Mary Todd Lincoln: Reevaluating an Unkind Memory

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The Yellow Wallpaper, a well-known short story by Charlotte Gilman Perkins in the feminist canon, describes a woman with “nervous depression” who is ordered to do as little as possible. But, rather than improving her condition, this “treatment” makes her worse [1].  

The story is a cautionary tale about the emotional straight-jacket that can result from a “traditional” female life. Published ten years after the death of Mary Ann Todd Lincoln, the tale seems as if taken directly from the life of Abraham Lincoln’s wife. 

Considered one of the most polarizing First Ladies of the United States, Mary Lincoln had spent her sixty-four years trying to fit into a world that denigrated her intelligence and mocked her emotions. Belittled and bullied at almost every turn It’s no wonder that she, in turn, developed mental health issues. In retrospect, what is truly remarkable is the way she was able to affect the history of the United States even at her worst — for doing so, she should be better remembered. 

Let’s set the record straight about her life. 

The Girl Who Became the Wife  

Mary Ann Todd Smith, was born on December 13, 1818, in Lexington, Kentucky, to a wealthy and influential Kentucky family. She dropped the name Ann after her younger sister, Ann Todd Smith, was born, and did not use the name Todd after marrying. Her father, Robert Smith Todd — a plantation owner and slaveholder — served as an officer in the War of 1812 as well as in the Kentucky legislature [2]. Ironically, he was intellectually opposed to the institution of slavery and supported the then-popular idea that Blacks should be “repatriated” to Liberia [3]. Her mother Eliza Parker Todd was a local girl, raised to be conventional, well mannered and trained to manage a slave-holding household. She bore seven children in twelve years.  Elizabeth, Frances, Levi, Mary, Ann, Robert and George.

Because of his prominent standing in the community, Robert Smith Todd entertained often, and Mary as a young woman grew up surrounded by important individuals; one such being the noted statesman Henry Clay, famous for brokering important deals such as the Missouri Compromise (an agreement made in 1820 that temporarily resolved the issue of whether or not slavery should be allowed in new territories aquired by the United States), as well as the Compromise Tariff, which helped end the Nullification Crisis that was threatening unity in early United States society .

Todd also hewed to the unpopular principle that well-read women made better wives; accordingly, he offered all of his daughters a classical education. The future First Lady was eager to learn, and went farther with her studies than any of her sisters. Her learning would later allow her to in turn help Abraham Lincoln with his entree into Illinois politics. 

As a young woman from the South, Mary was at least partially raised by house slaves. A Black woman remembered only as “Mammy Sally” proved to be influential in Mary’s development, as she was most likely very involved in the process raising her.  

One especially influential event occurred when Mary witnessed Sally feeding a runaway slave. Although Mary wanted to help, Sally told her that the man in question would not be able to trust a white woman [4]. Torn between her loyalty to her family and her love for Mammy Sally, Mary eventually decided to keep quiet about the incident. It would not be the last time in her life that she was pulled between opposing ideas. 

Mary’s Mother and Step Mother

George’s birth had taken its toll on Eliza Parker and she became gravely ill. In July 1825, three doctors were called to the Todd house to try to save her life. Their attempts proved futile and she passed away at the age of 31 on July 6, 1825, in Lexington, Kentucky, leaving Robert with six children to provide care. Mary was six years old. Six months later, her father proposed to Elizabeth “Betsey” Humphries, a Kentucky widow who married him in 1826 despite initial trepidation. 

The Todd household took a turn for the worse after the wedding and rooms that were once filled with Eliza Parker’s love for her children were now filled with the rantings and ravings of a stepmother who strongly disliked her husband’s children. As a socialite, she groomed the entire brood to blend in with societal expectations, and spent a great deal of time trying to smooth out what she considered Mary’s rough edges — namely her high spirits and her penchant for speaking plain truth. 

While the marriage endured, Mary’s spirit shriveled, creating mood swings and an obsession with financial security that would last for the rest of her life [5].

In an attempt to get away from what she perceived as a soul-destroying atmosphere, Mary finished her education at a boarding school run by a French immigrant named Charlotte Mentelle (6). Here, she perfected her spoken French and no doubt learned about the philosophical views that had developed in the country before and during the French Revolution. Mary considered staying on to teach, but eventually decided against that idea, instead moving in with her older sister Elizabeth Edwards, in Springfield, Illinois. 

Mary Meets Abe

As the wife of politician Ninian Edwards, Mary’s sister Elizabeth kept the house filled with guests and spirited conversation. Living here, Mary enjoyed more of the social life she had grown used to as a child. 

However, here, as a young woman in her early twenties, she was able to use her intellectual abilities without her step-mother’s severe restrictions, and she quickly attracted attention with her sharp wit and beauty.  

Soon, Mary Todd proved popular among the men of Springfield Illinois, though this was often tempered by the opinion that she was somewhat snobbish.She was surrounded by suitors, including the same Stephen Douglas that would later debate Abraham Lincoln on the topics of slavery and the state of the Union. And while she undoubtedly had the pick of her potential spouses, sometime in 1840, she became involved with Abraham Lincoln.

Like almost everything about the pair, there are many untrue stories of how Lincoln met and courted his wife. He had been engaged twice before finally marrying Mary, and according to his law partner William H. Herndon, had never recovered from the death of his first fiancee — a woman named Ann Rutledge.  

The thing is, William and Mary enjoyed a cordial hatred that only intensified over the years, and when Herndon published his posthumous memoirs of the late president, he no doubt used the occasion to attack her. 

In reality, the facts of the Lincoln courtship and marriage are testament to a deep affection between the pair, as well as a keen intellectual connection that helped Mary to “civilize” the rough-hewn politician. While the two at first broke off their courtship, both proved miserable, and after a friend “re-introduced” them late in 1831, the pair would marry a year later on November 4, 1842 when Mary was 23 years old. And this affection is only proven further with the knowledge that Mary bore her husband four children between 1843 and 1856. 

Mary also lost her father to Cholera which required expeditious burial. He was buried in Lexington, Kentucky, on July 16, 1849.

For Lincoln, marriage was a doorway into a higher class of society, while, conversely, Mary’s family considered the marriage to be a downwardly mobile prospect. Largely self-taught, Lincoln had a brilliant mind but no idea of how to work within the Springfield Illinois society . Mary was able to help him through the rough patches, offering ideas on how to dress and what to say during social occasions. 

Mary’s tutelage stands in stark contrast to what she endured from her stepmother — rather than criticize and tear down, Mary was instead able to help her husband climb the social ladder necessary for his historic political ascent [7].

Mary Todd as Lincoln’s Wife

As the wife of an Illinois senator, Mary Lincoln was expected to stay home with the children while her husband served his term out of town. This was not an attractive idea for a woman raised with the ability for political and intellectual discussion, and the future First Lady would instead decide to join Abraham in Washington, D.C., bringing the children along. 

Mrs Lincoln endured criticism for this, but proved to be an important sounding board for her husband as he swam through the many contentious issues of United States’ politics in the 1850s. The two found Washington’s geographic setting between the North and the South to be similar to their respective upbringings, and Mary’s background helped her to make sense of the many ideas that were at stake, such as slavery, the Union, and the role of the government. 

The Lincoln family returned to Springfield Illinois after Abraham’s narrow loss of his Senate seat in 1855. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which had removed the conditions of the Missouri Compromise and opened the West to slavery, shattered the already-tense alliance between the North and South and set the stage for what was to become the Civil War

It also destroyed the Whig Party — the main political opponent to the Democrats that supported business and industry and opposed slavery in new territories, putting Lincoln’s political career in question. 

But Mary’s political ambitions were every bit as strong as her husband’s. She had the willingness to speak with reporters who came to Springfield Illinois, to cover Lincoln’s campaign. Mrs Lincoln encouraged him to continue working to build a coalition that would have the power to counteract the Democratic Party, which at that time served as a repository of Southern (slaveholder) interests. Following this advice, Abraham Lincoln would rise to national fame in 1858 when he debated Mary’s old suitor, Stephen Douglas, on the issues of slavery and the preservation of the Union. 

The newfound Republican Party, which emerged after 1854 and was a combination of several political groups — all of them Northern and interested in stopping the expansion of slavery — had the Southern states feeling backed into a corner, entrenched in their belief that their entire way of life was being threatened. 

Ironically, Lincoln was considered a “compromise candidate” when he was chosen as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee for the 1860 election. As someone who had grown up on the border, he was sensitive to the needs of plantation owners.  

Despite that sensitivity, Lincoln believed the institution of slavery was a threat to the United States political system, and his over-riding concern was to save the Union. Mary’s contribution to his evolving beliefs is not recorded in history, but what is known is that, after hearing the results of the election at a Springfield telegraph office, Abraham ran home exclaiming, “Mary, Mary, we are elected!” [7]Abraham Lincoln had become the nation’s 16th President.

Mary, First Lady of the United States

When the Lincolns returned to Washington, D.C., there were little to no expectations of the role played by the First Lady. During the onset of her years at the White House, Mary Lincoln (then 42 years old), began her performance well, receiving acclaim for her re-decoration of the White House (due to the fact that James Buchanan’s single term in the White House had left the public sections of the building worse for wear) and her social skills. She felt that the White House would be a national showpiece in order to disarm her and her husband’s critics. Mrs Lincoln organized parties in the White House, attended balls, and socialized with the families of politicians. Mrs Lincoln was at first considered an asset to the new administration. On the surface, her success in the White House seemed assured.

In April of 1861, troops from South Carolina fired on the Union forces at Fort Sumter, and the Civil War began. In the beginning, the South looked to be winning the conflict, while the Northern Army was plagued by bad leadership and a lack of enthusiasm for the grim realities of battle. The Civil war caused many families to lose their breadwinners, and general belt-tightening became the rule rather than the exception. As she hailed from the South, several of Mary Lincoln’s half brothers served in the Confederate Army and were killed in action. During her years at the White House, Mary Lincoln visited hospitals around Washington to give flowers and fruit to wounded soldiers.  

Unfortunately, the First Lady saw her role as a social leader rather than as a model of austerity, and citizens began to consider her lavish spending as inappropriate and her status as a daughter of the South questionable. Rumors that she was a spy for the Confederacy soon began to circle the capital, growing so persistent that her husband eventually met with a Senate committee in her defense [7].

Personal tragedy struck the Lincoln household early in 1862, when their son Willie Lincoln died in the White House after a short illness at the age of 11. Both parents were devastated by this, but Abraham — who had long worked to control his melancholy — was better able to move forward. Mary, who was also handling the death of her half brothers in the Civil War, learnt to cope with her grief by shopping compulsively, and her profligate ways did not sit well with a country forced by the Civil war to economize. 

More rumors began to circulate about her mood swings and expensive mourning attire. Her social skills, once an asset, had become frivolous and flighty. Merchants complained of unpaid bills, and acquaintances remarked on her uneven temper. She also complained of repeating headaches which seemed to become more frequent after she suffered a head injury in a carriage accident during her White House years.

She was soon considered one more burden to be borne by the noble president.her days as the White House social coordinator, seemed over.

The Assasination of Her Husband

As the end of the war drew near after four years, concerns surfaced for Lincoln’s safety. Washington society made the assumption that his social forays into the public, often mostly unprotected, were driven by his aggressive and scheming wife. It was widely agreed — although completely untrue — that Mary forced Abraham to attend the performance of Our American Cousin five days after General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, a date at the theater that everyone would come to regret. 

However, Abraham’s mood was unusually cheerful on the morning of April 14, 1865; the war was over, soldier and son, Robert Todd Lincoln, was back at the White House; there was reason to assume that the wish for clemency towards the South would be followed. 

Mary and Abraham decided to celebrate by taking a carriage ride through town, in defiance of Secretary of State Edwin Stanton’s fears for the president’s safety. Afterwards, the First Lady complained of a headache and Abraham considered returning home for the evening, but, unfortunately, the couple’s presence at the theater was considered politically important. 

Union General, Ulysses S. Grant, and his wife were originally planning to attend with the Lincolns, but when the former couple decided to instead spend the evening with their children, Lincoln felt obligated to appear at the theatre. Accordingly, the two went home, changed, and once again returned out for the evening [8].

The First Lady was sitting next to her husband when John Wilkes Booth jumped into their theatre box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. 

The shout, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Death to tyrants!” — the Virginia state motto and a reference to the assassination of Julius Caesar) sounded over Mary’s screams as Booth escaped, eluding arrest for ten days before being captured. 

Mary clung to Abraham’s broken body as it was moved out of the theatre and to a house across the street. Covered in his blood, she broke down in hysterics as it became obvious that he would not be able to survive his wounds. 

The attending physician, as well as the others who stayed the night with the stricken president — including their oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln — focused only on his condition, removing Mary from the room when she continued to cry.

In the nine hours it took Lincoln to die, Mary sat by herself, forgotten by a population consumed with concern for her husband [9]. She would never fully recover. 

Mary the Widow

Although Mary Todd Lincoln would eventually become the first person compensated for the loss of her husband in the service of United States politics, the process of convincing the government to do so took many years. 

In the days after the assasination, Mary was seen not as a grieving widow, but as a woman behaving “unseemingly” for her position. She did not attend Lincoln’s funeral, but mourned alone as the country grieved for the fallen president.  She remained in the White House until May 1865, when she moved to Chicago with sons Thomas Tad Lincoln and Robert Todd Lincoln and began her life as a widow.

Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, did not bother to call on her, and the rest of the political establishment was more concerned with Mary’s removal from the White House than with her emotional state [10]. Likewise, the city’s shopkeepers felt only the compulsion to press the widow for immediate payment of her debts. 

Without an income of her own, Mary first petitioned for a government pension in late 1865. At the time, her request was seen as ridiculous, and she was soon forced to sell clothing and jewelry to make ends meet. But rather than settle down in genteel poverty, Mary took her son Thomas Tad Lincoln with her to Europe and continued her assault on Congress for an income of her own. For the next two years, Frankfurt Germany became home to Mary.

The Public Turns Against Mary 

Her behavior was seen as increasingly at odds with the popular conception of a widow’s life, and many people, including her son Robert Todd, became convinced that she was erratic and unstable. For instance, one occassion in 1867, she travelled to New York under an alias, “Mrs. Clarke,” where she tried to sell her entire White House wardrobe as she only wore widows’ garb since her husband’s death. Unfortunately her alias was unmasked and the media blasted her yet again. It was not until 1870 that the government finally awarded her a pension of five thousand dollars a year, and by this time public sentiment had turned firmly away from her. 

Unable to pay off her debts, she agitated for a larger sum, but this was not granted immediately. In the interim, she returned to Illinois, attempting to start over where she and her family had once lived happily. 

As the first president to be assassinated, Lincoln became a martyr in the eyes of many Americans. But not all those who knew him were comfortable with the increasing iconization of the man who began his life in a log cabin in the woods. 

In particular, Abraham Lincoln’s business partner, William Herndon, believed that the public would be better served by remembering Lincoln as the imperfect man he had been. Feeling that his memories might help to set the record straight about a complex and controversial figure, he went on the lecture circuit to speak about the former president. 

Unfortunately for Mary Todd Lincoln, however, Herndon remembered her with far less mercy than he did her husband, and his allegations played into the collective memory of a country that had long savaged her. 

In 1866, Herndon made his first public comments about Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with Ann Rutledge, categorizing her as the only woman Lincoln had ever loved [11]. He would later publish a three-volume biography entitled Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, Etiam in Minimis Major, and The History and Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln. 

Lincoln scholars now believe that Herndon’s intent was to humanize the fallen president and in doing so help the country towards a more nuanced view of the man. However, both Mary Todd Lincoln and her son Robert were understandably outraged by his remarks. And while Mary did not live to see Herndon’s memories codified into print, she was certainly hurt personally by his spoken allegations. 

Mary Suffers More Loss

Mary Todd Lincoln was further torn apart by the death of her son Tad in 1871, growing to only feel even more desolate and abandoned by the country that dismissed her as “hysteric.” She began to associate with spiritualists, attempting to reach her loved ones who now, in her view, lived across the veil. 

Originally a family of six, there were only two Lincoln’s left by 1871. The couple’s second son, Edward, had died in 1846, a month before his fourth birthday. Her third son Willie, had contracted typhoid fever and passed away in 1862, at the start of the Civil War. Abraham had died in 1865, and their second son, Tad, died in 1871. This left her with just one son, Robert, with whom she had never been particularly close. 

Now, with Mary’s increasing visits to spiritualists, the two found themselves increasingly at odds with one another. Attempting to make his own way in the world, Robert was embarrassed by his mother’s excesses, and was uncomfortable with the negative attention that seemed to follow her wherever she went. In 1875, he asked a civil court to rule on his mother’s sanity.   

From May to November of that year, Mary lived involuntarily at Bellevue, an insane asylum in the Chicago area. Robert visited weekly, with Mary pressing him for her release each time. She wrote letters to public figures in the area and to her sister Elizabeth Edwards, with whom she had lived when she first met Abraham. 

In the end, Elizabeth and Robert found the ongoing publicity more abhorrent than Mary’s behavior, and she was released from the insane asylum. After spending a brief amount of time in Europe, she moved back to the home of her sister Elizabeth, and continued to live with her there until she died on July 16, 1882, at the age of 64. Her remains are entombed, along with her husband’s, in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield Illinois.

Remembering Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln never met the writer Charlotte Gilman Perkins, but the two shared an upbringing in the repressive nineteenth century, surrounded by religious mores and social dictates that kept women from being taken seriously. 

Gilman would not publish her most famous story, The Yellow Wallpaper, until 1892, and there is no record of her being influenced by the life of one of United States’ most disliked First Ladies. However, her portrayal of female misery misdiagnosed as “hysteria” is right on target when we consider Mary’s tragic last years. 

While Perkins, who committed suicide in 1935, is now thought of as an early feminist, Mary Ann Todd Lincoln has become merely a footnote in history. The lives of both women demonstrate the metaphorical straitjacket established by the confining expectations and dismissive attitude towards women that prevailed in the nineteenth century. 

Men who had suffered similar hardships would have been remembered as “troubled,” “solemn,” or “reserved,” but Mary was cast as a hopeless hysteric who spent too much money and bothered the public incessantly after her husband’s death. She was an educated woman who was simply overcome by the many tragedies she was forced to endure; finding herself deeply depressed and lost, a fate almost anyone would suffer under similar circumstances. Throughout her years in the White House, her actions drew praise and criticism. But after that the public didn’t have much compassion for the woman who was the wife of the 16th President of the United States. She is indeed one of America’s most fascinating First Ladies.

History has not been kind to Mary Ann Todd Lincoln; perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate how she is remembered, shifting collective understanding to the loyal wife, loving mother, and committed patriot that she truly was.

READ MORE:

Nathan Bedford Forrest

Ida M. Tarbell, a Progressive look at Lincoln

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  1. “Charlotte Gilman Perkins”. Biography.com, April 19, 2019.  Accessed on 28 December, 2019. https://www.biography.com/writer/charlotte-perkins-gilman
  2. “First Lady Biography: Mary Lincoln.” National FIrst Ladies’ Library, n.d. Accessed on 14 January, 2020. http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=17
  3. Largent, Kimberly. “The Life of Mary Todd Lincoln.” The Ohio State University, n.d. Accessed on 28 December, 2019. https://ehistory.osu.edu/articles/life-mary-todd-lincoln
  4. Fleming, Candace. The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary. Scharwz and Wade, 2008. ISBN:  978-0375836183
  5.  Caroli, Betty Boyd. First Ladies: the Ever-Changing Role from Martha Washington to Melania Trump. Oxford University Press, Fifth Edition, 2019. ISBN: 978-0190669133
  6. “Mary Todd Lincoln.” Biography.com, 2019. Accessed on 15 January, 2020. https://www.biography.com/us-first-lady/mary-todd-lincoln
  7. Keneally, Thomas. Abraham Lincoln: A Life. Penguin Books, 2008. ISBN: 978-0143114758
  8. Merkle, Howard. “April 14-15, 1865: The Tragic FInal Hours of Abraham Lincoln.” PBS News Hour, 2020.  Accessed on 16 January, 2020. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/april-15-1865-tragic-last-hours-abraham-lincoln
  9. “A Brief Biography of Mary Todd Lincoln.” Mary Todd Lincoln Research Site, 1996. Accessed on 28 December, 2019. https://rogerjnorton.com/Lincoln16.html
  10. Blakemore, Erin. “Mary Todd Lincoln Became a Laughingstock After Her Husband’s Assasination.” History.com, A&E Television, 2020.  Accessed on 17 January 2020. https://www.history.com/news/mary-todd-lincoln-assassination-facts
  11. Wilson, Douglas L. “William H Herndon and Mary Todd Lincoln.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 22, Issue 2, Summer 2001. Accessed on 3 January, 2020. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jala/2629860.0022.203/–william-h-herndon-and-mary-todd-lincoln?rgn=main;view=fulltext
  12. “The Widow LIncoln: ‘Time Brings To Me, No Healing On Its WIng.’ ” The LIncoln Collection, n.d. Accessed on 17 January, 2020.  https://www.lincolncollection.org/collection/curated-groupings/category/the-widow-lincoln/

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