A vibrant social history set against the backdrop of the Antebellum south and the Civil War that recreates the lives and friendship of two exceptional women: First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and her mulatto dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly.
“I consider you my best living friend,” Mary Lincoln wrote to Elizabeth Keckly in 1867, and indeed theirs was a close, if tumultuous, relationship. Born into slavery, mulatto Elizabeth Keckly was Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker, confidante, and mainstay during the difficult years that the Lincolns occupied the White House and the early years of Mary’s widowhood. But she was a fascinating woman in her own right, independent and already well-established as the dressmaker to the Washington elite when she was first hired by Mary Lincoln upon her arrival in the nation’s capital. Lizzy had bought her freedom in 1855 and come to Washington determined to make a life for herself as a free black, and she soon had Washington correspondents reporting that “stately carriages stand before her door, whose haughty owners sit before Lizzy docile as lambs while she tells them what to wear.” Mary Lincoln had hired Lizzy in part because she was considered a “high society” seamstress and Mary, an outsider in Washington’s social circles, was desperate for social cachet. With her husband struggling to keep the nation together, Mary turned increasingly to her seamstress for companionship, support, and advice—and over the course of those trying years, Lizzy Keckly became her confidante and closest friend.
With Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly, pioneering historian Jennifer Fleischner allows us to glimpse the intimate dynamics of this unusual friendship for the first time, and traces the pivotal events that enabled these two women—one born to be a mistress, the other to be a slave—to forge such an unlikely bond at a time when relations between blacks and whites were tearing the nation apart. Beginning with their respective childhoods in the slaveholding states of Virginia and Kentucky, their story takes us through the years of tragic Civil War, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the early Reconstruction period. An author in her own right, Keckly wrote one of the most detailed biographies of Mary Lincoln ever published, and though it led to a bitter feud between the friends, it is one of the many rich resources that have enhanced Fleischner’s trove of original findings.
A remarkable, riveting work of scholarship that reveals the legacy of slavery and sheds new light on the Lincoln White House, Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly brings to life a mesmerizing, intimate aspect of Civil War history, and underscores the inseparability of black and white in our nation’s heritage.
About the Author
Jennifer Fleischner was awarded a one-year Mellon Faculty Fellowship in Afro-American Studies at Harvard, where she researched and taught alongside such colleagues as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Also the author of Mastering Slavery, she is now Chair of the English Department at Adelphi University.
The improbable friendship of Mary Lincoln, daughter of a slaveholder, and Elizabeth Keckly, daughter of a slave, so ably recreated and documented in Fleischner's dual biography, challenges much of what we think we know about nineteenth-century American color consciousness, black as well as white. Without understanding Lincoln's attachment to Keckly, we can never appreciate the contradictions that made the First Lady so controversial. Without recognizing Keckly's role in the Lincoln family, our awareness of African American influence on the politics of nation in the 1860s remains incomplete.
--William L. Andrews, E. Maynard Adams Professor of English, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, editor of Classic African American Women's Narratives, and co-editor of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature
“An excellent, illuminating book that offers a fresh vision of Mary Lincoln, acquaints us with the exceedingly interesting Elizabeth Keckly, and provides new insight into race, women’s lives, and American society in the 19th century.”
–William Lee Miller, author of Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography