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A Sympathetic Look at Mary Lincoln

By David J. Kent

Washington D.C.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Mary Lincoln isn't normally treated as a sympathetic character. Like Lincoln's father, Mary is often used as a foil to highlight Lincoln's greatness. Knowing he had to overcome a supposedly shiftless father and a presumably unbearable wife makes it easier to position Lincoln on a pedestal. In fairness, most Lincoln biographers don't spend much time on Mary herself. After all, their biographies are about the man, not the wife.

In contrast, many biographers of Mary Lincoln directly have been much more sympathetic. Growing up in a wealthy and politically connected household in Kentucky, attending the finest schools (unusual for girls at the time), and trained in the fine arts of being a lady, Mary found herself married to a frontier farm boy turned lawyer, living a modest life in Illinois before moving into the White House.

It is this Mary Lincoln that will be examined by a trio of female Lincoln scholars on November 4th - the anniversary of the Lincoln marriage - at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, Illinois. Titled "You Ok, Mary? Female Historians Consider Mary Lincoln," the event takes a different look at Mary. According to the announcement:

She was more than just a president’s wife. She was a grieving mother, public figure, and complex individual. Join in this panel discussion with three female historians as we hold an empathetic, evidence-based discussion about Mary Lincoln. Go beyond the surface stereotypes to learn more about this remarkable woman, and bring your questions for our experts to answer!

Some of the three scholars may be familiar to Lincoln Group members. Callie Hawkins is Director of Programming at President Lincoln's Cottage and recently curated the ongoing exhibit about grief featuring Mary Lincoln. Stacy Pratt McDermott is a member of the DC-based Abraham Lincoln Institute and author of Mary Lincoln: Southern Girl, Northern Woman. Erika Holst is Curator of History at the Illinois State Museum, the host of the event.

The three panelists provide a much needed look at Mary's life and losses that challenges the common portrayal of Mrs. Lincoln. It promises to leave viewers with a more robust, well-rounded view that a complex woman that has so often been caricatured.

The event is being held live at the Illinois State Museum and is not being live-streamed. However, it will be recorded and shared on the Museum's YouTube page. For more information, check out the Illinois State Museum website, or contact or (217) 782-6044.


Ravelle Brickman
Ravelle Brickman
Oct 30, 2021

I really enjoyed reading this, and look forward to hearing the panelists when the video is available. Question for David: many years ago, an old friend of mine name Linda Levitt wrote a book about Mary Lincoln that was touted, at the time, as the first positive look at Mary. Did you ever read it? Do you know if Linda is still around? (I've tried, unsuccessfully, to find her on the Internet.)

Ravelle Brickman
Ravelle Brickman
Nov 01, 2021
Replying to

Thanks, David. I've been unable to find any trace of Linda recently, so I assume that she has long since passed away. But I'm glad to know the title of the book. See you soon.


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