ABE LINCOLN AND THE
His Authentic Writings Show the Personal, Political, and Punctuational Influence of His Wife, Mary Todd Lincoln
DALLAS ― Thanks to the continuing efforts of Lincoln Studies, we Americans never give any thought to Mary Todd Lincoln’s trials in the White House, and her heroism ― standing her ground during the War, with Confederate forces only a few yards away ― with her own kinsmen enlisted in those forces ― seeing her sons sicken beyond medical help, and one of them die.
We don’t consider what it was like, after peace returned at last, to have her husband’s head explode as he sat beside her at a pleasant evening out. She doesn’t get much sympathy for any of that from Lincoln Studies, any more than she gets any credit for what she accomplished. Or even any real understanding of who she was.
Mary Lincoln was a lady of exceptional intelligence, born to a family rich enough, and intelligent enough, to see to it that she was educated to her greatest potential. Her family was also prominent enough to give her an inside view of politics, local, state, and federal. Had she been born in a fairer age, she would have been a superb Speaker of the House, or an outstanding President.
Still, we haven’t remembered that she was politically savvy, too, using her top-tier social and familial connections strategically to launch her husband’s career, and deploying her astute judgement to guide him through the traps and manipulations that the Republican big-wigs kept laying for him. With most of her letters purposefully destroyed by her son Robert and eminent professors of Lincoln Studies, we don’t realize that she was possessed of a bright and sometimes blinding wit that she conveyed as deftly in French as in English, and on paper as distinctively as in person.
But, if you look and listen even now, nearly a century and a half after her death, her voice calls out to you from every scrappet of manuscript that we have from her, ringing out all the more clearly because of her highly personal, we might even say peculiar, punctuation.
That punctuation tells us that she must have sounded like her sisters. They did it pretty much the same way, and they didn’t learn it in school ― it amounts practically to a dialect. You can hear the speed of their discourse, for instance, when they write in short sentences, zipping the pen across the paper so fast that the periods look like almost like dashes. They used plenty of dashes, too, when they got to thinking faster than they could write. But Mrs. Lincoln’s voice is recorded most distinctly by her use of commas.
Like her sisters, Mary Todd would set off dependent clauses as we do today, quite properly, as in a social note to publisher James Gordon Bennett from 1862: “Your kind note, sent by Mr. Delille, has been received and greatly appreciated.” But you can see her own special usage of commas, for instance, in the letter that she wrote to her husband from New York on November 2, 1862, which is now at the Library of Congress. It’s quick but not rushed, informal and intimate, and she’s just slightly steamed ― November 4 would be their twentieth wedding anniversary, and she hadn’t heard a word about it from him yet. So this letter covers a representative spectrum of her emotional stances, and we can fairly assume that its presentation is both intentional and unselfconscious ― typical, in fact. We’ll represent her elongated periods with hyphens (-).
My Dear Husband
I have waited in vain to hear from you, yet as you are not given to letter writing, will be charitable enough to impute your silence, to the right cause. Strangers come up from W. & tell me you are well - which satisfies me, very much. Your name is on every lip and many prayers and good wishes are hourly sent up, for your welfare - And McClellan & his slowness are as vehemently discussed, Allowing this beautiful weather, to pass away, is disheartening the North -
Dear little Taddie is well & enjoying himself very much - Gen & Mrs Anderson & myself called on yesterday to see Gen Scott - He looks well, although complaining of Rheumatism. A day or two since, I had one of my severe attacks, if it had not been for Lizzie Keckley, I do not know what I should have done. Some of these periods, will launch me away. All the distinguished in the land, have tried how polite & attentive, they could be to me since I came up here - Many say, they would almost worship you, if you would put a fighting General, in the place of McClellan. This would be splendid weather, for an engagement - I have had two suits of clothes made for Taddie which will come to 26 dollars - Have to get some fur outside wrappings for the coachman’s carriage trappings. Lizzie Keckley, wants one to loan her thirty dollars - so I will have to ask for a check of $100 - which will soon be made use of, for these articles - I must send you, Taddie’s tooth - I want to leave here for Boston, on Thursday & if you will send the check by Tuesday, will be much obliged.
One line to say that we are occasionally remembered will be gratefully received by yours very truly
She added a postscript to this hasty note about other matters political, domestic, and military, but it shows just the same idiosyncrasies.
As you see, she frequently uses a comma before a preposition ― to, for, in ― or a conjunction, whether the word heads a dependent clause or not. She puts a comma between a noun and its verb a lot, too, a subject and its predicate: “Some of these periods, will launch me away. All the distinguished in the land, have tried”. That was a very common error at the time, as you can see from the contemporary grammar textbooks that kept harping about how you’re not supposed to do that. She also pretty frequently put a comma between verb and object, direct or indirect: “I must send you, Taddie’s tooth”. Thomas “Tad” Lincoln was only nine and a half at that time, so there was nothing unusual in his losing a tooth.
Mrs. Lincoln and her sisters followed this idiosyncratic usage so consistently that here, in the editorial offices of Pangaeus Press, we’ve come to refer to these as Todd Commas. When we see a writer doing that sort of thing today, we correct it to standard form. But we’d lose a unique and delightful personality if we’d interfere with the punctuation of Mary Todd Lincoln. You just have to remember that, for her, punctuation isn’t so much grammatical as diacritical. It captures her tone.
We don’t have many of her letters, not after Robert Todd Lincoln’s campaign of destruction, but reading those that survive, such as those well published for us by Justin B. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, you can hear her pausing for breath at each comma.
When she’s writing placidly to a loving friend, or officially to a cabinet secretary or clergyman, there are few commas, or none where they’re not supposed to be, except in Toddspeak. When she’s charmed with a correspondent, the phrases that she sets off tend to be longer and the rhythm of the stops smoother, calmer. When she’s delighted with a favor or a gift, she throws whole handsful of them wide, like confetti at a festival. When she’s angry at an injustice, an affront, or an erroneous invoice, she spatters Todd Commas across the page like bullets from a Gatling gun. “You can always tell just how P.O.ed she was,” our editrix-in-chief remarked.
Lincoln’s punctuation was every bit as idiosyncratic as Mary Todd’s ― downright erratic, to start with. As Wilson observed in noted in his Uncollected Works of Abraham Lincoln in 1947, Mr. Lincoln “had his own ideas of punctuation, spacing and underscoring which at times tax the skill and patience of those who seek to determine his exact meaning.” That’s true; Lincoln’s original documents are frequently a mess. He was never a great speller, either, and the frequent strikeouts, erasures, and interlineations in his manuscripts of every sort and purpose show that he was really never an easy thinker.
Such failings are only to be expected of a man born into the drifter class for whom, as he himself said, “the aggregate of all his schooling did not amount to one year. He was never in a college or academy as a student, and never inside a college or academy building”.
Well, Lincoln Studies wasn’t about to present The Savior Of The Union as a functional illiterate. So Roy Basler, editing The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, took the line that “Certain peculiarities of Lincoln’s punctuation have been normalized throughout in the interest of appearance and modern styling.” So the punctuation of the texts conventionally consulted in Lincoln Studies today ― conventionally if infrequently, when Lincoln Studiers recur to primary documents ― is microscopically flawless, a self-portrait opaquely painted over.
That’s not publishing what Lincoln wrote. It’s publishing what Lincoln Studies wants him to have written. That is unforgivable violence to the original texts, routine and wholesale. With only those mutilated texts to go by, you can’t even tell whether Lincoln actually wrote something or somebody else did. And isn’t it outright disrespect of the man himself? Basler’s policy, the unvarying policy of Lincoln Studies, utterly destroys the forensic value of the documents that he presents.
Well, here too, professors of Lincolnolatry prop him up, “varnishers and veneerers … busily converting Abe into a plaster saint”, as H. L. Mencken described the method of the creed, “thus marking him fit for adoration.” Think how much more valuable it’d be to have the accurate transcript of Abraham Lincoln’s actual voice, an unmolested record of his thought processes? Think how much more fun it’d be to hear what he actually had to say, in his own voice. To hear Abraham Lincoln through his hand and pen.
After their marriage in November of 1842, his punctuation pretty quickly improved, showing the importance of his wife’s tutelage as she made up for his practically complete lack of learning. It’s also a measure of her influence on his manner and on his thought. “The year 1843,” Rufus Rockwell Wilson noted in the Uncollected Works, “brought to Abraham Lincoln added skill and repute as a lawyer; enhanced influence as a political leader … and through his wife a new and arresting sense of the evils of slavery.”
He still wasn’t a good speller. He skipped back and forth between “defendant” and “defandant”, and he never learned what the plural of “attorney” is, either. Well, granted, that one’s hard. But he frequently got the names of his clients wrong, which was, then as now, grounds for throwing out a case altogether ― on the record, you’re either representing or suing the wrong person. From time to time, as Wilson notes, “Lincoln ran ahead of himself”, even to switching “defendant” and “plaintiff” or petitioning that the wrong one was to pay damages to the other wrong one.
These idiosyncrasies aren’t easily recovered, either, thanks to the ministrations of Lincolnolatry. As Wilson points out, while Nicolay and Hay substantively re-wrote Lincoln’s letters for their publications, they silently corrected words like “happen” and “despise”, “affair”, “affiant”, and “delegation”, which last he misspelled even when he was asking to be appointed to one. The frequently used “balance” was always “ballance”, by Lincoln, and in the originals you’ll find the occasional “thiss” and a frequent “untill”.
These, too, are routinely rectified by the professional polishers. But some of the censors have overlooked the fact that his punctuation was never normal any way you look at it. It doesn’t follow the normal conventions of schoolroom grammar, the polite style of Victorian etiquette, or the ancient and honorable canons of legal composition.
But you’ll notice a marked improvement in his writing in the letters, and even in the formulaic legal papers copied out pro forma that you see in collations like Wilson’s. “Men seek for the explanation of Lincoln’s mastery of words,” Wilson reminds us, “and it is found in the growth of his style,” which is creditable to Mary Todd. But of course his wife doesn’t get any credit for it.
It’s interesting, though, that Wilson praises most fulsomely the precise analysis of grammar, with complete mastery of the terminology of that science, that shines forth all of a sudden in the case of Robert S. Todd vs. Nathaniel A. Ware ― that’s Robert S. Todd, Mary Lincoln’s father ― a case litigated in Springfield just after their first anniversary in 1843. Obviously, this was business in which Mary and the rest of the Todds were intimately interested. And, just as obviously, it’s highly unlikely that an unschooled person, especially one spending most of his time riding the circuit, could attain so full a scholarly and technical knowledge of grammar in a single year. He never showed it otherwise. On a disputed tract of land, he wrote in 1845, “there was and is considerable improvements”.
In fact the documents flanking the Todd cases don’t display anything like that same technical mastery of the field. We don’t have time to analyze Pentecost vs. Maghee or Purkapile vs. Hornbuckle, but don’t you wish that we did?
But otherwise, Lincoln continued his own idiosyncratic practice of using extra space between words where the Todd girls would have put those dashes that stripe their letters. Few editors retain those spaces as Wilson did, but they’re not random, they appear in practically everything that he ever wrote, and ― far more interesting ― they do record Lincoln’s voice and his rather labored process of thinking. If you read the documents aloud, pausing according to the length of the hiatus, you’ll hear the consistent voice of a man struggling somewhat, almost stammering, to formulate his thoughts. Dips of the pen don’t answer for these gaps; there’s no fresh charge of ink on the initial stroke of the following phrase, which occasionally begins by repeating the last word of the preceding one: “it is the intention of [hiatus] said Caldwell [hiatus] to continue removing the improvements [hiatus] from said [little hiatus] said land”, he wrote in May of 1845. Maybe somebody was dictating these texts to him; maybe, and to give him all possible credit, he was dictating them to himself.
In their consistent pattern, those blanks break his written discourse into meaningful segments with halting pauses between them. This is most conspicuous as he carefully copied out those pro-forma documents for court, but it shows up in his original legal briefs and, most interestingly, in his personal letters, too. With those little blank stretches, they also show strikeouts, interlineations, and insertions confirming that the spacing is not simply the result of particular care for an accurate transcription.
And over time you can see his scattershot commas gradually coming together in regulation style, and occasionally in the distinctive Todd manner ― he petitioned for a mandamus in December of 1844 moving that a bill of exceptions “be made part of the Record, of the court”, and submitted a demurrer to advance the argument that a plea of the defendants wasn’t sufficient in law to bar “the said plaintiffs, from having or maintaining their said Writ of Error”.
That last example may have resulted from his lifelong habit of omitting either the first or second comma setting off a dependent clause, but he did tend to put one in front of “when” and “on” and other prepositions, as you can see in practically anything that he wrote.
So, when latter-day editors give us his writing honestly, you can hear his voice, and you can hear his wife at his side, advising, editing, correcting. Her political counsel left its mark on her husband’s policy and on the United States, although you can’t see it reflected on the pages of very many histories. But, like prompts on a script, Mary Todd Lincoln’s idiosyncratic commas capture both the sparkle of her wit and the pyrotechnics of her temper. You cannot read her letters aloud otherwise than as she must have spoken. And when you hear her, you’ll love her.