father was assassinated. So Mary lost not only her husband, but three of her four children.
The relationship between Abraham and Mary was intense and complicated. Mary was ambitious and driven, believing strongly early in the marriage that her husband could someday be president. She took her role as hostess seriously, and did her best to play that part well. But she was also mentally unbalanced. Today, she would probably be diagnosed as bipolar. She was periodically physically abusive to her husband. There are recorded cases of her striking him in the face with a fireplace log, of dousing him with a bucket of water from a second-story window, of chasing him around the yard with a knife in her hand. She was insanely jealous of attention from other women. By the time she got to the White House, her illness had reached a point that she was going on mad buying sprees, getting herself into terrible debt. She held grudges, and meddled in politics by trying to get appointments for friends and relatives. Often, she flew into angry rages, earning her the nickname “hellcat” from the White House staff.
Even when his wife was completely out of control, though, Abraham kept his cool. He seemed to have an unending compassion for her, understanding that it was a sickness and not malice. As much as the relationship had its strains and difficulties, he treated her with love and respect.
On top of all of this personal chaos, from the moment Lincoln took office, he was faced with assassination threats, and was leading a nation that was splitting in two and heading towards war. I did not realize that from the very beginning, his life was in danger. There was a bounty on his head, raised by Southerners, the day he won the election.
The hollow-cheeked Lincoln that I know so well from pictures is a man carrying the weight of a nation on his shoulders. This book gave me much greater insight into his life. But I think what moved me the most was his compassionate heart towards Mary, his wife. When everyone in the county wanted something from him, and he was at the point of exhaustion, even then – he was able to be gentle and kind to the woman he had married, whether she was acting rationally or not. That’s another kind of hero.