One of the most important books to read in the year of Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday may be Jean Baker’s biography of Mary Todd Lincoln, originally published in 1987 and reissued last year. Mary lost her mother early and competed in vain for parental affection with 14 siblings and half-siblings. Her lifelong need for recognition, along with her ambition and keen interest in the male world of politics and her compulsive need for fashion and finery, set the first lady up for scorn. When she lost three sons and a husband, she found herself known mainly for her debts and her “excessive” grieving (a woman was expected to show a brave resignation in the face of loss). Her remaining son, perhaps ambitious and embarrassed, was eager to have her “put away.” Her willfulness, feistiness and maladies are part of a larger picture of America before and during the Civil War.


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