Monday, June 21, 2010

"Mrs. Lady President" and the Women of Washington Society

Greetings! Hope everyone is enjoying this beautiful first day of summer. With the summer season many are embarking on the annual rite of the season: summer vacation. I just returned last week from a fantastic nine-day trip to Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois. The purpose of the trip was a mix of fun (touring the many wonderful museums and historic sites) and homework (researching my master’s thesis). In the coming weeks as I unpack and recharge I will be posting some of pictures along with my impressions of some of the sites I visited which included the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Oak Ridge Cemetery (the Lincoln Tomb), and Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Park. Besides touring, and taking lots of pictures, I also made my contribution to the local economy by sampling the best of the museum gift shops.

For the meantime, dear readers, you will have to be satisfied with my thoughts and impressions on some of the titles I came across during my travels. The first work to be reviewed is amateur historian Peggy Dunn’s “Mrs. Lady President” and the Women of Washington Society. Dunn’s work is a simple examination of the fashion of Washington, D. C.’s high society during the Civil War. Central to this story is Mary Lincoln’s transformation from Illinois housewife to the First Lady and the cold reception she received from the society dames (in other words “snobs”) of the nation’s capital.

Dunn begins her book with Mary Lincoln’s hasty departure from Springfield, Illinois with her young sons Willie and Tad. The threats against the President-elect life had convinced Abraham Lincoln’s aide’s that it was safer if he traveled to Washington in the company of his wife and children. From this point Dunn jumps back to the period immediately after Lincoln’s election where the rise to the first office in the land convinced Mary Lincoln that she needed to update her wardrobe. Traveling to New York City in January 1861, Mary was courted by the city’s department stores while being snubbed by New York’s high society. This began a pattern that would plague the First Lady for the remainder of her stay in the White House. Mary Lincoln was viewed by the eastern elite as a social outsider. While socially and politically prominent in Illinois the Lincoln’s were social nobody’s in the entrenched world of East Coast society and politics. Despite winning the Republican nomination and the Presidency, many still viewed Abraham Lincoln as an uncouth, uneducated country hick—his wife was guilty simple by association. To make matters worse, Mary Lincoln was unwilling (or unable) to play by East Coast society rules which dictated that all newcomers must make an alliance with one of the accepted matrons who would then, when she dictated it was time would then introduce the newcomer to her wealthy friends. Mary Lincoln was the ultimate social outsider, who was resented because she was an outsider.

The Lincoln’s received a warm reception during their twelve day journey to Washington, D. C, as Dunn illustrates, until the rumored assassination plot in Baltimore, Maryland put a damper on the President-elect’s entry into the nation’s capital. While Mary Lincoln received enthusiastic praise in the press, once in Washington, Mary was again given a cold shoulder by the city’s high society. The reasons were simple: she was viewed a social outsider and her southern ancestry and family raised questions regarding her loyalty to her husband and her nation. Mary Lincoln desperately tried to seek legitimacy as the head of Washington society, by over dressing and over spending on herself and the White House. While the press applauded her refurbishment of the dilapidated White House, Washington’s social matrons derided her for her style and overspending during a war. Instead of rising above the cruelty of Washington’s elite, Mary Lincoln got consumed in her desperate need for approval and acceptance. The reader is left with the impression of a very sad, lonely, and deeply insecure woman.

This is a unique book, rather than attempting an over reaching narrative, Dunn provides a series of sketches of Washington society and 1860s fashion that gives the reader a better understanding of the world Mary Lincoln lived in. Of note is the examination of the fascinating relationship between Mary Lincoln and her seamstress Elizabeth Keckly. On this level the book succeeds, Dunn’s work is geared for the general reader. The book is well illustrated, with images of all the main players and a liberal use of 1860s fashion plates—so the reader actual can see what the author is talking about. The main drawback of the work is that some of the writing is unpolished, which is seen in many works done by amateur historians. All that is simply needed if this work is updated is the skilled hand of an editor to smooth out some of the more awkward phrases. Also there is one factual error that this reviewer found, on page ten Dunn has listed Mary Lincoln’s first known photograph taken in either 1846 or 1847 as being taken in 1864 by Matthew Brady. Despite this error Peggy Dunn’s “Mrs. Lady President” and the Women of Washington Society is an enjoyable book and is a must read for Civil War living historians.

“Mrs. Lady President” and the Women of Washington Society. By Peggy Dunn. Springfield, IL: History on Fire, 2005. Pp. 120.

1 comment:

  1. I'll definitely give it a try! Thanks for the post!