Clementine & Mary: Partners in Life & War

Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln was a principled realist. There is a pragmatism even to Lincoln’s selection of a wife. The future president’s ambition was reflected in his courtship. He was not satisfied to marry those such as his father had married – women without status, without education, without a pedigree. Whether he courted Ann Rutledge, Mary Owens or Mary Todd, he demonstrated a distinct propensity towards social advancement. Mary Todd was the product of Lexington’s French finishing school. Her elocution in French may have been better than her husband’s in English. But Lincoln’s marriage has always been something of a mystery. The Lincolns’ correspondence was very limited. Their time apart could be extended when he was practicing law on the Eighth Judicial Circuit. “Unlike David Davis, Richard Yates, and other attorneys and politicians who wrote home regularly, Lincoln seldom corresponded with his wife,” wrote historian Michael Burlingame. “(Herndon said his partner ‘hated’ to write letters.) Nor did she write often to him. In 1850, [Judge David] Davis reported that Lincoln had received no word from Mary since he left Springfield seven weeks earlier.1

The war correspondence between Churchill and Clementine is much fuller and detailed than the war correspondence between Lincoln and Mary. Clementine’s letters are often perfect gems of good judgement and wise advice to her impetuous and irritable husband. Lincolns’ letters and telegrams were usually very brief. A typical one from Abraham to Mary in September 1863: “The Secretary of War tells me he has telegraphed Gen. [Abner] Doubleday to await further orders. We are all well, and have nothing new.” Three days later, President Lincoln writes a similarly brief telegram to his wife in Vermont: “All well, and no news, except that Gen. [Ambrose] Burnside has Knoxville, Tennessee.”

Young Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill were awkward among women. “Winston just stared,” recalled Clementine Hozier of their first meeting at a 1904 ball. The normally confident Winston already was well known as a writer and a politician. “He never uttered one word and was very gauche – he never asked me for a dance; he never asked me to have supper with him.” Churchill biographer Roy Jenkins wrote that Churchill “was emphatically not a ladies’ man. He did not dance, and he was bad at routine dinner-party conversation. Unless his female neighbours could inspire him to talk, preferably about himself…he most ignored them.” In 1908, Winston and Churchill reconnected and Churchill determined to propose to her at Blenheim. It took three days to get up the nerve to ask the question. A few weeks later, they wed at St. Margaret’s church near Parliament in London. “We have only loitered & loved – a good & serious occupation for which the histories furnish respectable precedents,” a honeymooning Churchill wrote his mother.

Lincoln’s marriage was equally sudden. He and Mary told her relatives on the day they intended to marry in November 1842 in Springfield. Mary’s sister insisted on hosting the wedding – even though she had never really approved of Lincoln as husband material for Mary. According to the groom’s friend, James Matheny, Lincoln “looked and acted as if he was going to slaughter.” He said Mary had told Lincoln that he was “honor bound to marry her.” Lincoln biographer Michael Burlingame suggested that Mary may have convinced Lincoln that he had to marry her because she had become pregnant. It may have been a case where “Honor’s Voice” spoke to Lincoln. Lincoln scholar Douglas Wilson wrote: “When Herndon tried to get John T. Stuart to talk about these matters, all he would say was that he thought ‘that the marriage of Lincoln to Miss Todd was a policy match all around.’ By ‘policy’ he apparently meant that, on both sides, it was a course of action considered ‘expedient, prudent, or advantageous.’ Love, Stuart seemed to say, had very little to do with it. For Mary, it appears to have been the consummation of a long-standing wish. This is the implication of her family’s and most other testimony, and she certainly had other suitors and bright prospects for other matches. But for Lincoln, whatever else it might have been, it was the culmination of a long and severe inner struggle. Deciding to reopen his courtship with the willful and aristocratic Mary Todd was a pivotal decision, and having seen it through to its ultimate conclusion apparently left Lincoln with a sense of numbed astonishment. Just a week after the ceremony he concluded a letter to a friend with the note, ‘Nothing new here, except my marrying, which to me, is a matter of profound wonder.’”

Lincoln’s relaxed ways aggravated Mary. A neighbor recalled being visited by Mr. Lincoln: “Mary is having one of her spells, and I think I had better leave her for a few days. I didn’t want to bother her, and I thought as you and I are about the same size, you might be kind enough to let me take one of your clean shirts! I have found that when Mrs. Lincoln gets one of these nervous spells, it is better for me to go away for a day or two.” Mary’s temperament was undisciplined but devoted. Illinois attorney Henry C. Whitney recalled that Mary Todd “desired to occupy an exalted position – to be paid court to, to be feted, flattered, admired, stared at, waited on, talked to and about, to be the center of attraction, to make a display, and to wield power. Such things were well known and observed of all men; she not only took no pains to conceal, but she gloried in such vain performances; and she was judged chiefly by those facts apparent to the world, and unsparingly condemned.” Whitney contended: “Lincoln thoroughly loved his wife. I had many reasons to know this in my intimacy with him, and she therefore wrought a great influence over him.”

There were times, however, when President Lincoln had to tolerate Mary’s erratic behavior and ignore her energetic attempts at influence. Attorney Milton Hay claimed that Mary “may have had some influence upon him, but not in the way she claimed. I think she made his home tolerably disagreeable and hence he took to politics and public matters for occupation. If his domestic lie had been entirely happy, I dare say he would have stayed at home and not busied himself with distant concerns. In that way she have been of use to Lincoln.”

There were never questions of Lincoln’s and Churchill’s faithfulness to their wives although there have been some questions about the wives’ faithfulness to their husbands. Churchill aide John Colville wrote that Clementine “provided everything that Winston Churchill thought women should provide: a well-run household, ambrosial food, five children, and, above all, a loyal and loving heart. There are many marriages in which fidelity is all but unbreakable, but there can be few that excelled the Churchills’. What was notable was the way in which their qualities and defects complemented and canceled each other. She was never for one minute afraid of her formidable husband. When she thought he was doing wrong or making a mistake, she said so forthrightly. She did not always agree with his political views; she deplored his unpunctual and inconsiderate habits; she was acutely aware of any injustice or unkindness of which, almost always unconsciously, he was guilty. What he lacked, she provided.”

Still, their relationship was always easy. The Churchills were very different people. Historian Norman Rose wrote of Clementine: “Of an innately pessimistic disposition, and plagued continually by delicate health, she sometimes found the strain of managing the property, particularly on a shoe-string budget, beyond her. Not enamoured in the first place with her role as Chartwell’s mistress, her unwelcome, onerous responsibilities led to some disagreeable scenes. On one occasion, differing about how best to regulate Chartwell’s burgeoning accounts, Clementine threw a plate of spinach at Churchill. At times mentally and physically exhausted from the effort of matching up to his standards, she would take ‘the cure’ abroad. Churchill knew that her breakdowns resulted from ‘the work & burdens’ he imposed upon her.” Like the Lincolns, the Churchills seem to have needed time apart in order to survive their time together.
Rose wrote: “There was a clear incompatibility of temperaments, an in-built tension that on occasion bubbled over. Clementine was more reserved than he, more prone to worry, more puritanical by nature, more thrifty, more suspicious of people’s intentions, less given to flights of groundless optimism. By contrast, Churchill was an unrepentant hedonist, he was more easy-going, more positive in outlook, more innocent in his ways.”

Not even Clementine could extinguish Winston’s normal self-centeredness, but she did lessen it. For example, noted historian David Dilks, he gave up his pursuit of a pilot’s license in 1914, writing his wife: “This is a gift – so stupidly am I made – wh costs me more than anything wh cd be bought with money. So I am vy glad to lay it at your feet, because I know it will rejoice & relieve your heart….You will give me some kisses and forgive me for past distresses – I am sure. Though I had no need and perhaps no right to do it – it was an important part of my life during the last 7 months, and I am sure my nerve, my spirits & my virtue were all improved by it. But at your expense my poor pussy cat! I am so sorry.”

Winston Churchill was cheerleader for the Allies in World War II. Clementine Churchill was cheerleader for her husband. Churchill was more fortunate in his spouse than was Abraham Lincoln. Clementine was a clear analyst of Winston’s strengths and faults. When he was badly behaved, she spoke up. “My darling, I hope you will forgive me if I tell you something I feel you ought to know,” she wrote in June 1940. “One of the men in your entourage, a devoted friend, has told me there is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues and subordinates because of your rough, sarcastic and overbearing manner….My darling Winston – I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner; & you are not so kind as you used to be,” she wrote him in late June 1940. “It is for you to give the Order, & if they are bungled…you can sack anyone & everyone. Therefore with this terrific power you must combine urbanity, kindness & if possible Olympic calm.”

Mary Todd may have married Lincoln because she herself was politically ambitious. Clementine married Churchill despite his political ambitions. “Even during these weeks of their engagement, public life laid constant claim to both his time and his interest,” wrote daughter Mary Churchill Soames. “Already she saw the face of the only real rival she was to known all the fifty-seven years of marriage that lay ahead – and for a brief moment she quailed.” Lincoln himself had broken two engagements – once to Mary Todd herself and once to Mary Owens several years earlier. Clementine had broken two earlier engagements, and her brother advised her that it would be intolerable if she embarrassed a rising young political star like Churchill. The Churchills’ devotion to each other was obvious from the start. Newlywed Clementine wrote Churchill wondering “how I have lived 23 years without you. Everything that happened before about 5 months ago seems unreal.”

Clementine developed her own Mary-like belief that her husband would become prime minister. When Churchill was ousted from parliament in the late 1920s, Churchill supported his family with writings for periodicals as well as books. “It made him unique among upper-class British politicians, most of whom had private incomes or lived on parliamentary salaries,” noted biographer William Manchester, “and Clementine worried about that. She recognized the absolute necessity of his free-lancing, but was afraid it might be considered beneath his dignity and therefore an obstacle to high office.” Mrs. Lincoln was perhaps even more ambitious for political advancement than her husband. A young Lincoln neighbor in Springfield, Philip Wheelock Ayres, wrote: “In the numerous political gatherings at Mr. Lincoln’s house, Mrs. Lincoln was a very great help to her husband. A lady of refined tastes, with a large social experience, and with considerable political insight, she carried the social end of the campaign admirably.”

Both Mary and Clementine were politically opinionated, but both were eclipsed in their personal influence as their husbands reached the pinnacles of their careers. Unlike Clementine, Mary never suffered from reticence. Mary did suffer from unreasonable jealousy regarding any feminine attention to her husband – no matter how innocent. Both wives were temperamental and high-strung. Both suffered accidents in the summer – of 1863 for Mary and of 1943 for Clementine. Mary was thrown from a runaway carriage while the Battle of Gettysburg was being waged several hours north of the capital. A preoccupied president first telegraphed his son Robert: “Don’t be uneasy. Your mother very slightly hurt by her fall.” Actually, Mary’s wound soon became seriously infected, and Lincoln wired Robert that he should “come to Washington” from Harvard.

Mary’s behavior also caused the president repeated concern and anguish. A friend remembered that Lincoln had “several times told me…that he was constantly under great apprehension lest his wife should do something which would bring him into disgrace.” Her behavior could be embarrassing. ”There is no doubt that Mary Todd was highly temperamental. There is no doubt that she was super-critical. There is no doubt that she often devoid of tact. There is no doubt that she was – during a large portion of her married life – a nervous and mental invalid, subject to violent fits of anger, and almost childish tantrums,” wrote Lincoln scholar Jewett E. Ricker Jr.“

Both couples frequently spent time apart. In the case of the Lincolns in the 1840s and 1850s, the cause was Mr. Lincoln’s travel for legal and political reasons. In the case of the Churchills, the cause was “[t]heir taste in playgrounds, was, literally, miles apart. Clementine, unlike her husband, had been raised in a thrifty home and taught to distrust the voluptuous. If abroad, she instinctively sought to justify the trip by improving her mind,” wrote biographer William Manchester. “She enjoyed brisk sight-seeing when she did cross the Channel, preferred British seaside resorts if she needed relaxation, and disliked the exotic Rivera. Winston detested galleries and museums. He liked to hunt, play polo, and, eager for lush surroundings and colorful scenes he might paint, sought, to use his word, ‘paintatious’ locales bathed in bright, continual sunshine.” Churchill, moreover, liked to gamble, and Clementine disapproved.”

Clementine melted down during the Quebec summit in 1942; Mary collapsed after son Willie’s death in February 1862. Clementine arrived in Quebec “in a state of profound physical and nervous exhaustion,” wrote her daughter. “[T]he nervous strain under which Clementine had lived for the last four years was exacting its price.” In the fall of 1940, Clementine had a tantrum over the publication of unflattering photographs of her in the Picture Post. John Pearson wrote: “Clementine was painfully upset, and no sooner was the favorite photographer of royalty inside Number Ten than he found himself assailed by the wife of the Prime Minister at the epicenter of one of her celebrated rages. Accusing [Cecil] Beaton of all manner of deception and betrayal, she was soon in a state of near hysteria, face flushed and eyes awash with tears.” He added that “her rage went as swiftly as it came.”

“Mary tried to conceal from Lincoln her own dark days and increasing ill health,” wrote biographer Jean Painter Randall. She suffered “like so many in her day, as a victim of ague, a malarial affliction marked by a regular succession of chills and fever.” Clementine also suffered from debilitating headaches. But she was an important counterweight, noted Churchill aide John Colville. “While usually satisfying his frequently immoderate requirements and sometimes rather quaint whims, she supplied the cold douche of realism and common sense that brought domestic order into a home that would otherwise have been chaotic….She had no trace of priggishness or pomposity, but her standards were consistently high and her husband, her children, her friends and her domestic staff often fell short of them. She could then display an acidity of tongue before which the tallest trees would bend and she would occasionally give vent to uncontrollable temper.”

Biographer Richard Hough wrote: “Both Winston and Clementine can fly into sudden anger, but the loss of temper never last long; nor do they bear ill will against those who have offended them. No one has ever heard them arguing or quarreling seriously with each other. Occasionally a good-humored outburst has been provoked by Clementine’s love of expensive clothes, for though Winston delights in seeing her dressed to perfection, the bills have, at times, given him, like so many husbands, some shocks. ‘Do you realize how many [newspaper and magazine] articles that is going to cost? He would say with gentle reproof on hearing how much she had spent on a new dress. Clementine, an expert on economies in other directions, would promise to go easier with clothes expenditure in the future, but it was a promise she rarely found the will power to keep.” Unlike Mary Lincoln who liked to visit stores, Clementine Churchill “spent little time in shops; things were sent to her at Chequers or Chartwell or wherever she was staying,” according to Churchill secretary Mary Shearburn.

Winston Churchill’s self-indulgence was as legendary as were Lincoln’s simple and frugal tastes. Friend Violet Asquith Bonham-Carter recalled that Clementine Churchill “told me that Winston was most extravagant about his underclothes. These were made of very finely woven silk (pale pink) and came from the Army and Navy Stories and cost the eyes out of the head….When I taxed him with curious form of self indulgence he replied: ‘It is essential to my well-being. I have a very delicate and sensitive cuticle which demands the finest covering. Look at the texture of my cuticle.’” Historian John Keegan wrote: “Churchill was well tailored but liked clothes that slipped on easily, the zippered one-piece siren suit at home, always zippered shoes.” But often Churchill did not so much clothe himself as to put on a costume. Bodyguard William H. Thompson wrote: “I was sometimes surprised at the various forms of relaxation he favored. He wore his well-known ‘rompers’ or ‘siren suits’ on many occasions at Chequers and over them he would wear a multicolored dressing gown. At times, so dressed, he would walk alone in the Great Hall, beating time to the various tunes played on records on the automatic radiogram.”

There was never any question that Churchill’s aides and contemporaries appreciated Clementine’s active involvement and presence in the prime minister’s life. General Hastings “Pug” Ismay wrote of Clementine Churchill’s role during the first Quebec conference: “Mrs Churchill’s presence was a great comfort. If the Prime Minister got ill, or was too naughty, she could look after him as no one else could.” Clementine got along better with Churchill’s staff than Mary ever did with Lincoln’s aides. At Chequers, she regularly went on walks with Private Secretary John Martin. Martin noted that when he hosted a “sherry party to say goodbye to [fellow aide] Jock Colville,” who was joining the air corps, “Mrs Churchill came and stayed for about an hour and brought the PM with her – very genial and beaming cheerfully on everyone, though of course he couldn’t stay very long.” Daughter Mary wrote: “Among Winston’s colleagues, Clementine had some true and ‘cozy’ friends – such as Sir Peter Portal, Chief of the Air Staff (whose wife, Joan, was also a friend and a coworker of her on the Fulmer Chase committee), and ‘Pug’ (Sir Hastings) Ismay, Chief of Staff to Winston in his capacity as Minister of Defence. And in the members of Winston’s Private Office she found a continual source of loyal help, understanding, and support in the many problems and vicissitudes of their everyday life in these years.” With Churchill’s official family, Clementine did not need to put up a front or withhold information.

In contrast, Mary Lincoln’s relationship with Lincoln’s personal secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, was particularly tempestuous. On April 9, 1862, Hay wrote Nicolay: “The Hellcat is getting more Hellcat-tical day by day.” Mary was one reason that both young men sought to escape the White House at the end of Lincoln’s first term – for diplomatic posts in Europe. Mary was glad to see them go – she wanted her friend Noah Brooks, a journalist, as a replacement. Much of Mary’s patronage scheming came to nought, and her husband’s assassination meant that Brooks never got a White House job – although thanks to Secretary of State William H. Seward, Nicolay and Hay still got their posts abroad. For much of the first term, Mary – as well as the private secretaries – had relied on a third Lincoln aide, William O. Stoddard, as a bridge between them. Stoddard noted: “I was expected to be in attendance on Mrs. Lincoln at all her public and private receptions, and also at the weekly public receptions of the President.” Stoddard recalled Mrs. Lincoln’s consternation when the Lincolns were sent by ‘several of his admirers in New York…a fine assortment of wines and liquors without letting him know precisely from whom it came.” Since the Lincolns did not drink or keep liquor in their house, Mrs Lincoln was confused. “I had to laugh at her discomfiture but advised that the only courst I could see was to acknowledge the gift in due form to the only address that was provided. As for the wines and liquors, she had better send them to her favorite hospitals and let the nurses and doctors take the responsibility for their future.” And so she did.

“Mrs. Lincoln went to Washington with a distinct understanding of her social duties and with an energetic purpose to perform,” aide William O. Stoddard maintained. “She did not, however, anticipate any clashes with other government officials over her prerogatives. “At the outset [Hay] and Nicolay were to take their meals at the President’s table,” wrote Stoddard. “Ward Hill Lamon, appointed Marshall of the Supreme Court, was to have general charge of the White House, assisted by Mrs. Lincoln’s friend, Lamon’s wife….In less than a fortnight he discovered that Mrs. Lincoln proposed to be mistress of her own house wherever it might be, and Hill had no more tact than a drill sergeant. So he went out, and the Commissioner of Public Buildings came in. He was also a very fine man, but he did not know enough to restrain himself from giving orders directly, instead of through Mrs. Lincoln. His house power went to grass, and she, in some disturbance of mind, transferred much of the load to my shoulders….At all events, I understood her thoroughly, and formed a much higher opinion of her real character than a lot of her foul-mouthed slanderers.”

When in 1864 Stoddard left the White House for a new job in Arkansas, there was no longer any bridge to the First Lady. Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald wrote: “Her most memorable clash with Nicolay came early in 1864, when she struck from his list of guests at a dinner for the cabinet the names of Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, his recently married daughter, Kate, and her husband, Senator William Sprague, regarding them as political rivals of her husband and opponents of his reelection. Nicolay referred the matter to Lincoln, who directed that the three be invited. ‘Whereat,’ Nicolay wrote to his fiancee, ‘there soon arose such a rampage as the [White] House hasn’t seen for a year. Stoddard, his assistant, ‘fairly cowered at the volume of the storm, and I think for the first time begins to appreciate the awful sublimities of nature.” There was by then little respect left between the opposing parties. Nicolay referred to Mrs. Lincoln as “her Satanic Majesty.”

From the beginning of Lincoln’s presidency, Mary had been a far more controversial figure than Clementine Churchill ever was. Part was not Mary’s fault; the southern society women who still dominated the nation’s capital were catty in their criticism of her and contemptuous of her husband’s new role. Perhaps in compensation, Mary sought to assert her place. That meant redecorating the then-shabby White House. Mary overspent the government appropriation – leading to criticism in the capital and chagrin in her husband’s office. Though Mary’s vanity was wounded, more serious was the grief at the death of her son Willie in February 1864. (Willie had fallen ill the same day as a massive and controversial White House reception to show off the redecorating.) Though in mourning, Mary still managed to spend money she didn’t have on clothes she didn’t need. On August 8, 1863, Lincoln wrote his more profligate wife, then in New Hampshire: “All as well as usual, and no particular trouble any way. I put the money into the Treasury at five per cent, with the previlege [sic] of withdrawing it any time upon thirty days’ notice. I suppose you are glad to learn this.”

In the Churchill family, it was Clementine who was more likely to worry about overspending the family income. During World War II, she developed her own unique style – with a turban covering her hair at a time when hats seemed an inappropriate frivolity. Daughter Mary Soames wrote: ““Her elegant, unaffected taste in clothes was perhaps seen at its best during the ‘austerity’ years of the war, when she managed always to look exceptionally well-dressed, without seeming in the least out of tune with the times. Clementine adopted and popularised a fashion which was a graceful compliment to all the thousands of women factory workers throughout the country. For safety reasons, and also to keep dirt and dust out of their hair, factory girls nearly all tied their heads up ‘bandanna’ style in head scarves. Clementine disliked hats, and she also thought they looked singularly unsuitable in the context of ruined streets and shattered houses; but, meticulously neat, she did not wish to become dishevelled during the course of a long day’s programme. So she adopted the ‘turban-bandanna’ style, and, using every kind of material – silk, cotton,, crepe, tulle and chiffon – she assembled a ‘library ‘ of turbans. Taking trouble to arrange her turban, anchored by her earrings, carefully at the start of the day, she scarcely touched it again; it was impervious to wind and weather, and looked equally suitable whether she was visiting a hospital, clambering about in a ship, or lunching with a Lord Mayor in the Mansion House. These turbans, in which she was much photographed, acquired the nature of a distinctive and personal ‘trademark’.” In contrast, Mary Lincoln’s trademark “look” for most of 1862 and 1863 was the black of mourning after the death of son Willie. Still, she managed to spend exorbitant amounts on multiple sets of black gloves.

Churchill’s wife had a different problem. Clementine’s daughter Mary wrote: “Since Winston trusted her completely, Clementine had an extra responsibility to bear: she often knew not only what had befallen, but what was about to befall, or what might befall. This burden of secret knowledge placed a barrier between her and other people; and while she was not, in any case, a woman of many friends or prone to chattering, she tended now to shun even the few close and trusted friends she had.” Clementine Churchill was helpful to her husband. Mrs. Lincoln was not always such an asset during Lincoln’s presidency. Her friends and associates – like notorious international imposter “Chevalier” Henry Wikoff – were sometimes a public embarrassment.

“Any assessment of Churchill’s wartime contribution must include words of homage to his wife,” wrote historian Max Hastings. “Clementine provided a service to the world by her manifold services to her husband, foremost among which was to tell him truths about him. He was a domestic and parental failure, as most great men are.” Historian Geoffrey Best wrote: “Theirs was a close and affectionate relationship but also an unusual and complicated one. He loved her with all the love he did not devote to his primary commitment, public duty. She loved him with a love that accepted that proviso and was generous enough to include the consciousness – a consciousness shared by their children – of being entrusted with the care of a national hero. That sense steeled her to bear his demands for instant attention, his occasional lack of consideration for others, his talents for not hearing what he didn’t want to hear, the odd hours he kept, the odd people he liked – and his frequent absences.”

Clementine took particular interest in the conditions of air raid shelters and in raising funds to aid Russia. Historian Helen Jones wrote: “Clementine became involved with the Aid to Russia Fund in part to bolster Churchill’s image within Britain, particularly among the working class. In his history of World War II, Churchill wrote that “my wife felt deeply that our inability to give Russia any military help disturbed and distressed the nation’…..her involvement was explicitly calculated to complement Churchill’s image, which suggests that Clementine, self-consciously and with careful thought, took up a cause and moulded her public image in order to help her husband.”

Mary Lincoln’s wartime work was primarily with the army hospitals around Washington, which she visited regularly. Teenage Robert Brewster Stanton wrote: “For many months, during the war, I acted as a volunteer visiting day nurse in the hospitals in Washington and Georgetown. I assisted the regular nurses, and occasionally helped the surgeons, and did my little bit to cheer the sick and wounded. So that I saw some things that the public could not see. Many times I saw Mrs. Lincoln come to those hospitals, go through the wards distributing flowers, little gifts, kind words, smiles, and sympathy to the suffering heroes. And these little acts were done in a manner that, it would seem to me, they could not have been done except by one whose whole heart was in the cause and in the same way as that of her husband, and whose love and active help were given freely and sincerely to those suffering boys in blue.”

Biographers sympathetic to Mrs. Lincoln, like Catherine Clinton, have argued: “At a time when Mrs. Lincoln might have been gaining some sympathy from the public – locked up and weeping over her lost boy – the long knives were drawn out in the press, charging her with improprieties at best and treason at worst.” Others like Lincoln biographer Michael Burlingame and C. A.. Tripp have argued that Mary’s attempted and actual manipulations of White House expenses and collusion with White House staffer was actually criminal, and only the work of sympathetic members of the Lincoln Administration succeeded in hushing it up. Lincoln scholar Tripp wrote: “In addition to a personal unpleasantness, she indulged in forms of dishonesty both petty and monumental that were almost unimaginable. Twice she asked or arranged for a government employee to be fired on some pretext – with the salary continued, but piped back to her in cash.” Burlingame argued: “Mrs. Lincoln was a constant source of anxiety and embarrassment to her husband, who often talked to Orville H. Browning ‘about his domestic troubles.’ As Browning reported, the president ‘several times told me there [in the White House] that he was constantly under great apprehension lest his wife should do something which would bring him into disgrace.’ David Davis also worried that Mary Lincoln ‘will disgrace her husband.’ They had good reason to be apprehensive. As if Lincoln did not have enough trouble dealing with recalcitrant generals, editors, senators, governors, congressmen, office seekers, and cabinet members – not to mention Confederates – the First Lady added immeasurably to his woes.”

Both women disliked key colleagues of their husbands. For Mary Lincoln, those included William H. Herndon, William H. Seward, Edwin M. Stanton, and David Davis. For Clementine, they included press barons and businessmen Max Aitken, aka Lord Beaverbrook (born in Canada) and Brendan Bracken (born in Ireland) as well as General Bernard Montgomery. For her part, Mary distrusted Union General Ulysses S. Grant, whom she thought a “butcher.” Near the end of the Civil War, she melted down from jealousy in front of Grant’s wife. Clementine was the more adaptive. Churchill aide John Colville wrote that Clementine “conquered her dislike of Brendan Bracken; she eventually became reconciled to Beaverbrook, whose attentions to her and generosity to her husband wore down her animosity.”

Neither woman took kindly to criticism of her husband. Clementine’s daughter Mary recalled: “Clementine always reacted swiftly to situations: on Sunday, 19 May [1940], she went to church at St. Martin-in-the-Fields and returned boiling with indignation, and recounted to Winston that she had been so enraged by the pacifist nature of the sermon that she had walked out. Winston told her: ‘You ought to have cried “Shame, desecrating the house of God with lies.’” She later berated the Tory chief whip in the House of Commons over his prior support of appeasement. Mary Lincoln had the opposite problem – convincing some Republicans that her Union commitment was real – given the Confederate sympathies of much of her family. Still, noted historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, “Mary reveled in her newfound celebrity. She delighted in the crowds of visitors coming to her house, the artists pleading to paint her husband’s portrait, the prominent politicians waiting for the chance to converse with the presidential nominee.” Spiritualist Nettie Colburn Maynard recalled that Mary had “an abundance or rich dark-brown hair, large and impressive eyes, so shifting that their color was almost undecided, their brightness giving a peculiar animation to her countenance.
Her face was oval, the features excellent, complexion white and fair, teeth regular, and her smile winning and kindly. She was somewhat over medium height, with full, rounded form, and under any circumstances would be pronounced a handsome woman. In manner she was occasionally quick and excitable, and would, under excitement or adverse circumstances, completely give way to her feelings. In short, she was lacking in the general control, demeanor, and suavity of manner which we naturally expect from one in high and exalted position.”

President Lincoln once called Jessie Frémont, the wife of controversial Union General John Frémont, a “female politician.” Mr. Lincoln’s remark was not meant to complimentary. Mrs. Lincoln was also very much a “female politician.” Lincoln biographer Mark E. Neely, Jr. wrote that Mary “had an extraordinary interest in politics for a woman of the era, and she was for Abraham Lincoln quite a catch.” Lincoln Scholar Harold Holzer wrote: “Mary…plunged spiritedly into the patronage morass with which she was equally unfamiliar. ‘She meddled not only with the distribution of minor offices,’ Villard complained, ‘but even with the assignment of place in the Cabinet. Moreover, she allowed herself to be approached and continuously surrounded by a common set of men and women, who, through her susceptibility to even the more barefaced flattery, easily gained a controlling influence over her.”

For both wartime leaders, spousal spats were of limited duration. On October 7, 1944, Churchill wrote his wife: “I have been fretting over our interchange at luncheon yesterday. I am sure that no one thought of it as more than my making my own position clear, and that it all passed on the ripple of a most successful party. Anyhow forgive me for anything that seemed disrespectful to you & let yr morning thought dwell kindly on yr penitent apologetic & ever loving W.’” A week later, Churchill wrote: “This is just a line to tell you how I love you & how sorry I am you are not here. I told Kathleen to tell you all the nice things she has heard about you. I do hope that you are happy w yr & my Maria. Give her my dearest love.”

Much more jealous than Clementine, Mary Lincoln suffered through the Civil War. Her reputation also suffered from her personal feuds, her excessive spending on White House refurbishment, her debts with New York merchants, and her attempts to manipulate White House accounts. Naval officer John S. Barnes, who met the First Lady at the end of the Civil War, wrote that Mary Lincoln “was at no time well; the mental strain upon her was great, betrayed by extreme nervousness approaching hysteria, causing misapprehensions, extreme sensitiveness as to slights, or want of politeness or consideration. I had the greatest sympathy for her, and for Mr. Lincoln, who I am sure felt deep anxiety for her. His manner toward her was always that of the most affectionate solicitude, so marked, so gentle and unaffected that no one could see them together without being impressed by it. I remember that in several telegrams from Mr. Stanton, he always inquired for Mrs. Lincoln and requested his remembrances to her.”

Dr. Phineas D. Gurley of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church was the Lincoln family pastor during the Civil War. He spoke at President Lincoln’s funeral and traveled to Springfield for Lincoln’s burial. A few weeks later, Dr. Gurley wrote a friend from Washington as Mrs. Lincoln prepared finally to leave the White House to President Andrew Johnson: “Everybody in Springfield loved Mr. Lincoln, but as for Mrs. L., I cannot say as much. Hard things are said of her by all classes of people, and when I got to know how she was regarded by her old neighbors and even by her relatives in S., I did not wonder that she had decided to make her future home in Chicago. She leaves Washington with her children for Chicago tonight in the 7:30 train. I am to see her and take leave of her at 4. She is queer – but it may be that her failings have been somewhat exaggerated. She has always been very kind to Emma and myself, and I can not but feel very sorry for her. The ladies of Springfield say that Mr. Lincoln’s death hurt her ambition more than her affectations – a hard speech, but many think so who do not say so.”

That would never be said of Clementine Hozier Churchill. Churchill himself wrote of Clementine in 1935: “What I has been to me to live all these years in your heart and companionship no phrases can convey. Time passes swiftly, but is it not joyous to see how great and growing is the treasure we have gathered together, amid the storms and stresses of so many eventful and to millions tragic and terrible years?”

For Further Reference

  1. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume I, p. 222.
  2. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, (CWAL), Volume VI, p. 431 (Telegram from Abraham Lincoln to Mary Todd Lincoln, September 3, 1863).
  3. CWAL, Volume VI, p. 434 (Telegram from Abraham Lincoln to Mary Todd Lincoln, September 6, 1863).
  4. Carlo D’Este, Warlord, p. 159.
  5. Roy Jenkins, Churchill: A Biography, p. 135.
  6. Richard Langworth, Churchill by Himself, p. 523.
  7. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p.251 (Interview by William H. Herndon with James M. Matheny, ca. May 6, 1866).
  8. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume I, pp. 263-269.
  9. Douglas L. Wilson, Honor’s Voice, p. 292.
  10. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 134.
  11. Henry C. Whitney, Life on The Circuit with Lincoln, pp. 111-112.
  12. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 47.
  13. John Colville, Winston Churchill and His Inner Circle, pp. 157-158.
  14. Norman Rose, Churchill: The Unruly Giant, pp. 252-253.
  15. Norman Rose, Churchill: The Unruly Giant, p. 75.
  16. David Dilks, Churchill and Company, p. 16 (Letter from Winston Churchill to Clementine Churchill, 1914).
  17. Mary Soames, editor, Winston and Clementine: The Personal Letters of the Churchills, p. 454 (Letter from Clementine Churchill to Winston S. Churchill, June 27, 1940).
  18. Mary Soames, Clementine Churchill: The Biography of a Marriage, p. 52.
  19. Mary Soames, Clementine Churchill: The Biography of a Marriage, pp. 52-53.
  20. William Manchester, The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932, p. 765.
  21. Philip Wheelock Ayres, Review of Reviews, February 1918, p. 184.
  22. Mary Lincoln suffered a serious head injury from a carriage accident in Washington on July 3, 1863. Clementine suffered a less serious broken elbow visiting Washington on September 11, 1943.
  23. CWAL, Volume VI, pp. 314, 323 (Telegrams from Abraham Lincoln to Robert Todd Lincoln, July 3 and11, 1863).
  24. Michael Burlingame, editor, John G. Nicolay. An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays. p. 3.
  25. Jewett E. Ricker, Jr., “The Other Side of Mary Lincoln,” Part 1, For the People: A Newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Winter 2006, pp. 7-8.
  26. William Manchester, The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932, p. 761.
  27. Mary Soames, Clementine Churchill: Biography of a Marriage, p. 446
  28. John Pearson, The Private Lives of Winston Churchill, p. 285.
  29. Ruth Painter Randall, Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage, p. 204.
  30. John Colville, Winston Churchill and His Inner Circle, p. 33.
  31. Richard Hough, Winston and Clementine: The Triumphs & Tragedies of the Churchills, p. 291, 289.
  32. Violet Asquith Bonham-Carter, Winston Churchill: An Intimate Portrait, p. 173 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.).
  33. John Keegan, Winston Churchill: A Life, p. 131.
  34. Charles Eade, editor, Churchill by His Contemporaries, p. 204.
  35. Hastings Lionel Ismay, Memoirs of General Lord Ismay, p. 304.
  36. John Martin, Downing Street: The War Years, p. 64 (October 2, 1941).
  37. Mary Soames, Clementine Churchill, p. 465.
  38. Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 20 (Letter from John Hay to John G. Nicolay, April 9, 1862).
  39. William O. Stoddard, Lincoln’s Third Secretary, p. 122.
  40. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 233.
  41. William O. Stoddard, Lincoln’s Third Secretary, pp. 123, 110-111.
  42. David Herbert Donald, We are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends, p. 196.
  43. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, pp. 124-125 (Letters from John G. Nicolay to John Hay), January 18, 1864, January 29, 1864).
  44. CWAL, Volume VI, p. 361 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Mary Todd Lincoln, August 9, 1863).
  45. Mary Soames, Clementine Churchill: The Biography of a Marriage, pp. 339-340.
  46. Mary Soames, Clementine Churchill: The Biography of a Marriage, p. 330.
  47. Max Hastings, Winston’s War, Churchill 1940-1945, p. 483.
  48. Geoffrey Best, Churchill and War, p. 190.
  49. Richard Toye and Julie Gottlieb, editors, Making Reputations: Power, Persuasion and the Individual in Modern British Politics, p. 117 (Helen Jones, “‘Let us go forward together’: Clementine Churchill and the role of the personality in wartime Britain”).
  50. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, p. 351 (Century Magazine, February 1920).
  51. Catherine Clinton, Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, p. 172.
  52. C.A. Tripp, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, p. 164.
  53. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 263.
  54. Adam Badeau, Grant in Peace: From Appomattox to Mount McaGregor, pp. 358-360.
  55. John Colville, Winston Churchill and His Inner Circle, p. 19.
  56. Mary Churchill Soames, A Daughter’s Tale, p. 142.
  57. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 273.
  58. Nettie Colburn Maynard, Was Abraham Lincoln a Spirtualist?, p. 65.
  59. Pamela Herr and Mary Lee Spence, editors, The Letters of Jessie Benton Frémont, p. 266.
  60. Brian Lamb and Susan Swain, editors, Abraham Lincoln: Great American Historians on Our Sixteenth President, p. 5.
  61. Harold Holzer, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861, p. 436.
  62. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 984 (Letter from Winston Churchill to Clementine Churchill, October 7, 1944).
  63. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945, p. 1006 (Letter from Winston Churchill to Clementine Churchill, October 13, 1944).
  64. John S. Barnes, “With Lincoln from Washington to Richmond in 1865,” Appleton’s Magazine, May 1907, p. 743.
  65. (Letter from Phineas D. Gurley to Darwin, May 22, 1865).
  66. Richard Langworth, editor, Churchill by Himself, p. 511 (Letter from Winston Churchill to Clementine Churchill, January 23, 1935).
Posted in Essays