Mary Lincoln Juvenile/Educational Biography
Mary Todd Lincoln
(December 13, 1818-July 16, 1882)
There is, perhaps, no First Lady more misunderstood than Mary Todd Lincoln. Her life was tragic from beginning to end, filled with loss, public criticism, and hatred. However, many issues of note today touched on her life’s story: mental illness, women’s rights, race relations. Outspoken and emphatic in her views, Mary Lincoln was politically active during a time when this was unacceptable behavior for a woman. Indeed, she was a woman who often tested the boundaries of proper womanhood and crossed over them. This is the story of Mrs. Abraham Lincoln.
Birth, Youth, and Marriage
Mary Ann Todd was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on December 13, 1818. She was the third daughter and fourth child of Robert Smith Todd and his wife, Eliza Ann Parker. Two more children would be born to the family before Mrs. Todd’s death in 1825 when Mary was not yet seven. Her father was a wealthy, educated banker and businessman who did not remain single for long. And, regrettably, there was no love lost between young Mary and her stepmother.
When given the opportunity to attend Dr. John Ward’s academy, Mary was delighted. Dr. Ward was an extremely well-educated Episcopal minister. Mary attended the academy for six years, until she transferred to Madame Mentelle’s French school for girls when she was fourteen. There she studied the Old World arts—sewing, writing, sums—and continued her study of French. In fact, almost all conversation at Madame’s was in French. The boarding school deepened her love of literature (she enjoyed reading the works of Shakespeare and Robert Burns) and fashion but did nothing to dampen her enthusiasm for politics, a love that had developed in her childhood. When she was only eight, she had ridden to the home of a family friend, the orator Henry Clay, and volunteered to be his hostess if he were ever elected to the presidency. Mary remained at Madame’s for four years; then she returned to Dr. Ward’s for two additional years of study.
When Mary turned nineteen, her eldest sister Elizabeth invited her to come to Springfield, Illinois, for an extended visit. Elizabeth had already played matchmaker for another sister and now it was Mary’s turn to be introduced to Springfield society. Mary, however, did not stay long because she wanted to enroll at Transylvania University in Lexington. Although she could not study toward a degree, she did want the opportunity to take classes. During this same time, her father’s bank fell on hard times due to the recession of 1837. Family slaves had to be sold at auction to settle debts. For the first time, Mary saw the horror of the auction block: the splitting up of slave families and the placement of a monetary value on a human life. When her sister Elizabeth extended the invitation again in the fall of 1839, Mary accepted and returned to Springfield—this time for good.
Young Mary was the belle of Springfield society. Her sister Elizabeth was married to Ninian Edwards, the son of a former governor of Illinois. The young couple was socially prominent and Mary was well received. She was attractive, petite, with light brown hair and blue eyes. Many young men lined up to squire her to parties, including the future Senator, Stephen Douglas. At a dance held in the Edwards’ home, Mary met a Springfield attorney and state legislator, Abraham Lincoln. He was ten years older than Mary, heavily in debt, and quite conscious of his backwoods origins. When the 6 foot 4 inch Lincoln walked up to 5 foot 2 inch Mary Todd, he bowed and said, “Miss Todd, I wish to dance with you in the worst way.” She later quipped, “He certainly did!” He fell in love with her and by the end of 1840 they were engaged.
The Edwardses, however, disapproved greatly of the romance. Elizabeth believed that Lincoln was nothing, came from nothing, and would eventually amount to nothing. She wanted something much better for her younger sister. Lincoln was quite aware of the Edwardses disapproval and on what he later called “that fatal first of Jan’y. ’41,” he asked her to release him from the engagement.
Not until July 1842 did friends intervene and get the couple back together. From the moment they saw each other again, all was forgotten and forgiven. Secret preparations for the wedding began. On the morning of November 4, 1842, Mary told her sister that she and Lincoln were going to be married that day. The Edwardses, seeing that they could not stop the wedding, insisted that it be held in their front parlor that evening. Engraved in the ring Lincoln gave her were the words, “A.L. to M.T.—November 4, 1842—Love is eternal.” From that day on, Mary Todd became Mary Lincoln. She never linked her maiden name with her married one, never signed her name Mary Todd Lincoln. She became Mary Lincoln.
Home and Family (1842-1861)
The Lincolns’ years in Springfield brought hard work, the birth of four sons, and reduced circumstances for a fun-loving young woman who had never felt responsibility or known real want before. Robert was born in 1843 and was the only son to survive to adulthood, living until 1926; Edward, who lived only four years, was born in 1846; William, who lived until 1862, was born in 1850; and Thomas (or Tad) was born in 1853 and died in 1871. Despite Abraham’s debts, the family was able to purchase a house from the minister who married them. It was a one-and-a-half story house at the corner of Eighth and Jackson Streets in Springfield.
After the purchase of the house, Mary began to help Abraham with his social skills. She broke him of the habit of answering the front door in his suspenders—men answered the door in their home wearing their dress jacket over their suspenders. She helped him with his grammar and cultivated his manners. All of these touches would aid him in his rise in politics. As his fame grew, so did the demand for his legal services. This made them well-to-do with regard to money, but it took Abraham away from home for long periods of time. During this time period, judges rode from courthouse to court house to oversee trials that were scheduled in advance on a regular plan called a circuit. Lawyers followed the judges. This was called “riding the circuit.” His long absences would deepen Mary’s already present fears—fears for his safety and fears of being alone.
Abraham became so well-known that he was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1846 and he served the full two-year term. Mary and their sons were able to follow him to Washington for part of the term. However, Lincoln did not run for re-election and they returned to their Springfield home in 1848. Abraham continued to concentrate on his law practice until he was once again bitten by the political bug in 1854. In 1856 he received some mild support for the Republican Vice-Presidential nomination, but he lost. In 1858, Abraham ran for the United States Senate against Mary’s former suitor, Stephen Douglas. In a series of debates the two argued over the continuing slavery issue and whether or not it should be allowed to spread to the territories on the Great Plains that were being opened up to settlement. Lincoln’s speech, “A House Divided,” made him a possible candidate for the Presidency in 1860, but it defeated him for the Senate in 1858. When notified of his defeat, Lincoln turned to Mary and said, “It hurts too much to laugh, but I’m too big to cry.”
Mary continued to believe in her husband’s greatness. “Wouldn’t he be a magnificent president,” she would remark. When Lincoln won the Republican nomination for the Presidency in 1860, she threw their home open to anyone and everyone. She drew both praise and criticism—praise for her support of her husband and criticism for all the new clothes she wore. “Mrs. Lincoln is…well, she is Mrs. Lincoln,” one gossip sniped. She refused to be meek and timid. She had always been treated by her husband as an equal, and she was determined to be treated in the same manner by his cronies and allies.
Because of the split in the Democratic Party (a northern group supported Stephen Douglas and a southern group supported John C. Breckenridge for the presidency) and the addition of the Unionist Party that supported John Bell, the election of 1860 saw four men running for the presidency. Hundreds of supporters came to Springfield to meet Abraham and to visit with Mary. Throughout the summer and fall of 1860, she entertained on their front porch and in their front parlor. She became aware of the threats against Abraham’s life—that if elected he would be assassinated. Her nerves were often strained by fears for him, anxiety about the crowds, and deep fatigue. She also knew that if Abraham were elected, the south would leave the union.
On November 8, 1860, Abraham was at the telegraph office waiting for news. He received the telegram announcing his election to the Presidency. He then slowly walked home and coming in the door, greeted his wife with, “Mary, Mary, we’re elected.”
The White House Years
The years of the American Civil War are forever etched in American history--and in our mind’s eye. And no image of those four years is more haunting or more vivid than that of our President, Abraham Lincoln. However, his somber image hides the terrible tragedy of what happened to Mary.
Because money was never quite real to her, Mary tended to spend without thought. It was something that she would never be able to control and as her loneliness increased and her husband was away more frequently, shopping became a way to ease her fears and her loneliness. When she moved into the dirty and unkempt White House, she asked for and received a Congressional appropriation of $20,000. She used this money to thoroughly clean the building, lay new rugs, purchase new chairs, curtains and wall paper, and by the fall of 1861, the White House shone as never before. For once (and probably for the last time) the praise was universal. At a time when our nation was faced with inward destruction and the Union so desperately needed allies, Mary knew that it would not do to have broken chairs, dirty rugs, and tobacco juice-stained walls. The President’s House needed to reflect beauty, stability, and prominence. However, she exceeded the budget by more than $6,000, a princely sum in the 1860s. Abraham was furious, but when he calmed down, he paid the extra and realized that Mary had been cheated by several merchants.
The criticism of Mrs. Lincoln shopping extravagantly during wartime was a common one. Many people thought she spent too much money on expensive clothes, but there is another side to this story. When Mary first arrived in Washington, she interviewed a number of dressmakers and hired Mrs. Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave. In addition to making Mary’s beautiful gowns, Mrs. Keckley served as nanny to the Lincoln boys. The friendship between the two women was deep and true. When Mrs. Keckley’s son was killed while fighting in the Union Army in Missouri, Mary consoled her friend; when Willie died of an undiagnosed fever in 1862, Mrs. Keckley stood by her. And it was from this deep friendship and her hatred of slavery that Mary’s involvement with the Contraband Relief Association was born. This group aided runaway slaves who came North during the war.
As the war lengthened, gossip developed that Mary was a Confederate spy, a traitor to the Union cause. These untruths probably developed because of the fact that two of her brothers and her brother-in-law died fighting for the South. Much as she loved them, she dared not grieve openly for them. Her family in the South could not understand her lack of public grief, and denounced her bitterly. She felt totally alone.
Although her position fulfilled her high social ambitions, Mary’s years in the White House were a mixture of misery and triumph. Her excessive spending generated resentful comments. As the Civil War dragged on, Southerners scorned her as a traitor to her birth, and citizens loyal to the Union suspected her of treason. When she entertained, critics accused her of not being respectful of the Union dead. When she curtailed her entertaining after Willie’s death in 1862, she was accused of ignoring her social duties. Yet Abraham, watching her put guests at ease during a White House reception was heard to remark, ”My wife is as handsome as when she was a girl, and I...fell in love with her, and what is more, I have never fallen out.”
The outcome of the presidential election of 1864 was never in doubt; Lincoln won handily in spite of the criticism of Mary. Victory over the South was clearly in sight, and Abraham was seen as the president who had led the nation through the war. On March 4, 1865, Mary watched proudly as Abraham took the oath of office for a second time. On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox in Virginia. Five days later Abraham and Mary attended a performance of Our American Cousin, a play at Ford’s Theatre. John Wilkes Booth shot the President as Mary held Abraham’s land during the play. Lincoln lingered near death for several hours and Mary was not allowed to see him. He finally died the next day.
On May 22, 1865, Mary Lincoln, draped in black, left the White House with only her two surviving sons, Robert and Tad, and her loyal seamstress Mrs. Keckley. She settled in Chicago and faced the problem of paying off her $27,000 indebtedness. She attempted to sell her old clothes and some of her jewels at auction in New York City; however, the gowns and gems were recognized and did not sell. Mary was subjected to public ridicule. Lincoln’s estate was finally settled and Mary’s money woes were over.
In November 1866, Mary learned that her husband’s former law partner had published a lecture in which he stated that Lincoln had never loved any woman but Ann Rutledge who had died years earlier. According to the paper, Lincoln had mourned her death even while married to Mary. Although she knew this was not true, the popular willingness to believe it brought her more humiliation and frustration. To escape, she and Tad fled to Germany in 1868. Tad attended school, and Mary traveled extensively, visiting England and Scotland as well as touring Germany. In 1870 Congress belatedly granted her an annual pension as the widow of a president. This should have eased her financial worries but it did not. A year later, she and Tad returned to Chicago where he died barely eight weeks later.
Over the next four years, Mary was subjected to the wide publicity given to the former law partner’s increasingly scandalous allegations about Abraham and about Mary. This, coupled with Mary’s increasing fears of being alone and of fire and her contant worry about her last son’s health, made her turn to prescription sedatives and spiritualists. Insomnia was an increasing problem. She was clearly distraught, roaming the country, hysterically fearful, buying compulsively, and carrying thousands of dollars in cash in her purse. Robert did all he could to care for her but, concerned for her protection and medical treatment, he called for a sanity trial. On May 19, 1875, despite testimony that she was normal except for her conviction of poverty and her mania for shopping, she was adjudged insane after only a ten minute deliberation! She was confined in a private sanatorium in Batavia, Ill. After four months, she was placed in the care of her sister, Elizabeth Edwards, in Springfield. Her condition improved, and a second jury reversed the original verdict.
To escape the label of “lunatic,” Mary once again fled to Europe, this time settling in France. Her health, however, was in a state of decline. From what we know today of her symptoms, she most likely suffered from an undiagnosed case of diabetes and spinal arthritis. Her migraine headaches continued to be severe. She returned to Elizabeth’s home in 1880. She was slowly going blind and her health continued to deteriorate. She died on July 16, 1882, in the same house where she had been married forty years before. The exact cause of death may have been a stroke; the death certificate merely says, “paralysis.” She was buried in the Lincoln tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, with her husband and three of their sons.