Mary Todd Lincoln’s Carpet Bills: 160 Years of Controversy and Counting
Previously published on Medium.com
Note: This was published in October 2019 on my Medium blog. It was written in response to this Daily Beast article, which is titled “Michelle and Melania’s Shared Hell: The Role of First Lady.” The tagline: “All first ladies are ridiculed while residing in the White House. Not a single one has ever won over everyone, no matter her approach. Just ask Melania Trump and Michelle Obama.”
[The Daily Beast article] opens by saying:
All first ladies are ridiculed while residing in the White House. Some complaints are based on the personality of the individual, others stem from the amorphous expectations related to the role, and still others are a product of partisan gamesmanship. Attributes that are revered in some spouses are jeered in others, and no first lady’s actions are so impeccable that she does not experience at least some degree of scorn.
No argument there. I take issue with this, though:
Complaints regarding the cost of the first lady’s attire are routinely grounded in the common misperception that clothing worn by the president’s wife is bought with taxpayer funds.
Human nature is such that people love to talk about other people, and judge their appearances. It is worth noting that the hundreds of Mary Lincoln letters which survive contain almost no references to other people’s physical appearance, or to her own. She loved dresses themselves — it wasn’t about vanity or judging others. Many of her friends — not to mention her husband — were not into fashion. A certain portion of the public, however, always has an issue with the first lady’s clothes. For them, the instinct to criticize is very strong.
So is the even more popular instinct to disapprove of how other people spend money. A first lady’s clothes are usually somewhat expensive. I’m not saying these criticisms aren’t justified or legitimate or whatever. That’s a matter of opinion, but the point is that this converation is guaranteed to happen. People then rationalize their complaints, and where their explanation is purely a matter of form, you end up with nonsensical “misperceptions.”
I don’t think the reaction is rooted in confusion over who pays the bills. When it is 100% clear that the president and his wife are purchasing their own expensive clothes, and that they have more than enough money to do so, some people will definitely still have a problem with it. They will say it shows bad taste or insensitivity when so many Americans are suffering financially, and they will say it even if they support the president politically. It is inevitable. Mary Lincoln’s outfits were complained of because 1) people like to judge the appearance of others, especially when they’re not young and beautiful, 2) she liked to dress up and dressed “loudly,” which people found snobby, annoying, or tacky, and 3) there was a war going on, and lamenting extravagance was always an easy topic to fall back on.
But no one believed she had a government clothing allowance.
The historical roots of stories about taxes being used to pay for the first lady’s clothes can be traced at least as far back as Mary Todd Lincoln who did, in fact, use federal monies approved for the running and remodeling of the White House to purchase her expensive wardrobe.
She did not, in fact, do any such thing.
There are a lot of stories about Mary Lincoln’s financial improprieties, and they tend to merge together, split up, and recombine. It has been this way since 1861, when most of them originated. Their shape-shifting prevalence often undermines their credibility instead of serving as independent corroboration.
There is one incident that is solidly established. It is the most popular story, and is a huge part of Mary Lincoln’s historical reputation. The statement quoted above is a very distorted version of it, with a clumsiness characteristic of this morphing process. It involved behavior most would characterize as financially irresponsible, but it did not involve corruption or dishonesty. Believe it or not, it didn’t even involve dresses!
Mary Lincoln’s fatal attraction was fabric. The dresses, and much of her financial issues, were a component of the larger obsession: shopping for and accumulating fabric.
In 1861, as in most years, money was appropriated to maintain and fix up the White House over the next four years. This was typically the first lady’s domain, though all purchases were legally made under the president’s authority. Receipts for the items were submitted to the government, which paid for them out of the appropriated funds. Mary Lincoln started her renovation project in May, and it was well underway by August, when it became clear the money was running out. In addition to purchased items, there was the cost of wallpapering and painting, etc. One merchant had orders to pick out carpets while on a European buying trip, approved back when there was money to spend. When the buyer returned to the U.S. months later, the money had been spent. Because the carpets were meant to cover the floors of large White House rooms, and because — of course — she chose nice ones, they were very expensive.
But Mary Lincoln had no money for it — she was given nothing in advance. That left at least several thousand dollars in outstanding bills. The default resolution for these situations was that the president had to pay it out of his own pocket, as he had contracted the bills and reimbursement was no longer an option. As often happened when government projects ran over budget, the president or responsible official could ask Congress to appropriate funds to cover the discrepancy, and hope for the best.
Mary Lincoln urged her husband to take the latter course. A great situation to put him in? No. And President Lincoln was having none of it. But neither was it dishonest nor corrupt. The optics were bad — when Mary asked the Commissioner of Public Buildings to urge submitting a bill to Congress, Lincoln characteristically got to the point: It would be “all wrong” “to have it said that the President of the United States had approved a bill over-running an appropriation of $20,000 for flub dubs for this damned old house, when the soldiers cannot have blankets.”
“To have it said.” Of course, Mary Lincoln’s expenses were not why soldiers did not have blankets. That issue was caused by shoddy contractors and distribution confusion, and the money was appropriated separately for that purpose. What bothered Lincoln was to have it said that this was so, as the press could have a field day with that contrast. So the Commissioner, Benjamin Brown French, was treated to a rare Lincoln outburst — one of the few of which there is a detailed record. “I should like to know where a carpet worth $2,500 can be put.” French suggested it was for the East Room. “No, that cost $10,000, a monstrous extravagance.”
French loved this story — and he left behind a ton of correspondence and diaries testifying to this fact. But for him, the appeal seems to have been that it was simply funny to hear the normally easygoing President rant about “flub dubs,” by which he meant frivolous things.
The scene is a classic in the Lincoln book field, it is often portrayed as though French surprised the hapless President with a bill, causing him to explode in anger at his wife. He was familiar with the details of Mary’s extravagant carpet purchases, and whether he angrily admonished her cannot be known, but he exploded at French and his request. (“Well, I suppose Mrs. Lincoln must bear the blame, let her bear it, I swear I won’t!’” French quoted him as saying. It’s unclear how Mary was to “bear the blame,” other than by paying it out of his personal funds, and this is probably what he meant. She cared a lot more about money, but, like many wives at the time, she did not have her own bank account.)
French wasn’t ruffled — he loved the story so much that, within days, it ended up in a Lowell, Massachusetts paper (he had relatives in the area, and presumably wrote them about it). The piece that ran in the Lowell Citizen on December 23, 1861 used less colorful language. “It is said that ‘Old Abe’ groaned in spirit when he saw the new carpets and upholstery pouring into the White House. ‘Just think of it,’ said he, ‘rich carpets, gay curtains coming here . . .’” By whom was it said, exactly? French’s story eventually went viral, but at the time it does not seem to have gotten much traction in the press. Some heard about it closer to the capitol. The same day, he’d likely entertained some senators with the story, noting they’d discussed “the extravagance at the President’s house.”
One of the senators, French thought, was “peculiarly worked up about it.” (Only the day before, French had written, “I like Mrs. L. better and better the more I see of her and think she is an admirable woman.”) But French’s view became the more peculiar one. This vivid image of Lincoln’s aggravation perfectly encapsulates her reputation as a reckless spender, dishonest spouse, a target of Lincoln’s anger, and leech on the government. His tone of amusement (“So my mission did not succeed. It was not very pleasant to be sure, but a portion of it very amusing.”) has mostly been lost in the framing, but French had long been associated with the government, and knew it was no big departure from normal operations, whatever people may have thought of the baseline ethical standards. In fact, after all that, Lincoln requested that Congress pay it, and it agreed to do so with minimal grumbling, despite the fact that Congress and the President were not having an easy time with each other on many fronts, to put it mildly. No one actually thought he was carpet shopping — everyone understood his spouse got a little excited, and that he had enough to deal with. As Lincoln himself told French, he had been overwhelmed with other things.
A quote from the Congressional proceedings in early 1862:
All the old members know that adherence to the appropriations made for refreshing the White House has been more honored in the breach than in the observance. I regret with other members, that the appropriations have been exceeded, and wish that it could be prevented in every case. But this does not go into the pockets of the President. These articles go into the Executive Mansion, and belong to the country. I admit that the appropriation ought to have been rigidly adhered to. Yet, it has been exceeded before. In fact every man who has ever built or furnished an extensive house exceeds his estimate of the cost, and can scarcely avoid it … I suppose the White House was fitted up in a style that was deemed proper for the residence of the Chief Magistrate of the Republic; and if this appropriation is not made, the President will have to pay this bill. With the important business pressing on him at the opening of the Administration, it is doubtful if he had much time to superintend this expenditure more closely.”
While Mary Lincoln’s project planning was not ideal, people misjudge the costs of complicated, long-term projects, especially when they have not run such a large establishment before. Other congressmen complained that others were using the issue to grandstand. “It is not alleged that this expenditure was improper,” one pointed out. “The articles that have been furnished are there, and belong to the Government . . . if this appropriation be not made, the President will have to pay for them himself, as he will do like an honest man.” Nothing unethical had been done. Congress could have simply said no. The Lincolns had no claims on government money. Wisely or unwisely, Congress chose to appropriate the money for the specific purpose of covering the overrun — it was not taken from anywhere else.
As the discussion wrapped up, Congressman Olin of New York expressed his disappointment that the House was spending its time “wrangling over small appropriations at an expense vastly beyond the whole appropriation itself, while affairs, such as the history of the world never before beheld, demand the attention, and the sole attention, of Congress.”
Probably because of all those other affairs, this debate was reported in the newspapers without too much of a stir, but after Lincoln’s death, it steadily grew in infamy (the reasons for this are its own discussion). By 1988, it could be used to castigate Reagan for his lamentable indulgence of “Nancy’s Flub-Dubs.” Decent Republican presidents, said William Safire, “directed” their “ire” at their wives, not the press!
He had the story wrong in this lovely appeal to Lincoln’s legacy— perhaps he inspired the article containing the claim I’m refuting:
Maligned as a Southern sympathizer, and suffering mental strain that ultimately led to her institutionalization, she infuriated her husband by her obsession with finery acquired at public expense. ‘’Flub-dubs!’’ President Lincoln once shouted when presented with a list of expenses for mansion furnishings and dresses. ‘’For flub-dubs!’’
The gleeful self-righteousness in some of these accounts almost makes me expect the next line to be, “Hope he gave her a good smack, too!” We should probably try not to cheer on domestic rage. Guess what? Husbands tend to cut their wives more slack than cabinet members — let alone the press. (When Safire called Hilary Clinton a “congenital liar,” President Clinton’s press secretary commented that “the President, if he were not the President, would have delivered a more forceful response to that — on the bridge of Mr. Safire’s nose.”) They can’t fire their wives, and ideally don’t intimidate them into utter submission — in fact, our presidents have shown a tendency to marry women who push back. Sometimes, of course, the president may deserve censure for something going on with his or her spouse. Take it up with the president — don’t nurture vivid fantasies of a marital showdown.
The democratic press later made claims about billing “laces” to the government and inflating the price of an item in the government invoice in order to pocket the difference in cash. If Congress participated in a coverup when it paid some of these bills, then a lot of powerful men authorized Mary Lincoln’s behavior by handing her the money. French never mentioned any of this happening, and wrote his sister at the time of the incident that “They tell a great many stories about Mrs. Lincoln, but I do not believe them ― indeed I know many of them are false. . . . She is a very imprudent woman in many things, as I do know, and taking advantage of this the world delights to add in a compound ratio, to the reality.”
Though his opinions of her were generally positive during the war years, he had plenty of complaints about her behavior (as did others). He was relieved when he no longer had to deal with her, famously writing that same sister after Lincoln’s assassination that, “It is is not proper that I should write down, even here, all I know! May God have her her in his keeping, and make her a better woman.” (These comments were prefaced by remarks that suggest this could have been a recent judgment, based on her behavior since her husband’s death: “I went up and bade [Mrs. Lincoln] good-by, and felt really very sad, although she has given me a world of trouble. I think the sudden and awful death of the President somewhat unhinged her mind, for at times she has exhibited all the symptoms of madness. She is a most singular woman, and it is well for the nation that she is no longer in the White House.”) But French never relished her suffering, and I think it is unfortunate that his accounts are generally put forth in a spirit of disparaging admonishment.
Mary Lincoln was up to something at some point, no doubt. And she certainly loved fancy dresses. But there is nowhere near credible evidence that she paid for her wardrobe with government funds meant for refurnishing the White House. She ran up expenses in excess of the funds appropriated, but there is no evidence she used the money for anything besides furnishings. If she had the chance to shop for carpets and curtains, she wasn’t going to end up with anything extra. The bottom line is that Congress was told the truth about the overrun, and agreed to cover it. But knowing this won’t change a thing when it comes to deriding first ladies’ fashion choices. That will never go out of style.