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Mary Todd Lincoln

wife of Abraham Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on December 13, 1818. Her father, Robert Smith Todd, was a prominent merchant and lawyer who had been an officer in the War of 1812, and a member of the Kentucky Legislature. Her mother died in 1825, and her father remarried a year later.

Unlike most women of her day, Mary was encouraged by her father to receive the best education she could get. She attended the Shelby Female Academy, 1826-1832; Madame Mentelle's Boarding School, 1832-1837; and, Dr. Ward's Academy, 1837-1839. This excellent education, combined with her family's influence within political circles, inspired in Mary an intense interest in politics and political issues. In 1840, she openly supported the presidential candidacy of William Henry Harrison, who went on to win the election.

Just prior to her 21st birthday, Mary moved to Springfield, Illinois, to live in the home of her sister, Mrs. Ninian Edwards, the wife of a prominent attorney. Joining the Springfield social scene, she soon met a poor lawyer by the name of Abraham Lincoln, with whom she fell in love. Despite objections from her sister, occasional misgivings on Abraham's part (who thought Mary could probably do better), and at least one broken engagement, the two were married in the Edwards home on November 4, 1842. In 1844, after two years of living in a boardinghouse, the couple finally purchased a home in Springfield, and it was from this home that Abe launched his political career.

From the beginning of Mary and Abe's marriage, Mary believed that Abe was destined to become President of the United States, and she did all she could to help him realize that ambition. When Abraham sought an appointive position Mary wrote solicitation letters to friends in the Whig Party on his behalf. When he was offered the position of Governor of Oregon Territory, she advised him to decline it because it would remove him from a potential national position. When he was serving in the Illinois Legislature, she often attended sessions and took notes regarding the political allegiances of various members. And, she made the then unusual move of living in Washington with him during most of his 1847-1849 term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Her efforts finally paid off when Abraham was elected President in 1860.

Although Mary had achieved her dream of living in the White House, her years there brought her more sorrow than happiness. Hoping to enter Washington in grand style, she and Abraham were forced to sneak into the city for his inauguration due to death threats. The Civil War began less than a month after his inauguration, and Mary soon found herself under fire from both sides of the conflict -- Southerners accused her of being a traitor to her roots, while Northerners accused of her being sympathetic to the Confederate cause. And, in fact, Mary was somewhat personally torn by the conflict, since one of her brothers and three of her half-brothers fought in the Confederate Army. The huge sums she spent refurbishing the White House, combined with her somewhat extravagant lifestyle, brought even more criticism.

The intense scrutiny and criticism that Mary faced as First Lady often left her despondent and depressed, conditions that were worsened with the death of the Lincolns' third son, William, in 1862.

But Mary's time as First Lady wasn't all controversy and grief. She gained respect working as a volunteer nurse in nearby Union hospitals, and was intimately involved with the Sanitary Commission -- which raised private donations to supplement federal funds for soldier supplies -- and the Contraband Relief Association -- which raised private donations for the housing, employment, clothing, and medical care of recently freed slaves.

Mary was holding the President's hand when he was shot by John Wilkes Booth, on April 14, 1865. Already mentally and emotionally fragile, his death all but broke her. She and her two remaining sons (Robert and Tad) moved to Chicago, Illinois, from where she tried to settle the estate of her late husband. Following Robert's marriage in 1868, she and Tad relocated to Germany. While in Europe she visited various health spas in search of relief from various medical conditions. She also engaged Congress in a battle that, in 1870, resulted in her receiving an annual presidential widow's pension of $3,000. She and Tad returned to the United States in 1871. Unfortunately, Tad had become ill prior to their return and died a few months later.

Tad's death left Mary in a deep depression. Robert, by now a successful attorney in his own right, became increasingly worried about his mother's sanity and, on May 20, 1875, he had her declared insane and committed to the Bellevue Insane Asylum in Batavia, Illinois. Some of Mary's friends and relatives disagreed with Robert's assessment, however, and were able to have Mary released into the care of her sister in September. A second insanity hearing in June 1876 resulted in her being declared sane, after which Mary moved to France. In 1880, she returned to her sister's home, where she remained until her death.

Mary Todd Lincoln died at her sister's home on July 16, 1882. She is interred next to her husband in the Lincoln Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery, as are three of the couple's four sons -- Edward Baker (1846-1850), William Wallace (1850-1862), and Thomas "Tad" (1853-1871).


The National First Ladies Library

See Also

War of 1812
William Henry Harrison
Abraham Lincoln
John Wilkes Booth
Lincoln Tomb

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The Robinson Library >> Abraham Lincoln's Administration, 1861-1865

This page was last updated on December 05, 2018.