Abraham Lincoln Among Battered Husbands and Malice Toward Them

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The historiography of Mary Lincoln’s violence against her husband Abraham Lincoln parallels more general public discourse about domestic violence against men. Historical records indicate that Mary threw a cup of hot coffee at Abraham, assaulted him with a piece of firewood, chased him out of the house with a broomstick, chased him around the yard with a knife, hurled potatoes at him, and was repeatedly verbally abusive toward him. In two reported instances she caused bloody injuries to his head.^ Public discourse has devalued injuries to men, most especially domestic violence against men. Mary Lincoln’s domestic violence against Abraham Lincoln exemplifies that discursive effect among historians. Historians have downplayed and obfuscated important evidence of domestic violence against Abraham Lincoln and created a hostile environment for anyone who would seriously consider that domestic violence.

The historical record of Mary Lincoln’s domestic violence against Abraham Lincoln has been submerged in scholarly controversy like the scholarly controversy about domestic violence against men. William Herndon, a law partner and close associate of Abraham Lincoln, collected most, but not all, of the documentation of Mary’s abuse of Abraham. Herndon allegedly hated Mary. The history of Herndon’s relation to Mary and his collecting of biographical information about Abraham don’t convincingly expunge good reason for regarding the evidence of domestic violence as credible.^ Evidence that some regarded Mary and Abraham Lincoln as a loving couple is not inconsistent with Mary committing domestic violence against Abraham. Widely broadcasted public-service messages about domestic violence have driven home that frightful domestic violence can lurk behind a loving facade.

Historians who recognize Mary’s Lincoln’s domestic violence against Abraham Lincoln have been shamelessly portrayed as beating up on Mary. Consider a biography of Mary Todd Lincoln entitled Mrs. Lincoln. The biography Mrs. Lincoln begins with widely established emotive language personalizing one of the most famous scenes in American history: for the devoted Mary, “her worst nightmare had come true … the evening dissolved into chaos, noise, and blood.” Mary had “spent the past four years fearing for her husband’s safety”; now, she “stared in sorrow at Abraham’s ashen face.” Mrs. Lincoln’s introductory vignette of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination ends with a familiar type of lament:

How could Mary Lincoln have been so cruelly treated at such a time? The trauma of her husband’s murder while they sat together, her gown splashed with his blood, was terrible enough. But the way she was shoved aside as this critical moment compounded her trauma, deepened and widened her grief, foretelling indignities to come. Her subsequent maltreatment — both real and imagined — contributed to her steady decline.^

A leading historian, reviewing Lincoln biographies from the literary-intellectual height of the New York Review of Books, complained of the “relentless hostility to Mary Lincoln” in what the reviewer called the definitive biography of Abraham Lincoln (that biography documents fully evidence of Mary’s domestic violence against Abraham). Authoritatively teaching those who can’t read, the leading historian went on to describe the biography Mrs. Lincoln:

For a balanced profile of Mary Lincoln one should turn to a new biography of her by Catherine Clinton, where we encounter a sensitive treatment of a woman who (like Abraham Lincoln) endured the death of her mother when she was a child and watched helplessly the deaths of three of her four sons in childhood and youth—not to mention the assassination of her husband by her side. It was little wonder that she sometimes seemed to go off the rails. But she had many positive traits as well. Mary’s “unconditional love sustained Lincoln’s growth to greatness,” writes Clinton.

She was a woman of intense intellect and passion who stepped outside the boundaries her times prescribed, and suffered for it. She was someone who endured more personal loss and public humiliation than any other woman of her generation.

Clinton provides a fuller, fairer portrait of the Lincolns’ marriage than any of the biographies of Abraham.^

Clinton was subsequently awarded the position of writing the concluding epilogue to a collection of scholarly articles entitled The Mary Lincoln Enigma: Historians on America’s Most Controversial First Lady. Clinton wrote in her epilogue:

the lingering image of Mary as a “hellcat,” a crazed feline, rises up like some ghostly hologram. I can believe that Herndon felt he was being restrained rather than rough on Mrs. Lincoln. But again and again, from the vantage point of this Mrs. Lincoln biographer, Mary ends up getting roughed up.^

Here’s how this “Mrs. Lincoln biographer” presented Mary’s abuse of Abraham:

Some later accounts include episodes of family disharmony during these years — Mary yelling at her husband, chasing him down the street, angered by his indifference or neglect.^

That cursory, vague, conventional description of wifely behavior ends with excuses: “angered by his indifference or neglect.” Describing Mary Lincoln’s domestic abuse of Abraham Lincoln has become violence against a dead woman: roughing up Mary. Another historian suggests that describing Mary Lincoln’s domestic abuse of Abraham Lincoln insults and belittles Mary:

the woman {Mary Lincoln} is destined to go down in history as mad, bad and dangerous to be married to, partly, one suspects, because she had the temerity to throw things at the saviour of the union.^

Mary Lincoln is now highly controversial. She is a dangerous subject for public discussion. That controversy and that social danger has the same social-verbal origins as the controversy and danger that has enveloped domestic violence against men.

Mrs. Lincoln forceful evokes the social danger of discussing domestic violence against men. According to Mrs. Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s leading biographer has replaced Herndon “as Mary Lincoln’s harshest critic.” Mrs. Lincoln declares that he provides a one-sided perspective and has accused other historians of “cherry picking the evidence about the Lincoln marriage.” Providing a multi-sided perspective on the one-sided perspective, Mrs. Lincoln archly declares, “Perhaps this {“cherry-picking the evidence”} is essentially what all scholars might be accused of doing — but some do it more skillfully than others.” For any reader with doubts about the value of the scholarly enterprise and the potential for domestic violence, Mrs. Lincoln deploys a reference to Hitler and that sneer-generating phrase “battered husband“:

With Tripp’s Hitler analogy and with Burlingame’s repeated assertion that Lincoln was a “battered husband,” Mary Lincoln’s reputation remains controversial.^

Burlingame (Michael Burlingame) is widely regarded as the leading biographer of Abraham Lincoln.^ Tripp (C. A. Tripp) discerned in Abraham Lincoln a homosexual orientation.^ According to Mrs. Lincoln, Tripp “surpassed Burlingame to become Mary Lincoln’s most rapid detractor.” Who is his or her right mind would now want to discuss domestic violence against Abraham Lincoln? Surely not prudent persons seeking public approval and honor. The same is true more generally for domestic violence against men.

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