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The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage (2008)

by Daniel Mark Epstein

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I read The Lincolns after attending a conference in Springfield, IL and visiting the excellent Lincoln Museum there and the home he and his family lived in for 17 years or so. Both locales alluded to Lincoln as husband and father, and I bought this book because of the interest they piqued in me. I liked the book very, very much. A biography of a marriage is a rather unusual way to handle history, and I think the author, Daniel Epstein, did an outstanding job. Both Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln were shown as very bright, very human, with some flaws (more in her case) and a great deal of tragedy in their lives. A movie of Lincoln's last days is coming out shortly, and I must see it after reading this moving book. ( )
  MarthaHuntley | Sep 6, 2012 |
I was looking forward to this book but it did not meet my expectations. There were portions of it that I enjoyed and were very informative. The courting and the time the couple spent in Springfield is a topic I did not know much about. Abraham Lincoln was not at all a ladies man. He was not relaxed with women and the impression I got was that Mary picked him as much as he picked her. He broke up their courting because he was concerned he had contracted syphilis. For a year he took some pills with mercury in them to make sure he was cured. It made me very glad I live in the era of antibiotics.
Mary always had a lot of ambition for Abraham. Supposedly she turned down Stephen A. Douglas to marry Abraham. Their life in Springfield ordinary Middle America. Mary was supportive but she did not participate in Abe's political life. I think that was his idea. When Tad was born Mary was injured during the birth. That was the beginning of her health problems.
As Lincoln advanced in his career he did start making a healthy income and Mary had all kinds of aspirations.
They were both loving parents and their children had the run of the house. Lincoln stayed busy in politics even when he was not in office. The author emphasized Lincoln's opposition to the Mexican War and said it made him very unpopular. I don't recall any other sources that gave that much significance to anything Lincoln did in congress.
This is an example of the problem I had with the book. I wasn't sure if I was reading an accurate historical narrative or whether the author had dramatized the story and bent the truth when it got in the way of the story he wanted to tell. It is unfortunate that I listened to an audiobook and couldn't look at any footnotes but there is another example that convinced me I could rely on the author's facts.
Late in the war Jubal Early went up the Shenandoah and went into Maryland. He got to within seeing distance of Washington but was never a serious threat. The author told an exaggerated version of Abraham Lincoln's time spent at Fort Stephens. The seriousness of the situation was overblown and the author intimated that Lincoln exposed himself to fire in order to get killed. My interpretation is that Lincoln didn't realize how tall he was and he didn't think he was going to get shot.
Mary does not come off well. The deaths of her sons, only Robert lived to adulthood, and the assassination were more than she could take. The book stops when the marriage ends. The rest of Mary's story is pure tragedy anyway.
I wouldn't read it again and I can't recommend it. There was more melodrama than history. ( )
  wildbill | Dec 21, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0345478002, Paperback)

From the Author: What's New in The Lincolns, Portrait of a Marriage? During the years I was researching and writing this book I was asked again and again: Have you found anything new, in facts or perspective? The answer is yes, and yes again. Everything is new in the sense that when one puts aside the stereotypes associated with the Lincolns, a rich and complex married life emerges. The stereotypes are: Mary was crazy, and Abraham was a saint. The most popular myth is that Lincoln married a madwoman, and suffered patiently and heroically through twenty-two miserable years of marriage. After my research, I reached two conclusions that shaped my portrait of the marriage. First, these two people loved each other deeply, from the time they met in Springfield in 1839, until his assassination in 1865. The second is that Mary was extremely interested in Abraham's career and speeches; whenever they could, the two of them talked about these things. She was a strong political partner for him. The rest of my work has been a careful gathering of details. Here again, there is a lot that is new. First, this is the only book about the marriage that recounts the Springfield years (16 years out of 22) in as much detail as the White House years. In Springfield the family achieved a delicate balance that was destabilized in wartime Washington. The story that began as a romance turns to tragedy. The Lincolns' courtship was stormy; he broke off their engagement in 1840, and they were not reconciled until 1842. New evidence indicates that Lincoln believed he had syphilis, and would not resume the courtship until he believed he was cured. I discovered letters from Mary's brother-in-law that shed light on the courtship, and the abrupt reconciliation and marriage in 1842. This is the first book to connect Lincoln’s reading of The Niles Register (a news magazine of the time) with his speeches against the Mexican War during his term of congress in 1847-48. In their Washington boarding house in 1848, the Lincolns witnessed the abduction of a black servant who was buying his freedom. Using newspaper accounts of the time I was able to detail this terrifying incident. Mary's physical abuse of her husband has mostly been a matter of rumor. In 1857 she is supposed to have hit her husband with a stick of firewood, injuring his nose. I was able to find store receipts for a gelatin plaster that Lincoln purchased on the date witnesses saw him wearing the plaster cast, on his nose, in court. Much has been written about the plot to assassinate Lincoln on his way through Baltimore for the inauguration. This book is the first to describe the danger to which Mary and her sons were exposed en route to Baltimore while Lincoln passed secretly from Harrisburg to Washington. The Presidential train with Mary aboard served as a decoy, and the journey through "mob city" was a nightmare. One of the most exciting moments of my research was in discovering a poem of Albert Laighton's that the Lincolns read together. It shaped the last lines of Lincolns' first inaugural address. Another was the discovery of a letter from a Washington physician describing Mrs. Lincoln's handling of a medical crisis in the White House (when her children had measles) that disproves the received opinion she was too unstable to handle such emergencies. There's a lot more that is new, but I don't want to spoil it here. I felt honored to be entrusted with these materials, and to tell the Lincolns' story. --Daniel Mark Epstein

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:32:37 -0400)

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Offers a glimpse of the Lincolns' passionate, sometimes troubled marriage, from their early years in Illinois and their joys and sorrows as parents, to the White House years and Mrs. Lincoln's life following her husband's death.

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