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Mary Todd Lincoln and Varina Davis Howell
Much like their husbands, Mary Todd Lincoln and Varina Davis Howell had a lot in common. Both were first ladies of countries besieged by war. Both women grew up in prosperous, slave-owning families. Both were well educated, better educated, in fact, than most women of the time. Both were often ridiculed and deeply hated by those who worked closely with their husbands. Although the Civil War divided them, Mary Todd Lincoln and Varina Davis Howell were more alike than different.
Mary Todd Lincoln
Mary Todd Lincoln was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1813 to Robert Todd, a wealthy merchant and state senator who was prominent in Lexington. Her father, unusual for the time, insisted that Mary had an education; therefore, eight-year-old Mary was sent to Shelby Female Academy and continued her education at Madame Victorie Mentelle’s Select Academy for Young Ladies near her home in Lexington.
After graduating from college, Mary moved to Illinois to live with her sister, Elizabeth, the wife of a prominent Springfield citizen. Due to her sister’s social status, Mary was introduced to Illinois society, where she enjoyed the status of a young belle. Two of the beaus who courted her in Illinois were Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.
It was Lincoln who won Mary’s heart, and after a torturous engagement, opposed by her family and broken at least once, Mary and Abraham Lincoln were finally married in 1842.
Mary’s life as the wife of a poor country lawyer would have stood in stark contrast to her upbringing; The Lincolns’ first home as newlyweds was an $8-a-week room in a tavern. However, despite the deprivations, the Lincolns were happy and had four sons together – Robert Todd, born in 1843, Edward Baker, born in 1846, William Wallace, born in 1850, and Thomas, dit Tad, in 1853. She lost two of these sons, Eddie and Willie, in childhood.
Mary Todd Lincoln was as much, if not more, politically ambitious for her husband as he was for himself. In addition to keeping up with the political news of the day, discussing politics with him – and influencing many of his opinions – she was convinced that he would one day be president.
She supported her husband in his position as a member of the House of Representatives, and when he ran for president, used her connections and upbringing to dispel the idea that she and her husband were ignorant of the hinterland, a popular notion at a time when few presidents came from the “west”.
Mary took office as first lady in anything but a welcoming climate. Many thought Mary was a spy for the South, despite the fact that she herself was a strong supporter of the Union and the abolition of slavery. Her mercurial temper convinced many that she was insane, and her lavish entertainments at the White House during wartime caused others to perceive her as frivolous.
The death of her son Willie in 1862 and the assassination of Lincoln in 1865 were blows from which Mary Todd Lincoln never fully recovered. His mental and physical health declined significantly. At one point, she was committed to an asylum. She died in 1882, having outlived all but one of her children, broken by the losses she had suffered.
Varina Howell Davis
Born in 1826 on her family’s prosperous Mississippi plantation, Varina Howell, like Mary Todd Lincoln, enjoyed an education that many women of the time were denied. Educated by a private tutor and then at an exclusive finishing school in Philadelphia, Varina grew up with an interest in politics and literature.
On her way home from school for Christmas, Varina met Jefferson Davis. Davis, a widower who was 36 to Varina’s 17, began courting Varina, a courtship her parents strongly opposed, both because of the age difference and Davis’ political beliefs – he was a Democrat, the Howells were Whigs.
Despite her parents’ opposition, Varina and Davis were married in 1845. They had six children. Davis, then Secretary of War, spent a lot of time in Washington, and Varina joined him there, where she gained a reputation as a wonderful hostess while helping her husband with his political aspirations.
When Davis was elected President of the Confederate States of America, he and Varina moved from Mississippi to Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. Her influence over Davis was such that some of her commanders and ministers not only feared and resented her, but found being in her place not only useful but essential.
Like Mary Todd Lincoln, Varina Howell Davis came under scrutiny during the war. She, too, was criticized for entertaining in the Confederate White House during the war—some criticized her for entertaining too much, others argued she did not entertain enough. Her family’s northern roots—her grandfather had served as governor of New Jersey for several terms—questioned her loyalties, and her outspoken gossiping labeled her as ill-mannered.
After the war, the Davis fortunes immediately declined. Jefferson Davis was imprisoned for a while (Varina actually joined him there for a while – not because of any wrongdoing on his part, but to be near him), and Varina worked relentlessly to have him released and to restore the rights of his family under the constraint of reconstruction. . She supported herself by writing her memoirs and articles for periodicals after her husband’s death in 1889. She died in 1905, having outlived all but one of her children, still bitter at her family’s treatment after the war.
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