A week after President’s Day and during Black History Month, the Academy Award ceremony brings renewed focus on Best Supporting Actress-nominee Sally Field’s portrayal of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln in screenwriter Tony Kushner’s and director Steven Spielberg’s masterful feature film Lincoln.
Still now, remarkably, as has been true in the century and a half since Abraham Lincoln served as President (1861-1865), one storyline about the legendary First Lady continues to remain untapped, and almost entirely unknown.
It reveals Mary Todd Lincoln’s courage of her own political convictions, even at the cost of her permanent reputation, her anonymous generosity and compassion for all suffering human beings, and the suggestive evidence of her tremendous degree of influence over the evolving conscientiousness of her husband, which led to historic consequences.
It is the story of Mrs. Lincoln’s lifelong hatred of slavery, outspokenness against bigotry, alliance with leading abolitionists, and determination to help build a new life for African-Americans freed from slavery.
Within the familiar context of the Civil War, dramatizing how Lincoln fought for 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, has never been more compellingly executed than it has been by Kushner’s and Spielberg’s Lincoln.
That is the film’s A-storyline. Conscious of the fact that good drama hasn’t always meant good history, they created a moving and nuanced feature film succeeding in his determination to do both. Unlike a book or even a documentary, there’s a limit to how detailed a dramatization of real history can be in a two-hour feature film.
Had Kushner and Spielberg attempted to show Mary Lincoln’s influence on the issue of slavery, it could have overloaded the film with distraction and confused the A-story. Instead, the key players of the main, driving conflict were Lincoln and his male legislators, advisers and aides.
Kushner and Spielberg placed Mary Lincoln at the center of the film’s B-story, Lincoln’s emotional life, parallel to the A-story, where she is central to his growth as the main character, but not to the plot.
In the B-story, she raises the stakes by insisting that their eldest son Robert not be allowed to risk his life by joining the Union Army because, after the death two years earlier of their 11-year old son Willie in the White House, she cannot endure even the possibility of having another child die.
Many people know that Mary Lincoln was born into the wealthy and prominent Todd family of Lexington, Kentucky and was raised in an elite lifestyle as part of an unusually large family; she had six siblings and nine half-siblings when, after her mother’s death, her father married a second time. By the time she was First Lady, four of her brothers and one brother-in-law were fighting for the Confederate Army, three of them killed and one wounded in a fight seeking to uphold the states’ rights to continue the institution of slavery.
Mary, however, was different.
The greatest influence on her was her step-grandmother who, according to some accounts, was secretly abetting the Underground Railroad effort, letting it be known that if those slaves running at night for freedom in Ohio across the border came on her property, they would find safe haven.
One of the slaves in the Todd house did tell Mary that she was doing the same at the Todd house – and Mary kept the secret.
Within sight of her childhood home, in the public square a slave auction was held. In another corner, the horrific whipping post where slaves who contradicted or disobeyed their masters were publicly beaten.
Literally in front of her door, Mary Todd was faced with the sight of black slaves being pushed and pulled, chained together, as they were led to the auction block. Her step-cousin recalled how, as a young girl, she and Mary were horrified and emotionally upset when they heard the details of cases of extremely cruel abuse against slaves in New Orleans.
It left her with a permanent sense of duty to “all the oppressed colored race.”
Not until Abraham Lincoln, just before his brief term as a U.S. Congressman, went with Mary to visit her family in Lexington was he exposed to the human side of slavery. Although born in Kentucky, and raised in Indiana, he had a sense of it as being simply hard work – which he himself had grown up doing. As he rose in politics, he viewed it as a necessary evil, at least for the time being, and approached the question of total abolition with political pragmatism. His wife never resisted in forcing him to understand it in human terms.
Lincoln was known to use the word “nigger” in his early speeches. Never, even in the most hateful attacks on her, did anyone suggest Mary Lincoln used that word.
And there is no record that she ever did.
Although the Lincolns had at least four domestic servants working for them at different times in their Springfield, Illinois home who were African-American but not slaves. Still, the state had a strict segregation code and by the time the Lincolns came to live in the White House as President and First Lady, it was Mary who still had more first-hand knowledge of the damage caused to both black and white by the institution of slavery.
She would soon come to understand it in even more personal terms when she unexpectedly developed a new friendship.
Purchasing her own freedom and that of her son, the result of a rape by a white slave-master, she established herself as a highly successful dress-maker for women of the elite class, first in St. Louis, then in Baltimore and finally in Washington.
Ironically, among the wives of political and military leaders of Washington society that she created clothing for were Mary Lee, wife of later Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and Varina Davis, then the wife of the U.S. Senator from Mississippi Jefferson Davis.
As the Davises prepared to leave Washington as the southern states began to rapidly secede from the Union and he to assume the presidency of the Confederacy, Varina Davis even asked Keckley was invited to move back to the South with them and work as the dressmaker for the new Confederate First Lady. Keckley turned her down.
Varina Davis nevertheless introduced her to another client, Margaret McLean of Maryland who, in turn, introduced her to Mary Lincoln.
The two women had their first lengthy meeting the day after Lincoln’s 1861 inauguration as President.
It wasn’t long before Keckley was working in the White House that she and Mary Lincoln broke all social convention of the era to become close friends and emotional confidantes to one another, without regard to each others race.
As Keckley famously wrote, she “knew what freedom is, because I know what slavery was.”
Theodore Roosevelt was the first President to host an African-American to dine in the White House when he invited noted educator Booker T. Washington for lunch there. Lou Hoover was the first First Lady to host an African-American to a White House reception, when she invited congressional wife Jessie DePriest of Illinois to a small gathering of other congressional spouses.
But Mary Lincoln was the first to invite an African-American to be formally honored as a guest at the White House, a professional nurse who came to present the First Lady with “a gift as a testimonial of the appreciation of her race.”
Unfortunately the woman’s name and the type of gift she gave Mrs. Lincoln went unrecorded.
She also approved a request by an African-American church group to hold its Sunday School festival on the South Lawn of the White House for an outdoor luncheon, and told the staff to “have everything done in the grand style” for them.
While Abraham Lincoln invited the African-American abolitionist Sojourner Truth in the White House and also held at least three meetings with Frederick Douglass there as well, it was Mary Lincoln who was included among a circle of prominent abolitionists in Washington, who came to consider her one of their own.
One of them, a Mrs. H.C. Ingersoll concluded that the First Lady’s exposure to slavery gave her a more abhorring sense of it than Lincoln could have had. “Of slavery,” she wrote about Mrs. Lincoln, ” her expressions were so strong to satisfy any abolitionist.” The First Lady openly grieved over the premature death of abolitionist Congressman Owen Lovejoy, who she had known in Illinois. She wrote letters to fellow abolitionists who held public office that they must speak out against the rumored Cabinet appointment of General N.P. Banks, because he was not an abolitionist.
Abolitionist Jane Grey Swisshelm, upon initially hearing that the First Lady shared the cause, was skeptical. After several lengthy converstions about the issue, she felt differently. “I recognized Mrs. Lincoln as a loyal, liberty-loving woman…” She also would make the startling claim that the First Lady was “more staunch than even her husband in opposition to the rebellion…[and] she was more radically opposed to slavery.”
And it was Jane Grey Swisshelm who recorded perhaps the single greatest legacy of Mary Todd Lincoln – and one which almost nobody has ever credited her in the 150 years since the signing of what many consider the most important document written by Abraham Lincoln. Swisshelm was unequivocal in her statement that Mary Todd Lincoln “urged him to Emancipation as a matter of right, long before he saw it as a matter of necessity.”
In a letter to a friend the First Lady wrote just after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed on New Year’s Day in 1863, she made clear her passionate joy over the “emancipation, from the great evil, that has so long allowed, to curse the land. The decree has gone forth, that ‘all men are free,’ and all the perfidious acts…cannot eradicate the seal that has been placed on the ‘Emancipation Proclamation.’ It is a rich and precious legacy…”
After so many hundreds of books, articles, television documentaries and films about Abraham Lincoln has Mary Lincoln ever been credited? It was by her own design. “Whatever aid or counsel she gave him,” Swisshelm further observed, “in her eyes his acts were his own, and she never sought any of the credit due to them.”
Realizing, however, that the Emancipation decree of freedom for all slaves in the southern states was based on the President’s war powers and might be seen as temporary and did not free those still held in the border states, Mrs. Lincoln then became the staunchest of advocates for her husband’s determination to pass the Constitutional Amendment eradicating slavery.
Among the many men in Washington she counted as her own friend, apart from those she shared with the President, was the Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, famous for having once been bloodily caned by a southern colleague in Congress following his harsh speech against slavery, in which he essentially called it an act of rape and all southern slave-holding men to be rapists.
They had first become acquainted when she came to the Capitol to listen from the visitor’s gallery during a rare joint session of Congress. Perceiving her views on abolition as genuine, he was surprised that she also shared his view that the South should be harshly treated if reconciliation came. He took time to explain the machinations and steps of legislation necessary to achieving their mutually-intended goals. They also both loved American literature and the opera. With some pride, the First Lady reported that Sumner told her “he wishes my husband was as ardent an abolitionist as I am.”
“Mrs. Lincoln’s last beneficial act as a political partner was her tireless courtship of the liberal senator from Massachusetts,” observed the Lincoln historian Daniel mark Epstein. “Playfully flirtatious but chaste, there was nothing insincere about Mary Lincoln’s pursuit of Charles Sumner.” Indeed, all the while, these allies were sharing information and passing on rumors about who could be counted on to support the 13th Amendment. Within the confines of his two-hour film, Spielberg and Kushner could not show the relationship between the First Lady and Sumner, giving central focus instead to the President’s relationship with the other leading abolitionist in Congress, Republican Senator Thaddeus Stevens of Philadelphia.
At the very end of the film, the suggestion of how Stevens may have had a personal reason for his hatred of slavery is suggested when he recounts passage of the 13th Amendment to the woman he shares a bed with, his widowed housekeeper Lydia Hamilton Smith. Although she had only one grandparent who was African, by the laws of the time, she was considered fully African-American and thus had to endure the same institutionalized bigotry and legal limitations placed on people of color. Yet even here, in this much smaller aspect of Lincoln, the movie, there is again felt the influence of Mary Todd Lincoln. Lydia Smith was not only a close friend of Elizabeth Keckley, but such an ardent admirer and supporter of the First Lady that she even copied her hair and clothing styles.
In 1862, Lydia Smith worked with Elizabeth Keckley to establish in their local church an organization known as the Contraband Relief Association, which provided housing, clothing, food, education and employment to the thousands of African Americans either running or released from slavery in the southern states, who had begun to find refuge in Washington, D.C. Freedom, however, also meant that they would soon become homeless and starving to death unless some system was put into place to help them survive and make new lives.
And the First Lady made it her cause.
Knowing that an appropriation of $1000 intended for the care of wounded Union soldiers in the Washington area had been deposited at the President’s disposal, the First Lady lobbied him in a November 3, 1862 letter to turn one-fifth of the appropriation to the Contraband Relief Association.
She made the case that hospitalized soldiers were well-cared for but that the former slaves now living in Washington “are suffering intensely, many without bed covering and having to use any bits of carpeting to cover themselves – many dying of want.” Lincoln agreed. Keckley also emphasized in her memoirs that, “Mrs. Lincoln made frequent contributions, as also did the president.”
A great number of Mrs. Lincoln’s successes among the dozens of petitions she made to various Cabinet members for patronage of government jobs were those obtained for African-Americans of great achievement, once for a Reverend Hamilton, another for a Mrs. Johnson who was, in the First Lady’s words, “an estimable colored woman…and active nurse…who had once been a slave.” Cutting off any anticipated reservations the Cabinet officers might have to these two particular African Americans, Mrs. Lincoln emphasized that they were both “genteel and intelligent…”
In the days following President Lincoln’s assassination, Mary Lincoln was hysterical with grief. Nobody could console her, not her sons, not Lizzie Keckley, not Sumner.
Yet before she finally left the White House on May 8, some three weeks after the assassination, she had enough wherewithal to decide just who she wanted to have a personal memento of the “Great Emancipator.”
She gave one of Lincoln’s walking canes to Sumner, one to Frederick Douglass, another to a black White House servant William Slade, and another to a black abolitionist H.H. Garnet.
Understanding the symbolism which tied together the death of her husband and those victimized by the “great evil” which he determined to eradicate, she gave the gown she had worn to the theater the night he was killed to Mrs. Keckley, stained with his blood.
The Mary Lincoln given us by Kushner, Spielberg and Field is not typecast as a selfish shrew, a self-pitying victim, a female meddler, a committed wife, a fretful mother or a political operative. Rather, she is all of these and that complexity captures the truth about her.
Ten years ago, while making a pitch for a dramatic series about some of the First Ladies, when executives considering it asked for the ideal actresses to perform the various lead roles, I submitted the name of Sally Field for Mary Lincoln. For a proposed series all in the “period” genre, the proposal went further than I imagined but not to fruition.
Still, for one especially familiar with the life of Mary Lincoln, who has closely read the new books which amazingly still continue to emerge about a person gone for over a century, and also conducted original research on her, watching Sally Field’s performance in Lincoln is to literally see the real First Lady finally animated in full.
The actress not only drew from her own depth as a person in her professional approach to Mary Lincoln but, as it turns out, has long nurtured the hope of portraying her.
In fact, Julie Harris, the most prominent of previous actresses to skillfully capture Mary Lincoln, told Sally Field she would someday also play the role.
One other crucial factor can also be credited for why it is Sally Field so captured Mary Lincoln. She read about and researched the famous First Lady for decades. If Sally Field wins the Oscar for Best-Supporting Actress in Lincoln, it will also be a victory of sorts for Mary Todd Lincoln, however far late in the game it may come.
Mrs. Lincoln certainly deserves it.
For all the vile hatred which can still be evoked at the mention of her name, for all the temper tantrums and hysteria she might display, Mary was as good as Abe.
- Hollywood Meets Mary Todd Lincoln (mykentuckyliving.wordpress.com)
- Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini (rainydayramblings.com)
- Mary Lincoln’s Dressmaker (fremontlibraries.wordpress.com)
- Gloria Reuben on a ‘pivotal part’ of the Lincoln White House story (theglobeandmail.com)
- Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker wrote a memoir (moonbridgebooks.com)
- Lincoln dressmaker has Hillsborough ties (newsobserver.com)
- In letter, Mrs. Lincoln seeks baby-sitter (cnn.com)
- Gentle Abe (catchjohnfischer.wordpress.com)