"I wish I could forget myself," Mary Todd Lincoln once lamented. It was a lifelong battle that she often lost, though in the process of remembering herself, she made certain others would, too. And not always favorably. Today Mary Lincoln ranks among the most detested public women in American history, and Americans who do not know her husband's wartime policies or the names of his cabinet officers have unshakable opinions about Mary Lincoln's failings.
Many remember because she demonstrated her husband's humanity. The President who dealt so generously with the afflicted in public affairs learned, in this understanding, to do so through his private life with a shrew. It is, of course, not a solely American idea that men of great mind and sensibility, like Socrates, often endure wives of abominable temper, like Xanthippe. In our national version of this myth Lincoln, the most venerated of all American heroes, daily practiced tolerance of a cantankerous female who was neither his first nor his greatest love. If the great Abraham assures his wife's tainted immortality, the maligned Mary guarantees her husband's nobility.