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Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln

Born December 13, 1818
Lexington, Kentucky
Died July 16, 1882
Chicago, Illinois

Wife of President Abraham Lincoln

Faced criticism and endured tragedy as first lady
of the Union during the Civil War

Mary Todd Lincoln had a difficult job as first lady during the Civil War. She had to support her husband through stressful times and defend him against his opponents. She also faced a great deal of criticism herself for her expensive tastes and quick temper. Outwardly, she was well-equipped to deal with the job of first lady. After all, she came from a prominent family and had been a popular hostess in Lincoln's home state of Illinois. Inwardly, however, she struggled with fears and depression that only grew worse with the untimely death of her husband in 1865. Her battle with mental illness after the war made her a tragic figure.

Born into a wealthy Kentucky family

Mary Ann Todd Lincoln was born into a prominent family in Lexington, Kentucky, on December 13, 1818. She was the fourth of seven children born to Robert Smith Todd, a powerful banker, and his first wife. The Todds owned three slaves who acted as servants in their home and helped care for their children. Despite this fact, however, Robert Todd was not a strong supporter of slavery. When Mary was six years old, her mother died. Her father married Betsey Humphries the following year, and they eventually added eight more children to the family.

Mary was an intelligent, strong-willed, and highly emotional child. She often came into conflict with her stepmother and threw temper tantrums when she did not get her way. She struggled to get attention in such a large family, and later remembered her childhood as unhappy and lonely. As a young woman, Mary went away to school at the Shelby Female Academy. She received an excellent education at a time when few women had that opportunity.

In 1839, Mary moved to Springfield, which had recently become the capital of Illinois. She lived with one of her sisters, Elizabeth Edwards, who had married the son of the former governor of Illinois. Their home became the center of all the important social gatherings in Springfield. Mary proved to be a popular hostess and attracted a great deal of attention from the young men of the town. She was short and plump with an attractive face, and could make interesting and witty conversation on a wide range of subjects. But she remained insecure and sensitive to criticism, and she tended to hold a grudge against anyone who displeased her.

Marries the future president

Sometime shortly after her arrival in Springfield, Mary Todd met Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; see entry), an attorney and member of the state legislature. He was ten years older than her, tall and thin, and quiet and awkward around women. But she saw the intensity and ambition behind his shyness. For his part, Lincoln was attracted to her intelligence and charm. They entered into a rocky, on-again off-again courtship, despite a lack of support from her family. They finally got married on November 4, 1842. They eventually had four sons together, although only one of them survived to adulthood: Robert Todd (1843–1926), Edward Baker (1846–1850), William "Willie" Wallace (1850–1862), and Thomas "Tad" (1853–1871).

Mary Lincoln had a difficult time during the early years of their marriage. Her husband was still working to establish himself as a lawyer and politician. Money was tight, and they initially rented a room in a hotel. It was a tremendous change for her, having grown up in luxury with servants to take care of her needs. She suddenly had to learn to cook, clean, wash, and care for her husband and young children. The Lincolns eventually moved into a nice house in Springfield and hired someone to help Mary with the chores. But these lean early years left her with a deep fear of poverty and a great love of expensive things.

Faces criticism and tragedy as first lady

By the late 1850s, the debate over slavery had created a huge rift between the Northern and Southern sections of the United States. Growing numbers of Northerners believed that slavery was wrong. Some people wanted to outlaw it, while others wanted to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But many Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow the practice. They did not want the national government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life. America's westward expansion only increased the tension between the North and South. Both sides wanted to spread their political views and way of life into the new states and territories.

Abraham Lincoln joined the antislavery Republican political party and ran for the U.S. Senate in 1858. He emerged as an outspoken opponent of slavery during a series of debates with Democrat Stephen Douglas (1813–1861). Although Lincoln lost the election, he gained a national reputation. In 1860, he was elected president of the United States. At this point, several Southern states decided that the U.S. government and its antislavery president could no longer represent their interests. They announced their intention to secede (withdraw) from the United States and form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. But Lincoln and other Northern politicians were determined to keep the Southern states in the Union. The Civil War began in April 1861, just a few weeks after Lincoln took office.

Once the Lincolns moved to the White House in Washington, D.C., Mary Lincoln decided to redecorate their new home. She felt that the president's house should reflect his important position. She purchased new china, furniture, carpets, and artwork for the White House. Although the items she chose reflected her good taste, they were also very expensive. In fact, she ended up exceeding the $20,000 budget for redecoration—which was supposed to cover the entire four-year term of her husband's presidency—within the first year. She also bought a striking new wardrobe for herself. People in the North criticized the first lady's spending habits. They thought it was inappropriate for her to live so extravagantly when thousands of young men were suffering and dying in the war.

Some people even questioned Mary Lincoln's loyalty to the Union. After all, she had been born in Kentucky, and her family had owned slaves. Four of her brothers and three of her half-brothers served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. But in reality, Mary Lincoln felt a deep commitment to the Union cause and strongly endorsed her husband's policies. The stress of the war created some strain in their marriage, but she stood by the president and defended him against his critics. She also supported him by visiting sick and wounded soldiers in hospitals, and by helping to entertain important military and political leaders in the White House.

Mary Lincoln also faced a great deal of personal tragedy during the war years. The Lincolns' beloved son Willie died of typhoid fever in 1862. She struggled to deal with his death and remained secluded in her room for several months. Afterward, she refused to enter the room where Willie had died. She also held a mystical meeting called a séance to try to contact his spirit. Then in 1865, just as the Union celebrated victory in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was shot in the head, as he and the first lady attended a play at Ford's Theatre in Washington. He died the next day, April 15, 1865. The shock and grief over her husband's violent death left Mary Lincoln deeply depressed and virtually unable to function.

Struggles with mental illness

As she began to recover, Mary Lincoln went to Chicago to be with one of her sisters. While there, she learned that Abraham Lincoln's former law partner, William Herndon (1818–1891), was spreading ugly lies about her late husband and their marriage. Herndon claimed that Lincoln had never loved his wife, and had spent his whole life thinking about a childhood sweetheart named Ann Rutledge. The humiliation Mary Lincoln felt as a result of Herndon's statements caused her to suffer an emotional breakdown. She never fully recovered and struggled with mental illness for the rest of her life.

Mary Lincoln became obsessed with the idea that she was broke, but still could not stop herself from spending money extravagantly. During the late 1860s, she tried to sell some of her expensive clothing, jewelry, and furniture under an assumed name. This led to another embarrassing scandal, and she moved to Europe in order to avoid public criticism. She eventually returned to Chicago, and she received an annual pension (payment) from the U.S. Congress in 1870.

In 1875, however, Mary Lincoln became involved in another traumatic and highly publicized episode. The Lincolns' oldest son, Robert, went to court to have his mother declared insane. He was worried that she would spend all her money and become a financial burden to him, so he decided to commit her to a mental institution. Robert Lincoln won the first court battle. Mary Lincoln spent four months in an asylum in Batavia, Illinois, before being released to the custody of her sister. But she appealed the decision with the help of Myra Bradwell (1831–1894)—the first woman to practice law in the United States—and was found sane.

Again hoping to avoid public attention, Mary Lincoln moved to Europe for a few years. Upon her return to the United States, she became ill and was crippled by a back injury. She died on July 16, 1882. She was buried beside her husband in Springfield, Illinois.

Where to Learn More

Baker, Jean H. Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography. New York: Norton, 1987.

Collins, David. Shattered Dreams: The Story of Mary Todd Lincoln. Greensboro, NC: Morgan Reynolds, 1994.

Neely, Mark E., Jr., and R. Gerald McMurtry. The Insanity File: The Case of Mary Todd Lincoln. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993.

Oates, Stephen B. With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Harper and Row, 1977. Reprint, New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.

Mary Todd Lincoln Research Site. [Online] http://members.aol.com/RVSNorton/Lincoln15.html (accessed on October 8, 1999).

Sandburg, Carl. Mary Lincoln: Wife and Widow. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1932. Reprint, Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1995.

Santow, Dan. Mary Todd Lincoln. New York: Children's Press, 1999.

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