The House At Eighth And Jackson

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“Mr. Lincoln . . . was very exceedingly indulgent to his children,” Mary later wrote, trying to explain the boys’ behavior. “He always said: ‘It is my pleasure that my children are free, happy and unrestrained by parental tyranny. Love is the chain whereby to bind a child to its parents.’” Some have taken this at face value, seeing in it further evidence of Lincoln’s patient wisdom, his foresightedness in understanding the advantages of the more permissive style of child raising familiar in our own day.

It seems at least as likely that Lincoln was a fond but preoccupied and often absent father who, when he did make it home, wished to enjoy his children, not to discipline them. Child raising, he believed, was woman’s work. “Since I began this letter,” he wrote to a friend when Robert was small, “a messenger came to tell me, Bob was lost; but by the time I reached the house, his mother had found him, and had him whip[p]ed—and, by now, very likely he is run away again.”

The boys’ chronic obstreperousness may simply have been the only way they knew to attract their oblivious father’s sustained attention. According to Herndon, they rarely held it long. “On a winter’s morning,” he remembered, “[Lincoln] might be seen stalking and stilting it toward the market house, basket on his arm, his old gray shawl wrapped around his neck, his little Willie or Tad running along at his heels, asking a thousand little quick questions, which his father heard not, not even then knowing that little Willie or Tad was there fast running after him, so abstracted was he. When he thus met a friend on the road, he said that something he had just seen, heard, or left put him in mind of a story which he heard in Indiana or Egypt [southern Illinois] or elsewhere, and tell it he would and there was no alternative . . . but to patiently stand and hear it.”

The stories his friends stood to hear were often strong stuff. After Lincoln’s death an old woman who had known him as a youth began to recite for an interviewer a piece of doggerel she believed he had written, then stopped, blushing furiously, and explained that since the “poem is smutty . . . I can’t tell it to you, will tell it to my daughter-in-law, she will tell her husband; and he will tell it to you.” When a friend asked Lincoln why he didn’t publish his stories, he wrinkled his nose. “Such a book,” he said, “would stink like a thousand privies.”

Such redolent tales would not have been spun out in Mary Lincoln’s parlor, but they were surely told in the upstairs bedroom, where her husband often retreated with his political friends, and that room remains, it seems to me, the place in the restored house most successfully evocative of its owner. There oval portraits of his Whig heroes, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, hang above the black parlor stove; on a baize-covered table rests the battered mahogany lap desk he carried in his saddlebags while riding the circuit; his original shaving mirror is nailed to the west wall, startlingly high. Bargains were struck in this room, campaigns were planned, political news was received, and tactics were altered to fit new circumstances.

Mary may not have been immediately privy to the salty intriguing that went on next door to her own bedroom—few women in her time wished to be considered “political females”—but she was always intensely interested in his career, amiable to his allies, unforgiving of his enemies, and unwilling to allow setbacks to impede his progress.

Lincoln wondered at the skill with which she served as his hostess in the Springfield house, sometimes presiding over gatherings attended by three hundred guests—and once, if the local newspaper is to be believed, “thronged by thousands” inching their way through the downstairs rooms. But he also reserved the right to be a little bemused by it all. At one reception the guests were expected to serve themselves from pyramidal shelves piled high with sandwiches, fruit, and frosted cakes. “Do they give you anything to eat here?” Lincoln murmured to the man ahead of him in line.

Mary’s ambition was every bit as consuming as Herndon said her husband’s was, and while the evidence offered by some of her admiring biographers that she greatly influenced his political thinking seems thin, at least to me, she was certainly his most effective and persistent booster. “Mr. [Stephen A.] Douglas is a very little, little giant by the side of my tall Kentuckian,” she told a relative, “and intellectually my husband towers above Douglas just as he does physically.” When the Whigs won the White House in 1848, it was she who wrote more than forty letters to Washington applying for a federal post and signed his name to each—and she who helped talk him out of taking the dead-end ones offered in response. He was destined for greater things, and so, she thought, was she.

During the 1858 Senate race against Douglas, a sudden downpour forced Lincoln and a reporter to take shelter together in an empty boxcar. “My friends got me into this business,” he told his companion as the rain splattered through the open door. “I did not consider myself qualified for the United States Senate, and it took me a long time to persuade myself that I was. . . . Mary insists, however, that I am going to be Senator and President of the United States, too.” He clasped his long arms around his knees and laughed. “Just think of such a sucker as me as President!”