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tv   Discussion on the Life and Legacy of Mary Lincoln  CSPAN  March 27, 2016 9:00pm-9:51pm EDT

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stealing millions of documents from government agencies and millions of credit card records from retail establishments, from financial establishments to know that we need to be moving towards stronger uses of encryption and encryption itself. >> watch the communicators monday american history tv, from a recent abraham lincoln symposium on his life and career and legacy. stacy pratt mcdermott is the author of mary lincoln southern girl northern woman. this took place at ford's theater in washington. >> president.
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.nd is bob willard i have been president of the abraham lincoln institute in the past. this is the 17th symposium of my abraham lincoln institute wife and i are now ensconced in southern california. in the past couple of weeks the eyes of the nation were focused on the reagan presidential library. as america said goodbye to nancy reagan to you interests james baker and ron reagan junior both claim to that without mrs. reagan there would've been no president reagan. i'm not a real fan of iunterfactual history conduct have expressed that same view regarding mary lincoln.
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is underscore this morning by sidney blumenthal. i have attended lots of events like this. i've heard many presentations on mrs. lincoln from friends and foes of this controversial first lady. love her or hate her. there is little doubt in my mind that they love each other deeply and supported each other for better or worse in sickness and in health. her support was an indispensable elements of his ambition. our next speaker knows more about this just about anybody. of this bookthor on mary lincoln. it traces the complex and often tragic life of mary lincoln.
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i encourage you to read the book. her guest blog on christian mcwhorter's blog about the civil dr. mcdermott's expertise the americaneyond legal system in the 19 century. her phd dissertation on juries in the antebellum midwest formed the basis of her 2012 book published by ohio university press, "the jury in lincoln's america." our colleague and friend rights mcdermott's careful study, based on extensive primary source research, sheds fresh light on the legal history the 19th century america.
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it should come as no surprise that she is comfortable with primary material. since the early 1990's, starting as an intern and working her way to her current position as assistant director and associate editor, she has been an integral part of the papers of abraham lincoln project in illinois. his ambitious effort aims to identify, index, and make available digitally all the works created by lincoln, as well as the material received by him. i first became aware of her contributions when she was on the advisory board, dealing with successful first phase of the project, lincoln's legal career. the papers project was caught in the middle of a political budget dispute in the state of illinois. i draw your attention to the editorial in the new york times last sunday on march 13, and if you were so moved, i so urge you to exercise your right to petition the government for redress of grievances. at this time, and without public service announcement behind me, it is my pledge -- my privilege
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to invite stacey to the stage, nine by two to give her a warm welcome. -- and i invite you to give for a warm welcome. [applause] ms. mcdermott: it is such a pleasure to be here today. i was so nervous giving a talk at this hallowed building, and then i saw this, they did that, i'm from the midwest, that's perfect. i feel right at home with this scenery. it called minors right away. perhaps many of you dislike mary lincoln.
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perhaps many of you believe that she is really not so bad, but she just suffers by comparison to her mythical godlike husband. perhaps they're even some of you who actually like mary lincoln, as i do. but i am absolutely certain that everyone assembled here today is aware of the fact that mary lincoln is not a popular historical figure. and mary lincoln's legacy in this regard is going to be at the forefront of my presentation today. but i am not here to defend mary lincoln. i'm not here to deny that she made mistakes, she sometimes acted badly, and she failed to be a perfect wife, a perfect mother, and a perfect first lady. rather, my goal here today is to offer some reflection of my personal journey with mary lincoln, in writing my biography of her extraordinary life. to share my perceptions of how some of mary lincoln's contemporaries, and some modern historians, have unfairly judged her. and to provide some illuminating historical context for her fascinating life.
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hopefully, at the end of my presentation, you'll understand a little bit of what a nice girl like me is doing in this sordid mary lincoln business. and you will maybe understand mary lincoln a little better, too. most important like him i hope that you will see mary lincoln's humanity. when i first began working at the lincoln papers, i was taken aback, frankly, by the veteran that many lincoln scholars spewed at mary lincoln. as a new scholar at the time, was reading every i can get my hands on, trying to get up to speed. the mary haters were really just impossible to escape. they dominated the lincoln story of the 19th century, the lincoln historiography of the 20th century, and the symposia and historical conferences that i was attending in the 21st century. constantly, they presented on the one hand, the kind and
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honest and good mr. lincoln, and on the other hand, his hateful, deceitful, hellcat of a wife. this is a delicious dichotomy, i admit it. but it really doesn't do us much help in understanding abraham lincoln, his marriage, or his wife. they certainly don't help us understand mary. at the time, it appeared to me that jean baker, a phenomenal historian and really quite adept biographer, sheep and a lively biography and a very balanced portrayal of mary lincoln in 1987. at that time, when i was studying lincoln and trying to understand all of this, she seemed to me to be the only one who was interpreting married with any historical nuance at all. jean baker's mary lincoln was, to my mind, a real person with good qualities and bad qualities.
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now, i had read all the biographies i could get my hands on on abraham lincoln. and i had read many of the biographies that had been written about mary. it seemed free clear to me that figures per trail of abraham lincoln having chosen mary, she was the mother of his four boys, and she was the first lady who was by his side. yet biographers didn't seem interested in any of the new wants. i will admit, i had just finished a masters degree under the two village of a feminist women's historian. i probably had my own feminist backup. but it seems pretty clear to me that there was a male-dominated cadre that generally disliked mary, will cast her in an unflattering way.
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i was an editor of lincoln's papers, and i have mostly preferred my view of the lincoln story from atop the voluminous pile of documentary evidence, not rolling around in the mucky areas of historical interpretation, at least where abraham and mary lincoln were concerned. yet, in hindsight, i started to notice that i probably was a mary lincoln biographer was probably turning within me for a while.
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sweeping biography of a really adjusting person. in a very short little volume. of course, choosing documents for the end of the volume, i was terribly excited about that. once i signed the contract, my nerves were still there. i worked really hard to think about a fresh way of approaching this project that made sense in a brief biography, it also would be an approach that would allow me to explore the really rich historical context of mary lincoln's life.
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and i desired to have an approach that might be useful to future biographers of her famous husband, abraham lincoln. i sat down and really comfortable places in my house, drink some wine, then i read very slowly every single word of the more than 600 letters that are in that volume, at about 200 or so more that have been discovered since that volume was published in 1972. much of that time, read those letters out loud to my dog. who didn't seem to mind. i took no notes, which is something i have never done before as a scholar.
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i concentrated hard on mary's voice, i really try to get inside her head. even though couple of my friends warned me about the dangers of getting inside a crazy lady's head. but i'm kind of a crazy lady to, just ask my husband. i jumped right in there, and i didn't think it was really all that crazy inside of mary lincoln's head, after all. i spent about three months just reading those letters. all the while i was thinking about how personal and historical experiences were shaping mary's life.
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about how mary viewed those experiences, and about how mary understood her familial, social, and public relationships. and about how mary was to finding -- defining the world around her. the more i read, the more realized not only did the mary haters understand mary, but i have not understood her either. where they had dismissed her as crazy and mean-spirited and defined her as a detriment to lincoln's public persona or to his personal happiness, i had assumed a feminist posturing defending her that also failed to adequately capture who she was as a person, what her life was like. reading mary's letters not only opened up a real life to me, but it also opened up my eyes to my own historical biases. the letters of mary lincoln's widowhood, a portion of her life that i think is maybe the most understood, ended up being the most poignant for me. in my rediscovery of this woman i thought i had known. this is the point in her chronology, finally, where i began to accept her for all of her complexities, and for all of her faults. when i hit the letters the mary wrote between 1868 in 1871, during her time in europe with her son, thad, i very clearly saw an intelligent, sensitive woman with a whole lot of what we would today call baggage.
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and she was navigating fairly well through life that was both a blessing and a curse. i saw a woman who had a great deal of strength, but it was very fragile at the same time. i wanted to tell human stories about this very real person, from her perspective, with as
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much as her heart, her intellect, her soul as i could possibly glean from the world -- from the words she had written. by the time i sent to writing, it became a personal imperative to me to allow mary lincoln to tell as much of her story as was possible. that was my approach. two long had historians appropriated and misappropriated her life, and her history to their own end. or to tell the story of her husband life. my approach to this biography was to rely very heavily on mary's own words and reflections, correcting errors in filling in gaps in providing historical context where the historian me -- in me deems necessary. in the end, i think i met the demands of my editors by writing a readable, accessible, very short biography of mary with a few fresh perspectives on her life. i also think i've written a biography that illustrates really quite well the richly human qualities of historical experience through the eyes of a woman who, like all of us, was flawed. mary lincoln was the wife of abraham lincoln.
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mary lincoln was also a daughter, a student, a sister, a mother, a friend, and ultimately, widow. she was a 19th century woman, doing the best she could. sometimes, her efforts exceeded even her own expectations. sometimes, they were just good enough. other times, they were devastatingly insufficient. her story real is a human story. i hope my biography adequately captures mary lincoln's humanity. mostly, though, in the end, i just hope that i have written a life that mary lincoln herself might recognize. now, what i would like to do is to share 10 facts -- top 10 list -- 10 facts, 10 mary lincoln facts, that i would like all of you to take out of the room today.
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fact number one. there was no such person named mary todd lincoln. until her sister and was born, she was marianne, and after that, she was just plain mary. when she arrived in illinois, she was miss todd, mary todd, or molly, and that name it. when she married abraham lincoln on november 4, 1842, she became mary lincoln. she called her mary lincoln,
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mrs. lincoln, mrs. abraham lincoln. she was mary lincoln until she died. i suppose that feminist historians started this mary todd lincoln thing in an effort, i guess, to rescue her from domestic of security or something. but it is historically inaccurate, and it drives me bananas. every time i hear it. so please, just call her mary lincoln, or mrs. lincoln.
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fact number two, the lincoln marriage was a companionable one. very todd and abraham lincoln recorded in the parlor of mary's sister's house in springfield, in the context of an emerging new ideal in 19 century marriage -- companionship. mary and abraham were looking to a spouse that was share interests with them and have similar perspectives as they did. they liked children, and they loved partisan politics. and they had a very large circle of political friends in common. a significant romantic backdrop for the couple, and other couples in springville as well. and they were likely in love and
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talking about marriage by december of 1840. unlike their parents, mary and abraham saw marriage as something beyond an economic union. they aspire to find love and friendship as well. marital expectations were greatly heightened for the generation of americans. this is a very important context in which they suffered their famous lovers break up in january 1841. it was also their shared interest, their enthusiasm for politics that reunited the couple in the summer of 1842. like most marriages, the lincoln marriage had its ups and downs. but throughout their more than 22 years together, they enjoyed each other's company, it is absolutely clear. they shared a great love of their boys, and they continue to bond over literature, poetry, the theater, and politics. there can be no doubt here that abraham lincoln chose mary lincoln because he loved her and enjoyed her company. he chose her because he believed
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she was an appropriate fact number three. lincoln did not travel the circuit as a lawyer to get away from mary. [laughter] lincoln started writing the circuit as soon as he began his law career in 1937. he was traveling the circuit when he married in november of 1842. at that time, it was common for lawyers and judges to travel legal circuits.
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lincoln was not the only lawyer, nor was he the only professional in this era who lived an itinerant professional lifestyle. during this era, docrs, teachers, businessmen and others covered large geographic areas and spend time away from their homes and families. he was not strange that lincoln continued to travel the circuit after his marriage. mary understood the reality, her own father had traveled a great deal for politics and for business. fact number four. mary's interest in politics was extreme, but it was rooted in the context of 19 century gender roles. mary's kentucky family
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remembered her as a fiery little whig is a very younger, and she earned a reputation for not only understanding politics of the day, but for being willing to share her opinions about her hero, senator clay, who apparently she said she would one day marry. like no other time in american history, women were becoming interested and involved in politics in the 1840's. they attended barbecues and rallies and speeches, and they read and depend -- and penned
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cap in literature. they were constrained to, because they had no vote or political power, and mary was ok with it. while there was a social role for her another women to play, in the end, mary believed it was really a sphere for males. it is no accident, however, that mary only considered political men, and certainly, she encouraged and often times really encouraged the political ambitions of her husband, who was, she saw very early on, a rising star in illinois.
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but mostly, mary lincoln viewed her role as the wife of a politician, albeit, a very smart and opinionated one, and she directed her ambitions towards her husband, and within the context of her own marriage. she was never, for example, interested in engaging in the women's rights movement of the late 1840's. fact number five, mary lincoln's education was extraordinary. extraordinary. at a time when most women never attended school, and all, and actually lucretia clay, henry clay's wife, was allegedly illiterate, women who did go to school maybe went 2, 3, 45 years. that was it. mary lincoln spent 10 years in a forward thinking academies in lexington, kentucky. a particularly vibrant and interesting educational environment. she studied math and history and science and religion, and of course, french.
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these educational experiences were very important as part of who mary was, and how she lived her life great they emboldened her confidence in her spirit, and they made her really very unique. when ms. mary todd arrived in springfield in 1839, she was the most educated and likely the most sophisticated, and probably the most intelligent lady in the entire town.
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fact number six. mary lincoln suffered, and her suffering was very real. but a time she was in her mid to late 20's, mary was suffering with regular headaches or migraines, probably migraines. and they plagued her throughout her entire life. she was also, by nature, and emotional woman. personally, i don't give a lot of credence to this history, but i do think it's very likely that if mary lived today, she would've probably been treated with medications for a mental health issue of some sort, and she likely would have suffered far less than it appears she did.
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she rarely let for physical health keep her from attending to the children, running a household, which were mostly did herself in springfield, or being involved with charitable works like her sewing circles in springfield. in her later years, mary lincoln suffered from diabetes. she had serious back problems, and she was, in the end, readily losing her eyesight. as she aged in her body began to feel hurt, keeping the sorrow from swallowing her up was a very difficult struggle for her. mary buried one child in springfield, lost the second one in the white house, and watch the civil war claim family members, close friends, and ultimately, her own husband. some historians have criticized mary for her protracted grief following the death of her son and the assassination of her husband, arguing that everyone suffered during the war.
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the civil war was, indeed, it will render this, horrendous tragedy. a human tragedy. and yes, a lot of women, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of women lost sons and husbands. she called him her troublesome little sunshine, and his companionship in her early widowhood has been critical to her survival. she loved and adored this child. and i'm of the opinion that losing thad was very likely her hardest sorrow of all.
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when she wrote out instructions for her funeral, she requested to be buried with mr. lincoln on one side, and thad on the other. number seven, mary lincoln was a modern, kind of hip mama. many of you might be aware, ensure you were aware, mr. lincoln's indulgent parenting style, as many lincoln biographies discuss this fact with wonderful stories to go along with it. it was not common to have
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birthday parties for little kids in that era, like it is today. this over-the-top party also occurred in december 1860, at a time when the lincoln family had way more important things to do. yet, they took time to indulge their child. of course, this treatment of the kids continued in washington. the boys were allowed to ron and play in the private and public areas of the white house. their wild child behavior annoyed lincoln's secretaries
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apparently, he arrived at the lincoln home with two campaign flags and promised one of the flags to one of the lincoln boys. probably thad. but when he left to return home, he carried both of the flags away. on may 25, mary wrote to delahaye this letter, it's one of my favorite mary letters. she wrote one of my boys appears to claim prior possession of the smallest flag. inconsolable for its absence. as i believe it is too small to do you any service, and he is so urgent to have it, i will ask you to send it to us at the
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first opportunity you may have. especially, as he claims it, and i feel it is as necessary to keep one's word with the child as with a grown person. hoping you reached home safely, i remain yours respectfully, mary lincoln. fact number eight, mrs. lincoln overspent on clothing and she overspent on white house remodeling when she was first lady. but, there's so much more to the story of her time in washington. mary lincoln made a home for boys, and her husband, in that dusty old mansion. and she did her best to let those kids be kids in the midst of chaos, danger, and the persistent candidate for. she worked hard to carveout private time with the boys, and with her husband.
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and when it was possible, stealing family time at the white house, at the theater, or out in soldiers homes, where the lincoln family periodically escaped the chaos of the city. not only was this a comfortable yourself, it also was a welcome comfort and necessary distraction for husband as well. it was mary, not her husband, who understood that in maintaining an appropriate and functioning white house in the midst of war, hosting state dinners and holding public receptions, for example, in a stately unsophisticated environments sent a message of a functioning government to the nation, and to the world. on a regular basis, for example, the lincolns opened the white house to the public, and mary stood in receiving lines for hours, going through several pairs of white, clean gloves, no doubt, greeting the public with grace, respect, and kindness. when mary lincoln was in washington, she made frequent visits to the sick and injured soldiers, writing letters for them, bring them gifts of fresh fruit, and even liquor. and she raise money for hospitals caring for them.
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she also raised money for freed slaves, and helps her black dress maker, who was a close female friend, make contact in new york, and philadelphia to raise money as well. she also believed that the abolition of slavery was a positive result of the war, and would be the single most important legacy for her husband and her children. as well, mary lincoln suffered no confederates, of course, she didn't suffer most people, certainly didn't suffer fools, but even those who happened to be members of her own kentucky family. number nine.
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mary lincoln is the reason that abraham lincoln is buried in oak ridge cemetery in springfield. mary lincoln wanted her husband buried in a quiet, green spot, a peaceful, pastoral setting. she chose the newly established oak ridge cemetery in springfield, illinois. there were hard pressures to bear the president in washington. and then, to mary's horror, a monument association springfield consisting of a contingent of old lincoln friends developed plans to build a two and monument in downtown spring field. mary was furious, and her son robert was also furious. in june of 1865, she wrote illinois governor richard oglesby, this is what she wrote to the government illinois. i feel that it is due to candor and fairness that i should notify your monument association that unless i receive within 10 days an official assurance that the monument will be erected over the tomb in oak ridge
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cemetery, in accordance with my often expressed wishes, i will use my consent to the request of a national monument association in washington, d.c., and have the sacred remains deposited in the vault prepared for president washington, under the dome of the national capital as early a period as is practical. she put her poker face on and dared the association to call her bluff. in order to convince her to change her mind, a delegation from springfield travel to chicago, where mary had settled with her son. mary refused to see them, even in the end, she won the battle. and think goodness. because oak ridge cemetery really is a perfect and pastoral setting for all of us to commune with lincoln's spirit.
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it was a burden to be the family of a martyred president. as well, where is usually the 19th century press was pretty respectful of women, many papers really took off the gloves where mary was concerned. some historians have argued that with mary's actions as first lady, particularly her overspending at the white house, she had invited the vicious assault on her character and her femininity. that she had brought it on herself. but i don't agree with them, and in fact, i think the press was pretty unfair, albeit mostly a partisan press.
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the names of those prominent ladies and gentlemen of new york city her turned out to view the sale. the court into the paper, they would have been disrespectful to those prominent ladies and those prominent gentlemen to drag their good names into the fray. but whether or not you believe mary lincoln deserved all she got, it really doesn't matter. what matters here is that mary found it unbearable to live under all that public scrutiny. lucky for her, she had the luxury of traveling abroad. something she had always come her entire life, wanted to do.
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to visit the best medical spas and very forward thinking medical spas for mary's health, and to enroll thad in a fine european school. they settled in germany, they made friends, they kept in touch with family members and friends in america. and they did an incredible amount of sightseeing that mary enjoyed almost more than anything she had ever done before. some of these letters are wonderful, she talks about her visit in foreign places. mary was and continues to be devastated that she did not have lincoln by her side to enjoy these trips with her. she frequently struggled to keep sorrows in check. but she did delight in tennant company, and i think these were some of her happiest years. when she went back to europe for a second time living abroad, she went for many of the same reason she had gone in 1868.
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after her insanity hearing, her incarceration in a mental institution in batavia, illinois, and are successful efforts to regain control of her own finances, mary lincoln made plans for a permanent exile in france. her sister, elizabeth, had offered a permanent home in springfield, and encouraged her to settle closer, at least closer to home. yet mary believed it that she could not live a peaceful life branded as a lunatic in the press, in a country where everyone knew who she was, and so many people disapproved of her. as she told her sister, i love you, but i cannot stay. she settled in france in october, 18 76, and she lived there until october 1880. when she became too debilitated by health problems to stay any longer. she wrote numerous -- hundreds -- of letters to family and friends. she reported on her travels, commented on political matters in europe and the united states, and still showing emotional details of her grief that
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continue to play her. she also penned, among those letters, about 100 letters to jakob dunn, a springfield merchant an old friend of her husband's, with whom she had left her personal finances in the states. i like this letter because it illustrates mary's mental health and intellect, and it reveals her care and concern for family members back home and demonstrates that even in her twilight years, in a location far removed from home, she retained her passion and interest in american politics. in that letter, she wrote my dear sir, the tension paper become an environment with instructions has been received. i returned the paper to you signed by the proper authorities, mr. musgrave graze
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the consul, connected with the american consulate, lebaron to banneker is one of the high authorities here and one of the government officers. i observe by my daily paper of paris, which receives constant news of america, that gold on the eighth of december was 107 and a quarter. mary continues doubtless the agitations caused by the difficulty of deciding who is to be our next president overshadows everything in our beloved country. we can only pray that no civil war worker -- war will occur to blight our lustrous plans. she's commenting on the american
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president election of 1876 that resulted in the copper are miserly 277 and the withdrawal the compromise of 1877 and the withdrawal of federal troops. therefore i was not a prepared to receive the sad and painful intelligence of his death. with many kind remembrances to your family, believe me, mary signed your letters mrs. abraham lincoln. rarely using her own first name. her later letters offer much evidence that her mind was frequently taken back to her happy life with her husband in springfield. before the war, and before the time when grief and sorrow overshadowed her life.
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i think it is a sad and sweet evidence that she was retreating into the role in life that she had most enjoyed, her role as as her physical and emotional health, her body and ultimately, her eyesight failing her, she welcomes death, because she believed in death she would be reunited with the man she loves, the children she had lost, and the domestic life she had lived with her beloved family. to conclude, i will just say that i find mary lincoln's life compelling. she was a complicated woman who lived in interesting life in a fascinating period of american history. more importantly, i think the reason that mary lincoln is so compelling is because she was a complex individual. she was smart, intellectually curious, and social. yet she was insecure, petty, and reclusive. she loved with all of her heart and her soul, and she hated with
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all of her heart and her soul. evaluating her upbringing, education, and her life experiences, i think makes her even more compelling. because we can understand something of how she became the woman she was. we can better see why a man like abraham lincoln chose her. she was a woman with a great big personality at a time when society expected women of her social status to sit quietly in the wings to be charming and pretty and graceful, but not too charming or two pretty or to graceful. and i wholeheartedly believe that she did ok navigating that. i like her. i also think that if you are willing to see mary lincoln's humanity, and recognize the nuances of her person, in the context of her life, you might even learn to like her too.
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[laughter] [applause] i like your presentation, i heartily concur with your conclusion. i think it's wonderful what you my mother-in-law was a good example. i knew she was senile when she
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was 95 years old and she started treating the right. i think what you are saying about mary todd lincoln and the different parts of her personality all of this is very much on target. ms. mcdermott: thank you. no question, i got off easy. [applause] to join the conversation like us on facebook. this year c-span is touring cities across the country exploring american history. a look at our recent visit to montgomery alabama.


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