MARY LINCOLN'S GLOVES: HOW MANY ARE TOO MANY?
Women’s History needs to reconsider
Lincoln Studies’ insults
about the First Lady’s expenditures
[Kevin Orlin Johnson, Ph.D., is the author of The Lincolns in the White House, published this month by Pangaeus Press.]
Abe Lincoln may be the most revered president in American history, but his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, generally ranks as the most despised First Lady of all time. Crime bosses don’t come in for nearly as much journalistic abuse over the long term. Drug kingpins get kinder treatment from historians.
Why? Well, for one thing, she was the brains of the outfit, and that doesn’t fit the official narrative. While Lincoln and his family were squatting in decayed abandoned log cabins and chasing squirrels for food, Mary Todd was raised in the first rank of society in Lexington, the Athens of the West. She was well educated, extraordinarily well educated for a woman of her time, acutely sharp and quick witted. She was politically sophisticated, too ― in her girlhood her friend and near neighbor was Henry Clay, and her father’s closest associates were the movers and shakers of Kentucky politics. Her attorney was none other than Senator and Vice President John Cabell Breckinridge, who would run against her husband for the presidency in 1860.
After her move to Illinois she wove a new network of influence. Her sister Elizabeth Todd Edwards, in whose house she met Lincoln, had married the son of the governor of Illinois. Her cousin, Congressman John Todd Stuart, would be Lincoln’s first law partner. So it was her connections that gave Lincoln the pull that he needed to build his career. And it was her brains that guided him every step of the way.
If Mary Todd had been born in fairer times, she’d have used her shrewd political sense to take office herself. As it was, she consistently stood up against the apparatchiks of the new Republican Party to defend her husband’s interests, in which work she had the infuriating habit of being right all the time. Lincoln himself, with practically no education ― with no social or political connections at all, no “drag” as the manipulative Republicans said ― said that if it weren’t for her he’d have had no career at all, and he was right. Mary Todd would have been an exemplary president, herself.
Lincoln Studies, following the lead of those Republican bigwigs, has always gone out of its way to suppress mention of her abilities, to ignore her contributions, and in fact to insult her at every opportunity. Historians of the Lincoln years routinely accuse her of embezzlement, marital infidelity, and outright treason. And they pick at every little thing she did as if it were a felony or a delusion.
To take only one small example out of hundreds, tenured professionals in Lincoln Studies claim that Washington was scandalized about the 84 pair of gloves that Mary Todd had bought before the inauguration. They assert that at Lincoln’s death she owed $600.00 to a shop in the capital for another 84 pair that she’d bought in only the previous month. We’re meant to cluck and gasp at how extravagant, how outrageous, how laughable this despicable madwoman was. But none of this is true.
Then why do the award-winning Lincolnolators keep repeating these stories? Two reasons are plainly apparent from the literature. They don’t ask the right questions, and they don’t do any research.
The first thing to ask, obviously, is whether 84 pair of gloves was an unreasonable order. Nope.
Historians should know ― anybody should know ― that one of a First Lady’s primary responsibilities is to receive guests at the White House, and that means shaking hands with everybody in the crowd. Even today it’s an onerous duty: in her autobiography Nancy Reagan recalled that the morning after her first event she could hardly move. “The pain is excruciating,” she said.
In Lincoln’s time, it was open house at the White House at least two evenings a week. Five thousand or more trooped through the East Room to shake hands with the president and his wife. The blistering abrasion from that many handshakes makes gloves a necessity. In fact public duties meant that for a century after Mary Todd’s day great ladies always went about gloved, and not just for handshaking. If memory serves, the gloves that Princess Grace of Monaco always wore let her calmly accept the bloody ear of a bull offered to her by a matador in Spain.
The glad-handing was just as rough on the men. Lincoln, you know, wouldn’t sign the Emancipation Proclamation right after a reception because he wanted his signature to look firm, but his hand hadn’t stopped throbbing yet. The Savior of the Union had constant trouble finding gloves that fit his huge hands, but he wore them ― and wore them out ― standing right at Mary Lincoln’s side.
During these events, dignitaries changed gloves frequently. White kid was crusted in dirt; seams wore to bursting. The soiling was so heavy that the gloves couldn’t be cleaned, and the wear so severe that they couldn’t be repaired. They were just thrown into the fire and replaced with a fresh pair, maybe a dozen times in an evening. For ladies and gentlemen alike, that meant having a lot of gloves on hand, so to speak.
That practice, too, lasted well into the twentieth century. Jackie Kennedy’s secretary Sally Bedell Smith remembered that she could hardly see the sofa in Mrs. Kennedy’s office because it was heaped with gloves for every occasion. Just with the ordinary routine of callers, calls, errands, luncheons, teas, dinners and hospital visits the wife of a president could wear out three or more pair a day.
Review the records, and do the math: 84 pair of gloves ― seven dozen ― was the standard order for any society matron. Charlotte Martinez-Cardeza, the blue-jeans heiress, had her seven dozen with her on the Titanic just for the week-long crossing to New York; again, any historian discussing Mary Lincoln’s century ought to know this. Failure to know about the proper behavior of the time is unprofessional. Indicting Mary Todd for her proper behavior is worse than unprofessional. It’s inexcusable. The way most prize-winning Lincolnolators make up fresh gossip to insult her is, frankly, despicable.
The strangest thing about all of this gossip passed off as history is that the most elementary research would put an end to it. The original bill from that Washington shop is at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield today. I’ve held it in my trembling hand, myself. It’s for $628.01, to be exact, and it wasn’t sent to Mary Todd but to the executor of Lincoln’s estate. He asked her about it, and she paid it in full as soon as it came forward, on March 5, 1866.
But of the 26 items listed on the bill 17 are yard goods with which the economical Mrs. Lincoln planned to make clothes for herself, her sons, and her husband. Only nine of the entries are about gloves, and one of those is a $4.00 refund for an exchange, which makes sense, given Lincoln’s trouble finding gloves that fit.
In fact, the bill shows plainly that about half of the gloves that Mary Todd had ordered weren’t for her at all. They were for her husband.
The Lincolns in the White House: Slanders, Scandals, and Lincoln’s Slave Trading Revealed is available for pre-order at www.pangaeus.com or lincolnsoldslaves.com