Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House – Elizabeth Keckley

keckleyThe assassination of President Abraham Lincoln remains one of the most important historical events in American history.  Honest Abe, as he was known, had been elected as the first Republican president to serve in the highest office in the land.   The Grand Old Party (GOP) had been founded in 1854 and Lincoln was the icon for what the party stood for.  In the wake of his death, John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865) was shot and killed by law enforcement officers and several of his co-conspirators went the gallows including the first woman to be executed by the United States Government, Mary Surratt (1823-1865). Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882) grieved deeply for her husband but what I was not aware of, was her close friendship with a former slave and dress owner by the name of Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907).  When I saw the title of the book, I had to do a double-take and quickly realized that I needed to read this book.  And I can after having finished it, that it is an incredible story from a first-hand witness to the personal lives of Abraham Lincoln, his family and important figures in Washington who do not escape Mary’s skeptical eye.

Keckley was born a slave and she recalls her early life which is quite tragic.  Readers who are sensitive to material about slavery in the United States and acts of violence might find the early part of the book slightly difficult to read through but I promise you that it does get better in some ways.  Keckley’s story picks up pace after she earns her freedom due largely in part to the generosity of Mrs. Anne Garland who helps her raise the twelve hundred dollars required by her owner.  After satisfying the price and repaying her debt, she is free to move on in life but I am sure that she could never have imagined that she would not only serve the Lincoln family but also the family of Confederacy President Jefferson Davis (1808-1889).  I was not prepared for this part of the story and I believe it is one of the most curious moments as well.  The section on Jefferson Davis is brief, mainly because she did not spend much time with them as it occurred before the war broke out and the Davis family moved south.  And Mrs. Davis makes some comments that are quite interesting about the impending conflict.  History proved her wrong but her comments are revealing.  Keckley had gained fame as a dress maker whose skills were in high demand and it is because of this that she came into the life of the Lincolns.

Mary Lincoln takes on Keckley as sort of a personal assistant who assumes many roles, even confidant.  Keckley is full of endless memories of many private aspects of the first family’s life.  The death of Willie Lincoln (1850-1862) hits hard and we are allowed to bear witness to their enormous grief.  It is a very intimate portrait of the Lincolns that the public did not see. And when Lincoln himself is assassinated, it is Keckley who comes to Mary’s aid in her time of grief.  But, that is only half the story as the two develop a deeper friendship.  Each moves around the country, often with Keckley meeting Lincoln in yet another city.  But in the end, they were separated by distance and reliant upon written correspondence. Regardless, it is a touching story of friendship in a time where relations between blacks and whites was largely that of upper and persecuted lower class.

I did find Mary’s comments about members of Lincoln’s cabinet to be interesting and in some cases, she was vindicated.  Keckley absorbs all and makes her own comments on occasion about those figures.  The Vice-President Andrew Johnson (1808-1875) is shrouded in infamy through Keckley’s revelations about his non-actions as Lincoln lays dying.  His actions are direct proof in regards to the negative view held by Keckley and others of the man who succeeded Lincoln.  The author does not encounter him herself but does meet members of his family who stand in stark contrast to him.  Johnson’s actions during the Reconstruction Era nearly resulted in his impeachment. The vote of a single senator saved him from eternal embarrassment. Some might say that he did that before impeachment but I leave that to readers to decide.

As Mary and family move on from Washington, Keckley goes out west with them as Robert and Todd continue to grow without their late father. We see some of the lighthearted moments between mother and sons but Abe’s ghost is never far away.   And Mary has a secret about finances that Keckley reveals which may cause readers to stare in disbelief.  That secret also sets the stage for the remainder of the book, in particular the duo’s trip to New York City.   Mary is determined to regain financial stability due to the loss of her husband and status as first lady.  Keckley becomes her crutch and does her best to help Mary in her financial endeavors.  And to show Mary’s increasing concern for money, Keckley includes transcripts of the letters that she received from Mary.  In them, we can see the change in her mental state and concern for her pending transactions as time continues to move forward.  We do not see Keckley’s replies (photocopying as we know it did not exist so it is understandable) but it is clear from Mary’s letters that she does receive replies from Keckley.  The book ends without a final word on Mary, who is dependent on her dear Lizzie, as Keckley is known to those who are fond of her.  In later years, Mary was institutionalized and lived her final years moving around both domestically and internationally.  She died at the age of sixty-three on July 16, 1882 after suffering a stroke the previous day.  Keckley died in May, 1907 and rest at National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover, Maryland.

The book is short but it is a great story by a woman who lived in a horrible system of human explanation and through luck, fortune and destiny, rose above it and found a home in the White House with a president whose actions changed the course of American history.  There are some sad moments in Keckley’s own life although she does not go into deep detail about them. She keeps the focus on those she encounters, undoubtedly to show the incredible journey she found herself on.  If you have the time, I think you will find this to be a great selection and I do feel that it should be part of any library which contains literature on the life and death of Abraham Lincoln.  This is a good account from an incredible woman.

ASIN : B01CD4O772

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