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Book Review: The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage by Daniel Mark Epstein

By Jason Emerson
4/1/2016 • America's Civil War Magazine

The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage by Daniel Mark Epstein

Ballantine Books, 2008, $28

Daniel Mark Epstein’s The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage is historical revisionism at its worst. It is the first major salvo in the coming onslaught of what some Lincoln scholars label “The Cult of Mary”—a collection of writers who try to diminish the achievements of Abraham Lincoln and make Mary Todd Lincoln as historically important, as iconic, and as socially and politically relevant as her husband. This way of thinking continues to grow despite any facts to the contrary, and, usually, without regard to the truth.

The Lincolns is, as the title states, the story of the 23- year marriage of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd. It begins in 1842 with the reconciliation of Abraham and Mary after their broken engagement the previous January, and ends after Lincoln’s death in April 1865. Epstein’s thesis is that the Lincolns were the ideal American love story, totally happy and committed, and a political partnership equally engaged in and bent on Lincoln becoming president.

In Epstein’s view, Abraham Lincoln was nothing, and would never have been anything, but a provincial lawyer without Mary. As for Mary, Epstein ignores loads of evidence about her vicious temper, her self-centered behavior and her general unpleasantness. Any mistakes she made in life were Lincoln’s fault. The tens of thousands of dollars in personal debt that Mary amassed during the war, for example, was not the result of her rapacious shopping mania; rather, it was Lincoln’s fault for not telling her how much money he made.

Epstein, author of Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington, argues against all known facts that Mary was—like Hillary Clinton was to her president-husband in the 1990s—Lincoln’s political partner, without whom he would never have had any ambition or have ascended to the nation’s highest office. This, of course, ignores the famous saying by Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, that Lincoln’s ambition was “a little engine that knew no rest.”

Before he ever met Mary Todd, in fact, Lincoln was so motivated that he basically was self-educated. He taught himself the art of surveying and then the law, and later became a prominent member of the Illinois bar. He also was elected to the state legislature four times—accomplishing several momentous achievements there—all without the help of his future wife.

Lincoln often was away from home on legal and political business, usually for six to eight months of the year. Yet Epstein argues that for Lincoln to give a speech without first reading it to Mary was akin to “leaving without her approval of his wardrobe and grooming”— a statement devoid of any provable fact.

Epstein’s sources are minimal, mostly from secondary works, and not all of them known to be reliable. His excuse for this is to “avoid redundancy and annotating the obvious,” which is simply code for lack of scholarship. He calls William Herndon an unimpeachable source and then later cites him as being unreliable.

Epstein makes the specious claim that Lincoln contracted syphilis as a young man and that he therefore broke his first engagement to Mary Todd because he feared he would infect her. Both these statements have been proved as false rumors so many years ago that for Epstein to state them is not only an obvious attempt to generate publicity by making spectacular assertions, but also shows that he either is ignorant of the Lincoln source materials and previous bibliography, or, worse, that he just does not care.

The possible criticisms of this book are so legion they cannot all be accommodated in a short review. To put it succinctly, this is the result of a flimsy research effort. Epstein clearly relied too heavily on nominal material. He either did not consult all of the primary Lincoln resources or completely misinterpreted them. He restates the most obvious and previously disproved rumors and innuendo about Lincoln and the members of his family.

This book is unreliable as a work of history. What it does, as Abraham Lincoln once supposedly said of biographies, is “commemorate a lie and cheat posterity out of the truth.”

While interpretations of the state of Abraham and Mary’s marriage may vary, the evidence does not. Yet in The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, Epstein has written a work in which he egregiously ignores and loosely portrays the known facts about the 16th president and his wife.

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