(Click here to read Part I.)
One afternoon back in 1861, an African-American teacher approached the White House, having been invited to tea. The staff, upon seeing her coloring, ushered her towards the kitchen entrance, thinking that would be most appropriate given her race. The First Lady, who had extended the invitation, was incensed at the lack of respect shown her guest. She hosted the teacher with more than her usual courtesy, and promised to convey to the President her ideas and concerns regarding African-American education. When the visit was over, the First Lady pointedly escorted her guest to the formal White House entrance, and shook her hand good-bye, in full public view. It just so happened that the Treasury Secretary, Salmon P. Chase, was approaching with his daughter Kate, and they witnessed the scene. Kate Chase was shocked, complaining to Washington society of how the First Lady “was making too much of the Negro.”
While it may have been shocking to the sensibilities of Kate Chase, the conduct of this First Lady is surely something we can be proud of, in retrospect, today. Her name, of course, was Mary Lincoln. Scenes like this from the real Lincoln White House – or references to them – are nowhere to be found in Tony Kushner’s Oscar-nominated screenplay of the movie “Lincoln,” an omission which sent me scurrying to the local library looking for the truth. In Part I of this series, I detailed Mary Lincoln’s family background and childhood experiences as they relate to slavery and race. Here, in Part II, we turn to her real – as opposed to Hollywood – White House record on these issues.
I. “Never More Widely Mistaken”: Mary Lincoln and Emancipation
Since Mary Lincoln was known to be from a Southern slave-holding family, and many of her siblings fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, the Northern public assumed her a Southern sympathizer and pro-slavery influence within the Lincoln home. Typical was a newspaper editorial, which in questioning Lincoln’s anti-slavery credentials, made sure to point out that “his wife, you know, is a Todd, of a pro-slavery family.” Yet Mary’s close friend during her White House years, her African-American dressmaker Elizabeth Keckly, protested that “It was often charged that her sympathies were with the South”, but “those who made the charge were never more widely mistaken.” It appears that mistaken as well was the assumption that Mary Lincoln, several years into the Lincoln presidency, was less willing than her husband to countenance freedom for the slaves.
On this point, we have the testimony of Jane Swisshelm, a noted Abolitionist journalist who had the opportunity to meet and get to know Mary Lincoln during her time in Washington. Swisshelm had initially been reluctant to meet the President’s wife, having heard and believed rumors of her presumed pro-slavery loyalties. Yet when the two women came face to face at a White House reception, Swisshelm later described how Mary, who had initially failed to catch her name, lit up with “a sudden glow of pleasure” upon realizing with whom she was speaking. A lasting friendship was formed. Upon Mary’s death, Swisshelm sent a letter to the Chicago Tribune, characterizing her as a “a liberty-loving woman” who was actually “more radically opposed to slavery” than her husband and had “urged him to Emancipation, as a matter of right, long before he saw it as a matter of necessity.”
These were the days before President’s wives had press relations teams though, and such accounts never filtered through to the general consciousness. Typical of Mary’s White House experience were the rumors circulating the North preceding Lincoln’s expected issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day, 1863. Doubt that such a historic watershed would really come to pass fueled widespread stories that due to her “coming from an old slave-holding family” Mary may have tried to persuade Lincoln to delay the issuance of the Proclamation. They “had absolutely no foundation” according to her niece Katherine and hurt Mary “to the quick.” The truth was that she had sent a photograph of Lincoln to prominent Abolitionist Josiah Quincy, president of Harvard, as a way to celebrate the occasion, taking care to post it in time to reach him prior to the January 1st announcement. This was a step Mary had very much wanted her husband to take; as she later put it, she had always urged him to be “an extreme Republican.”
II. Mary Lincoln and the African-American Community
A. “My Best Living Friend” and the Contraband Association
Spielberg’s “Lincoln” not only short-changes Mary Lincoln when it comes to her views on Emancipation, but also largely fails to capture her unique and historically surprising relationship with African-Americans. As is well-known, her closest friend and confidante during her time in the White House was her African-American dressmaker Elizabeth Keckly. In the “Lincoln” movie, we see Elizabeth Keckly in a dialog with Abraham Lincoln in which he claims “not to know” her, and she informs him that her son was killed in battle fighting for the Union. In real life, Mary Lincoln would surely have related the sad news to her husband, given that she considered the death of her good friend’s son important enough to include in letter to a cousin: “I know you will be sorry to hear that our colored Mantuamaker, Elizabeth, lost her only son & child in the battle of Lex Mo – She is heartbroken. She is a very remarkable woman herself – “
As can be seen by the “remarkable woman” characterization, Mary Lincoln had great respect for Mrs. Keckly. And with good reason – Elizabeth Keckly was indeed a remarkable woman: a former slave enterprising enough to have started a side business as a dressmaker, a business which eventually led townspeople to pool money together to purchase her liberty from her master. During the Civil War, Keckly, now a successful and free seamstress to the highest levels of Washington society, helped found the Contraband Relief Association, which aimed to alleviate the suffering of former slaves who had escaped the South and flooded Washington. Mary was a strong supporter of the Association, writing to her husband several times to solicit donations, and at one point diverting $200 of funds he had meant for soldiers to purchase bedding for the refugees, explaining “the cause of humanity requires it.” Mary Lincoln’s respect for and trust in Elizabeth were such that she even attempted, apparently unsuccessfully, to procure her a position with the Treasury Department. It was very unusual for an African-American woman to hold such a job at that time, but Mary clearly considered her friend qualified. In the hours after Lincoln was shot, with Mary Lincoln devastated and in tears, it was Elizabeth Keckly’s company she requested, and in the months after Mary left the White House, it was Elizabeth who was her companion. Mary later wrote her in a letter “I consider you my best living friend.”
The pair eventually had a falling out when Elizabeth Keckly published a memoir about her time in the White House as well as several private letters. Mary, understandably, felt betrayed. Elizabeth protested that she had not meant the letters to be published. It is unclear whether there was ever a reconciliation, although a visitor to Elizabeth Keckly in her later years reported that she kept a picture of Mary Lincoln on her wall and spoke of her with great affection.
B. The “One-Woman Employment Bureau” and the Walking Stick
Mary’s friendship with Elizabeth Keckly and her support of the Contraband Association was only part of the story of her relationship with African-Americans after her husband’s ascent to the presidency. The Lincoln couple were very much together in instituting a quiet revolution in how non-whites were treated at the White House. While Mary had scandalized by inviting the African-American teacher for tea, Lincoln raised eyebrows of his own some years later when he included Frederick Douglass among the guests at the reception following his second inauguration. Indeed, White House staff initially attempted to bar Douglass entry. Yet the only recorded reaction of Mary Lincoln, daughter of slave-owners, was an expression of disappointment to her husband that Mr. Douglass had not been presented personally to her, so she could meet him and shake his hand. After Lincoln’s assassination, Mary distributed several of his personal items among a select group of friends and associates as mementos. Frederick Douglass made the cut, and was awarded Lincoln’s favorite walking stick, considered a significant honor.
Mrs. Lincoln – as we can see from her interest in and respect for the African-American teacher, her friend Elizabeth Keckly, the great Frederick Douglass, etc. – was supportive of the new rising black middle class. She had no problem with assisting its members in forming political connections, as is clear from the 1864 letter she wrote to her good friend, famed Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, introducing an African-American couple – a Minister and a nurse – to his attention: “I take the liberty of introducing to your distinguished notice, these two colored persons, who come to us very highly recommended, from some of our most loyal families in Phil – . . . . They promised some of our prominent Phil-friends they would call to see you, whom all the oppressed colored race, have so much cause, to honor.” In those times just like now, for a politically active couple such a letter of introduction to a prominent Senator would be like gold dust.
Mary’s support for African-Americans encompassed the humble as well as the distinguished. In addition to providing funds to the Contraband Association for the relief of former slaves, she did what she could to help such refugees more permanently – by finding them jobs. According to Justin and Linda Turner who collected and compiled her letters, Mary Lincoln wrote “innumerable” job recommendation letters during her husband’s administration. While some were for things like high-level diplomatic posts, “she also acted as a one-woman employment bureau for deserving persons who wanted work as clerks, night watchmen, lamplighters. Many of those were former slaves. ” In Spielberg’s “Lincoln“, we see a dialog between the President and an former slave, who discusses his hopes for future gainful employment now that he was a free man. What is not shown, it that privately and without fanfare, the President’s wife was doing what she could to help such new citizens find their way.
After the death of her husband, Mary Lincoln struggled with both bereavement and financial problems, probably exacerbated by mental illness. Yet the African-American community did not abandon her with the downturn of her fortunes and during this bleak period, it was not only Elizabeth Keckly she could turn to for support. African-American leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Henry Garnet also stepped up, offering to help by giving lecture tours to raise some funds on her behalf. In a letter to Elizabeth Keckly Mary was quick to note: “It appears to me a very remarkable coincidence, that most of the good feeling regarding my straightened circumstances, proceeds from the colored people; in whose cause my noble husband was so largely interested. Whether we are successful or not, Mr. F. Douglass and Mr. Garnet will always have my most grateful thanks. They are noble men.”
As is well-known, Mary Lincoln had her share of faults. Still, she was alot more than just a “crazy” lady; she was also in the various ways described above a worthy consort for the man history has dubbed “The Great Emancipator.” She would certainly have recognized the 13th Amendment for the moral victory it was. And in her close relationships with and respect for African Americans, among whom she was able able to appreciate the “remarkable” and “noble” individuals she came to know, we can see the beginnings of a future for the country that Lincoln himself struggled to envision – one in which racial prejudice can indeed begin to fade, and previously unimaginable possibilities, like an African-American President, can become reality.
It’s a shame that this Mary Lincoln of history was so short-changed in the recent movie, which will doubtless be a classroom staple for years to come. Calling Spielberg and Sally Field . . . . what about some re-shoots?? Mary Lincoln already got a bum rap in her own time. Surely by now she should at least get her due.
Doris Kearns Goodwin. Team of Rivals . Simon and Schuster: New York, NY, 2005
Daniel Mark Epstein. The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage . Ballantine Books: New York, NY, 2009
Frank J. Williams and Michael Burkhimer, eds. The Mary Lincoln Enigma . Southern Illinois University Press: Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL, 2012
Jennifer Fleischner. Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly . Broadway Books: New York, NY, 2003
Justin Turner and Linda Levitt Turner. Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters . Alfred A. Knopf: New York, NY, 1972