Being a historical consultant for movies is never easy. How do you get the period details right while keeping it contained within an interesting narrative? But being a historical consultant about one of the most recognizable figure in history is even harder. That’s why today’s guest Catherine Clinton had her work cut out for her.

For the 2012 Steve Spielberg movie “Lincoln,” Clinton—a U.S. academic historian and expert on Mary Lincoln—was consulted by filmmakers over costume details and details about the Lincolns’ lives.


Clinton met with costume designer Joanna Johnston and actress Sally Field to discuss Mary Lincoln.

“When Joanna told me Sally wanted to meet me and arranged for a dinner in Richmond during filming, I was thrilled. It is really surreal after spending so much time in isolation with a character, imbedded with Mary Lincoln, to find someone who was equally fascinated, equally puzzled, passionately seeking insight,” she said to the BBC when the movie was released.

“Sally was like a laser beam trying to cut through all the artifice to get to the heart of Mrs Lincoln – a feat she achieved with remarkable flair and muted nuance.

In this episode we discuss

  • Popular misconceptions about Mary Todd that historians know is false
  • Whether her reputation as a hellcat or maniac is deserved, and if not, why it became distorted
  • Challenges of portraying historical fact while cutting necessary corners for a 2-hour film narrative
  • What “Lincoln” portrayed about Abraham and Mary Todd that other film makers have missed
  • Lessons from the life of Abraham and Mary Todd we should remember today


Catherine holds the Denman Chair in American History at the University of Texas in San Antonio.

She has served on the executive council of the Society of American Historians and on the Advisory Committee of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Bicentennial Commission, and remains on advisory boards for Civil War History , Civil War Times, The President’s Cottage and Soldier’s Home and Ford’s Theatre.

Clinton has written and edited over 25 books, from children’s fiction about Phillis Wheatley to The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South. Her 2004 biography of Harriet Tubman, was named as one of the best non-fiction books of 2004 by the Christian Science Monitor and the Chicago Tribune. Mrs. Lincoln: A Life was published by Harper Collins in 2009



Lincoln: Academic describes role as historical consultant

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"Bringing Abraham and Mary Todd to Life in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”—Historical Consultant Catherine Clinton" History on the Net
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September 30, 2023 <https://www.historyonthenet.com/bringing-abraham-mary-todd-life-steven-spielbergs-lincoln-historical-consultant-catherine-clinton>
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