Lincoln, Mary Todd (1818–1882)
Lincoln, Mary Todd (1818–1882)
First lady, wife of President Abraham Lincoln, who served as a leading Washington hostess during the Civil War and endured the deaths of her husband, father, three half-brothers, and three sons over a 16-year span. Born Mary Ann Todd on December 13, 1818, in Lexington, Kentucky; died in Springfield, Illinois, on July 16, 1882, of a stroke; daughter of Robert Smith Todd (a banker, farmer, manufacturer, and state legislator) and Eliza Ann (Parker) Todd; attended Shelby Female Academy, 1827–32; enrolled in Madame Mentelle's boarding school, 1832–36; took classes from Dr. John Ward, 1837–39; married Abraham Lincoln (a lawyer and later president of the United States), on November 4, 1842; children: Robert Todd Lincoln (b. August 1, 1843); Edward Baker Lincoln (b. March 10, 1846); William Wallace Lincoln (b. December 21, 1850); Thomas Lincoln (b. April 4, 1853).
Mother Eliza Todd died (July 1825); father married Elizabeth Humphreys (November 1, 1826); moved from Lexington to Springfield, Illinois (1839); moved with family to Washington, D.C. (1847–48); father died (July 16, 1849); son Edward died (February 1, 1850); moved to Washington after Abraham Lincoln elected president (1861); son William died (February 20, 1862); Abraham Lincoln died (April 15, 1865); moved to Chicago (May 1865); lived in Europe (1868–71); son Thomas died (July 15, 1871); declared insane (May 19, 1875) and placed in mental institution in Batavia, Illinois; released (September 10, 1875) and declared sane (June 15, 1876); lived in Europe (1876–80); returned to Springfield.
If a first lady desired to be remembered in her own right, she would not choose Abraham Lincoln as her spouse. Any of her own accomplishments and contributions would be dwarfed by the giant who walked beside her. But Mary Todd's love for Abraham Lincoln was eternal; she seemed convinced to the end of her life that she had chosen the right man and was proud of the huge shadow that he cast. At the same time, she strove to be someone besides Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. In that, she was successful.
Mary Todd's family background contrasted sharply with that of her famous husband's. Whereas Abraham Lincoln's parents had little, Mary Ann Todd, born on December 13, 1818, in Lexington, Kentucky, was the daughter of rather well-to-do parents, Robert and Eliza Todd . Her father was a "solid and leading citizen," who was a prominent businessman as well as a Kentucky state senator and clerk of the Kentucky House of Representatives. The Todds were socialites who mingled with those at the top of Lexington's social ladder. As a young girl, Mary became acquainted with the venerable Henry Clay. According to family tradition, she once said to Clay, "My father says you will be the next President of the United States. I wish I could go to Washington and live in the White House."
Eliza Todd died in early July 1825, when Mary was six. Elizabeth Humphreys , whose mother had long "ruled Frankfort society," became Mary's stepmother when, on November 1, 1826, she married Robert Todd in Frankfort, Kentucky. Unlike most males of that era, Robert believed that women as well as men should be well educated. Thus, in the fall of 1827, Mary began her formal education when she entered the Shelby Female Academy, more popularly called Ward's Academy after its founder John Ward, an Episcopalian cleric. There she learned the three R's while also studying history, geography, natural science, French, religion, as well as poetry which she memorized and loved to recite. She also became so adept at sewing that, having finished her homework, she would complete "the ten rounds of a cotton sock required of the girls each evening" before a cousin had begun her needlework. At age 14, Mary moved on to Madame Mentelle's boarding school where she became fluent in French as well as "an inspired dancer" who was "featherlight on her feet." Here she evolved into a poised young lady who moved with ease among those in Lexington's polite society.
In the summer of 1837, Mary Todd graduated and soon thereafter moved to Springfield, Illinois, where she lived with her sister Frances Todd Wallace , who had married Dr. William S. Wallace. After three months, Mary returned to Lexington where she took more classes with John Ward. Two years passed before she decided that Springfield was indeed where she wished to live, and in 1839 she traveled back to that city where she made her home with her sister Elizabeth Todd Edwards , who had married Ninian W. Edwards.
Shortly after her return, Mary met Abraham Lincoln, a young, aspiring Springfield lawyer, at a dance. Mary saw qualities in this man that drew her to him; Abraham in turn took notice of Mary whose brother-in-law once said of her demeanor, "Mary could make a bishop forget his prayers." In time, their friendship resulted in marriage on November 4, 1842, at the Edwardses' home. Inside the bride's gold wedding band, the words "Love Is Eternal" were inscribed. Rather ironically, one of Mary's unsuccessful suitors was Stephen A. Douglas, who later defeated Lincoln in a race for the U.S. Senate and then lost to Lincoln when both vied for the U.S. presidency in 1860.
Springfield, Illinois, was to be Mary's home until she went to the White House in 1861. Since her husband was a man of very modest means, the young couple's first residence was an eight-dollar-a-week room at the Globe Tavern on the corner of Adams and Third. During the first year of their marriage, Lincoln's work frequently kept him on the road and away from home. Apparently, Mary was willing to accept this and encouraged her husband; one biographer notes that Abraham "frequently came to rely on the careful study she made of books and reports on political affairs while he was traveling the circuit." Mary, who observed that her husband rather haphazardly collected fees due him, "applied her bright wits" to improve this situation, for the Lincolns needed every penny owed them, especially after their first son Robert arrived on August 1, 1843.
Partially because of complaints by boarders at the Globe Tavern over baby Robert's cries, the Lincolns in the autumn of 1843 moved to a small three-room cottage at 214 South Fourth Street. About six months later, the family moved once more, to the only home the Lincolns ever owned. It still stands on the corner of Eighth and Jackson in Springfield.
The Springfield years seem to have been relatively happy for Mary. The family grew with the birth of Edward on March 10, 1846, William or Willie on December 21, 1850, and Thomas or Tad on April 4, 1853. Since her husband was frequently on the circuit, Mary had to assume significant responsibilities in rearing their sons. At the same time, she continued to promote her husband. "He is to be President of the United States some day," she told Ward Hill Lamon; "if I had not thought so, I never would have married him, for you can see he is not pretty. But look at him: Doesn't he look as if he would make a magnificent President?" Another time, she said affectionately that "people are perhaps not aware that his heart is as large as his arms are long." Lincoln in turn rarely spoke harshly to her, even though at times Mary was known to be temperamental and tempestuous.
When Abraham won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, Mary moved to Washington for a short time. The Lincoln family lived temporarily at Brown's Hotel and then in Mrs. Ann G. Sprigg 's boardinghouse, now the site of the Library of Congress. Although her husband's term did not end until the spring of 1849, Mary in 1848 returned to Kentucky to live in more comfortable quarters near Lexington. Here the Lincoln boys, wrote one biographer, "went wild with joy as they frolicked at their grandfather's country place." Mary missed her husband, once writing, "How much I wish, instead of writing, we were together this evening. I feel very sad away from you." In 1949, Abraham returned home, but Mary's joy was somewhat tempered when on July 6, 1849, her father died of cholera; less than a year later, on February 1, 1850, her son Eddie, not yet four years old, died of diphtheria.
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It was always music in my ears, both before and after our marriage, when my husband told me that I was the only one he ever thought of, or cared for.
Lincoln's interest in politics never waned, and Mary encouraged him. Though she used her influence in convincing him to decline an appointment as Oregon's territorial governor, she continued to dream that he would one day be president. In 1855, much to her chagrin, Lincoln lost an election to the U.S. Senate after leading on the first ballot. (At that time, senators were elected by the state legislatures and not popularly elected as they are now.) Although Lincoln shook the hand of the victor, Lyman Trumbull, Mary could not. She believed that her erstwhile friend, Julia Jayne Trumbull , should have persuaded Lyman to back Lincoln, who was only a few votes shy of a majority on the first roll call. To Mary Lincoln, Julia Trumbull now was a "whited Sepulchre," "unsympathizing" and "cold."
Jean Baker , one of Mary's biographers, maintains that after Abraham's 1855 defeat, "Mary Lincoln's emerging sense of herself as a political counselor appeared in her explanations of his policies." She made sure that her husband was not perceived to be an abolitionist, for then he might be thought to be a radical. "All he desires is that slavery shall not be extended, let it remain where it is," said she. "Like a toothache," wrote William Herndon, Abraham Lincoln's old law partner, Mary kept "her husband awake to politics day and night." When Lincoln reportedly stated that nobody knew him, Mary retorted, "They soon will."
In 1858, when Abraham Lincoln, now a Republican, gained that party's nomination for U.S. Senator, his Democratic opponent was Mary's old beau, Stephen A. Douglas. In that summer of 1858, Douglas and Lincoln engaged in a series of memorable debates. Mary remained in Springfield, rooting for her husband, saying that Stephen Douglas was "a very little giant" compared to "my tall Kentuckian." Despite her efforts and those of her husband, Stephen Douglas won the election. Mary did not agree with her husband when he said that he now would "sink out of view, and shall be forgotten." Although by the end of the campaign, Lincoln had barely enough money to pay for household expenses, Mary thought it all "worthwhile"; by spring, said biographer Ishbel Ross , both she and Lincoln "were again full of hope—or ambition." In 1860, the Republicans nominated Lincoln for president. There's "a little woman at our house" who would "like to hear this," he said after being informed. "I'll go down and tell her."
In Abraham's successful campaign, Mary Todd Lincoln made certain that both she and her husband projected an image acceptable to the public. She set out to prove that Lincolns were not "uncivilized boors," and she appeared to be successful. Said one veteran observer, "She chats quite nicely and will be able to adapt herself to the White House without difficulty." During the campaign, a little girl named Grace Bedell suggested that Lincoln grow a beard which in Grace's opinion would make him a more attractive candidate. Mary apparently agreed. Writes one of her biographers: "He would never have made such a drastic change in his appearance without her approval."
When Abraham Lincoln won the election in 1860, the Civil War was imminent. In December, South Carolina seceded from the Union, and in February 1861 the Confederacy was born. By the time Lincoln assumed office, seven states had seceded. Four more states followed after his March inauguration. Mary Lincoln "had expected a proud entry by her husband's side," writes Ishbel Ross. Instead, because of a reported
assassination plot, Abraham had to steal into Washington.
As the first lady, Mary experienced other frustrations, disappointments, and heartaches during the time the Lincolns occupied the White House. Because some of Mary's relatives cast their lot with the Confederacy, rumors persisted that she was a traitor or spy, one not committed to the same cause as her husband, which was to preserve the Union. There was absolutely no evidence for the stories that kept circulating. Notes one of her biographers, Mary "stood firm as a rock behind her husband where the secessionists were concerned." Said Mary, "Why should I sympathize with the rebels? They would hang my husband tomorrow if it was in their power, and perhaps gibbet me with him. How then can I sympathize with a people at war with me and mine?"
In February 1862, the Lincolns lost a second son when Willie died. "It is hard, hard to have him die," murmured Lincoln. An old friend of Mary's claimed that after Willie's death, "She could not bear to look upon his picture. And after his death she never crossed the threshold of the Guest's Room in which he died, or the Green Room in which he was embalmed."
Death visited the Todd family frequently during the Civil War. All three of Mary's half brothers were killed. Sam died at the Battle of Shiloh; David was mortally wounded at Vicksburg; and "everybody's favorite," Aleck, met death in a skirmish near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. General Ben Hardin Helm, husband of her half-sister Emilie Todd Helm , died fighting at Chattanooga.
Mary's desire to bring back her family may have led to her acceptance of spiritualism and the world of the occult. In seances held in the White House, she claimed to have heard and seen her sons. On one occasion, she exclaimed to her sister Emilie, "Willie lives. He comes to me every night and stands at the foot of the bed with the same adorable smile he always has had. He does not always come alone. Little Eddie is sometimes with him." When, shortly before his death, Lincoln confided to her that his dreams indicated that death for him was imminent, Mary was horrified. She believed her husband, too, would soon be taken from her.
Despite the heavy burdens borne by both the Lincolns, Mary left her mark as first lady. She refurbished the White House, transforming "the President's House into an appropriate setting for the leader of a great nation." She believed that the residence of America's chief executive should be a home of which all Americans could be proud. Such a dwelling would impress foreigners and citizens alike and prove that America was a great nation and its leader should be held in high esteem.
As first lady, Mary, like Dolley Madison before her, was intent on becoming Washington's premier host. Thus, she made frequent public appearances at twice-a-week winter and spring receptions held in the East Room of the White House. Levees were planned for New Year's Day and other holidays where guests from the Congress, the judiciary, the diplomatic corps, and the armed forces were properly entertained. Despite criticisms that the Civil War required curtailment of such events, "Mary Lincoln demonstrated through these social affairs the political point that the Union government, no matter what the Confederate government threatened, would remain in Washington." At these receptions, Mary dressed like a queen, setting the pace as far as fashions were concerned. "Mrs. Lincoln's bonnets were as much discussed as the President's stovepipe hats," wrote one commentator.
Although Mary Lincoln has been perceived by some to have been a shrew, concerned only with herself and her own reputation, there was another side of this first lady of which many were unaware. For example, she took the time to visit hospitals where wounded Union soldiers were convalescing. At least on one occasion she was influential in saving the life of a young soldier who had been sentenced to die for falling asleep while on picket duty. After conferring with General George B. McClellan about the execution, President Lincoln commuted the death sentence "by request of the 'Lady President.'" In the White House, her closest friend was Elizabeth Keckley , an ex-slave and a mulatto. During the Civil War, thousands of Virginia slaves had made their way to Washington where they were now free but lived under abysmal conditions. Elizabeth Keckley convinced Mary Lincoln to take up their cause. Wrote Mary about these unfortunates: "These immense number of Contrabands are suffering intensely, many without bed covering and having to use any bits of carpeting to cover themselves—many dying of want." Both Mary and Elizabeth raised money for the Contraband Relief Association. Although Mary may not have influenced Lincoln's decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, she certainly strongly supported it.
In 1864, President Lincoln won reelection, and in March 1865 he began his second term. On April 9, 1865, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. The war was effectively over, but Mary's elation would be short-lived. On April 14, President and Mary Lincoln, accompanied by Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris , attended the Ford Theater to enjoy the production Our American Cousin. During the performance, Mary placed her hand in Lincoln's, asking him what Clara might think of this show of affection. "She won't think anything of it," he responded. Shortly thereafter, John Wilkes Booth stole into the president's box and, at a distance of two feet, shot the president. Lincoln, who was carried across the street to William Petersen's house, lingered through the long night. He died at 7:22 the next morning. Although Mary initially insisted her husband be buried in Chicago, she finally agreed that Springfield, Illinois, would be his final resting place. There the president was buried beside his two sons, Willie and Eddie.
"The ten years between 1865 and 1875 were desperate for poor Mary Todd Lincoln," writes Carl Sandburg. She never fully recovered from that night of horror. On May 22, 1865, she left the White House for the last time. Financial matters would plague her remaining years. Initially, Congress agreed to compensate her $22,000. In 1870, Congress would grant her a lifetime pension of $3,000 per year and, in 1882, Congress would raise the pension to $5,000 plus granting her a lump sum of $15,000 to meet any financial obligations such as medical bills.
For a while, she lived in Chicago with her sons, Robert and Tad. After attending the marriage of her son Robert to Mary Harlan on September 25, 1868, Mary and Tad sailed for Europe on October 1. In an effort to find peace of mind, Mary traveled extensively, living for a time in Frankfurt, Germany, later in Nice, France, and then in London. In the autumn of 1869, word came that Mary had become a grandmother. The infant daughter of Robert and Mary was named Mary Todd Lincoln. Mary obviously was pleased. Probably reflecting on her own life, she wrote to her daughter-in-law, "Trouble comes soon enough, my dear child, and you must enjoy life, whenever you can."
In May 1871, Mary and Tad Lincoln sailed home from Liverpool, England, returning to Chicago where they lived in the Clinton House. While aboard ship, Tad had caught a cold, and, although at times he seemed on the road to recovery, he never fully recuperated from a respiratory infection. On the morning of July 15, 18-year-old Tad Lincoln died. His mother, who had now lost her father, husband, three half-brothers, and three sons, mourned, "I feel that there is no life for me, without my idolized Taddie. One by one, I have consigned to their resting place my idolized ones, and now, in this world there is nothing left for me but the deepest anguish and desolation."
Following his mother's return from a vacation in Florida, Robert Lincoln became acutely aware that Mary was mentally ill. He knew of her delusions and hallucinations, but when he heard her say that someone had tried to poison her in Jacksonville, and that a "wandering Jew" she met in Florida had taken her pocketbook, he feared the worst. Other irrational comments and actions followed. On April 1, 1875, when Robert sought to restrain his 57-year-old mother from appearing half-dressed in the hotel lobby where she lived, Mary accused her son of trying to murder her.
Genuinely concerned about his mother's health and safety, Robert sought to have her declared insane and confined. After hearings in the Cook County court, the jurors stated that "having heard the evidence in the case," we "are satisfied that the said Mrs. Lincoln is insane, and is a fit person to be sent to a State Hospital for the Insane." Thereupon, she was confined to the Bellevue Nursing and Rest Home in Batavia, Illinois, from May 20 until September 10, 1875.
The news that a former first lady, especially Mrs. Lincoln, had been declared insane and then confined gave rise to much comment and controversy. Mary Lincoln had supporters who believed that Robert had ulterior motives when he sought to have his mother declared mentally incompetent. After four months, on September 19, 1875, with the help of her friend, Myra Bradwell , Mary Lincoln was released and went to live with her sister Elizabeth in Springfield. She spent the next nine months in the Edwardses' house where she had married Abraham Lincoln many years before.
After the court ruled that Mary had regained her sanity, she was again free to move about. In 1879, she traveled to Europe for the second time. In the last years of her life, she seems to have been happier than she had been for a long time. Perhaps the reconciliation that she effected with Robert after a May 1881 visit gave her the most satisfaction. One writer claimed that if she had reservations about reconciling with her son, "she was won all over again by his small daughter" who bore Mary's name. A little more than a year later, Mary was back home in Springfield. She died there on July 16, 1882. "Her death was very sudden and unexpected to me," said Robert, "but it was a painless release from much mental and bodily distress. I have a great satisfaction that a year ago I broke down the personal barrier which her disturbed mind had caused her to raise between us, so that in the end her estrangement had ceased."
A controversial first lady, Mary Lincoln was often vilified because of her forceful, vivacious personality, a personality quite distinct from her husband's. She "was the first wife of a President to become a storm center while she was in the White House," wrote Paul Boller, although, as history has shown, she was by no means the last.
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Baker, Jean H. Mary Todd Lincoln. NY: W.W. Norton, 1987.
Boller, Paul. Presidential Wives. NY: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Randall, Ruth Painter. Lincoln's Sons. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1955.
——. Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1953.
Ross, Ishbel. The President's Wife: Mary Todd Lincoln. NY: Putnam, 1973.
Thomas, Benjamin P. Abraham Lincoln. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952.
Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Evans, W.A. Mrs. Abraham Lincoln: A Study of Her Personality and Her Influence on Lincoln. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1932.
Helm, Katherine. The True Story of Mary, Wife of Lincoln. NY: Harper and Brothers, 1928.
Oates, Stephen B. With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln. NY: Harper and Row, 1977.
Turner, Justin G., and Linda Levitt Turner. Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972.
Julie Harris played Mary Todd Lincoln in James Prideaux's play The Last of Mrs. Lincoln (1972).
Robert Bolt , Professor of History, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan