Saturday, February 11, 2012

Criticism of the First Lady

Mary Todd Lincoln courtesy
Here is an article in the Covington Journal of February 8, 1862.

Life in Washington - Mrs. Lincoln - Fun in the White House
One of the saddest evidences of our social demoralizations as a people, and the depth and extent of that demoralization, is seen in the utter unconsciousness of the ruin and misery of this country which prevails in Washington. That unconsciousness seems to environ the White House. No woman ever had a better opportunity to show how much a patriot mother could do for her country than Mrs. Lincoln. It is sad that the gold en opportunity is thrown away. The New York Tribune says:

"Mrs. Lincoln is engaged in qualifying herself for the more delicate exigencies of her elevated station. She is about to resume, under competent professors, the study of the French language, with which her early education made her familiar, but the practice of which has long been interrupted by the quiet but unceasing occupations of domestic life. We also understand that, in other and similar ways, Mrs. Lincoln proposes to add to the many accomplishments for which she is already distinguished, and which supply to the saloons of the White House its most brilliant adornments."

The Washington correspondent of the New York Evening Post, referring to the prevailing gayety and thoughtlessness in the National Capital, adds:

"From Mrs. Lincoln, driving in her gaudy coach, and Mr. Lincoln, amusing himself with Herrman's feats of 'prestidigitation,' down to the young officers dancing gaily at the balls, every one seems to consider he present time one especially created for amusement. There is not the slightest seriousness any where that I have been able to discover; it is all fun. And any one who looks or speaks earnestly of the critical condition of affairs, is regarded as a bore by all but some of the few older heads. The mournful faces are all at the homes that the war has made desolate."

We should be glad to believe that this was an overwrought picture, but private advices leave us no room to doubt. Even the White House is made the scene of Herrman's wizard feats; and all while our soldiers are sick, suffering and dying nt he camps, the strength of the army wasting from inaction, and the very pillars of the Republic made to tremble by the fearful blows of rebellion. It is a sad picture. The Lord have mercy upon us!  [Dr. Clarke, in Ladies' Repository]

Though complaints about the First Lady's shopping and spending habits may be fair criticisms, I wonder if this editorial was a bit too harsh. For one, how is learning a new language detracting from the war effort? Was she to spend every single moment of her life doing nothing but following the war and its tragedies? Also, during this time, Willie Lincoln was very ill (he would die on February 20, 1862) and caring for him certainly took a lot of her time and attention. Still, even if she fretted over her own son and participated in non-war activities, to say she was "unconscious" of the suffering created by the war seems to be an exaggeration.

As for the comments about President Lincoln watching the magic show and not understanding the seriousness of the war, that writer was clearly mistaken. He mentions "the army wasting from inaction," but Lincoln in fact was urging McClellan to take action, and this inaction frustrated the President as much or more than it bothered anybody else. Throughout the war, President Lincoln constantly showed that he understood the suffering caused by the war. I imagine he would have been quite surprised to learn that it was "all fun" for him. This paragraph from the New York Evening Post was simply wrong; perhaps some of the fancy balls were overboard, but even the citizens of the Confederacy - suffering as much as their Northern counterparts - occasionally threw parties to try to lift their spirits during these times.Some attempt to escape from the reality of the situation is not  soemthing

The reference to the "prestidigitation" show seems to be referring to the Herrmann family

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