Mary Todd Lincoln: Life and Marriage to Abraham Lincoln

| | February 7, 2024

Considered one of the most polarizing First Ladies of the United States, Mary Todd 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.

The Life of Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Ann Todd Smith, born on December 13, 1818, into the prominent Todd family in Lexington, Kentucky, emerged as a figure of significance in American history. The fourth of seven children, her life commenced in a household filled with the hustle and bustle typical of a large family.

Her father, Robert Smith Todd, was a successful banker and politician, instilling in his children a sense of ambition and public duty. Despite the affluence and social standing of the Todd household, Mary’s childhood was marked by tragedy. Her mother, Eliza Ann Parker Todd, passed away when Mary was just six, leaving a void that deeply affected the young girl.

The Todd family valued education, particularly for their daughters, a progressive stance for the time. Mary attended the Shelby Female Academy, where she received a comprehensive education that was rare for women in the early 19th century. This formative period honed Mary’s intellect and wit, preparing her for the complexities of life at the White House.

Her stepmother, Elizabeth Edwards, played a significant role in Mary’s upbringing, ensuring that she and her siblings were well-cared for and educated, despite the initial resistance Mary showed towards her.

Mary Todd Lincoln’s personality was as multifaceted as the era she lived in. Known for her sharp intelligence, she was equally recognized for her spirited demeanor. Her interests ranged widely, encompassing politics, literature, and social issues of the time.

This depth of character and breadth of interest made her an ideal companion for Abraham Lincoln, whose own love for learning and spirited debate was well known. Mary’s ability to engage in the political discourse of the time, a rarity for women, made her an intriguing figure in the social circles of Springfield, Illinois, where she would eventually meet her future husband, Abraham Lincoln.

READ MORE: Lincoln at Lincoln: Abraham Lincoln Rallies Logan County, Illinois, in His First Namesake Town on October 16, 1858 and The Papers of Abraham Lincoln: Legal Documents and Cases

What Ethnicity Was Mary Todd Lincoln?

Her paternal lineage traced back to Scottish and English immigrants who settled in the American colonies, contributing to her diverse heritage.

The Todd family, having established themselves in the United States over several generations, were a blend of these European ancestries, embodying the melting pot that was early American society. This rich ancestral background played a subtle yet significant role in shaping Mary’s identity and her perspectives.

Mary Todd’s ethnic background, while not at the forefront of her public persona, subtly influenced her life and social interactions. In an era where lineage and family background held considerable social weight, the Todd family’s European roots afforded them a certain status in Kentucky society.

This status enabled Mary to access educational and social opportunities that were crucial in shaping her worldview. Moreover, her family’s position in society likely influenced her progressive views on issues like slavery, which were contentious during the American Civil War period.

READ MORE: Slavery in America: United States’ Black Mark

Her marriage to Abraham Lincoln, who hailed from a less affluent background, also highlighted the convergence of different American social strata, reflecting the evolving nature of American society at the time.

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.

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.

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.

How Did Abraham and Mary Lincoln Meet?

The meeting of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln, a key moment in American history, was no less than a blend of chance and social intricacy. It was in Springfield, Illinois, where their paths crossed, a town bustling with political activity and social gatherings.

READ MORE: US History Timeline: The Dates of America’s Journey

In 1839, Mary moved to Springfield to live with her sister Elizabeth Edwards and her husband, Ninian Edwards, a prominent political figure. This relocation placed her in the heart of Illinois’ social and political scene.

At a dance in Springfield, Mary first encountered Abraham Lincoln. He was a rising lawyer and politician, known for his eloquence and towering height. Despite their differing backgrounds, with Mary hailing from a wealthy family and Lincoln from more humble origins, there was an immediate connection. Abraham, captivated by Mary’s intelligence and vivacity, found in her a partner who could match his wit and share his ambition.

Their courtship, though not without its challenges, blossomed amidst the backdrop of Springfield’s social scene. The couple engaged in debates and discussions, often delving into the political issues of the time.

Mary’s education and upbringing in a politically active family equipped her to engage with Lincoln on matters of public concern. This mutual respect and intellectual compatibility laid the foundation for their enduring relationship.

The engagement of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln was a significant event, marked by societal interest and personal triumph. Despite facing obstacles, including a brief separation and the skepticism of some family members, their commitment to each other prevailed.

In 1842, they solidified their union, beginning a partnership that would leave an indelible mark on American history. Their relationship was not just a romantic union but a merging of minds and ideals, vital in shaping the nation’s future.

How Old Was Mary Todd Lincoln When She Met Abraham Lincoln?

Mary Todd was 21 years old when she first met Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois. Mary had reached the age of social maturity by the standards of the 19th century when she encountered Lincoln in 1839. This period was a significant time for young women in American society, often marking the transition to adult social and civic responsibilities.

Abraham Lincoln, born on February 12, 1809, was 30 years old at the time of their meeting, making him nine years Mary’s senior. This age difference, while notable, was not uncommon in that era.

Their ages reflect the different stages of life they were in; Lincoln was establishing his career in law and politics, while Mary was navigating the social circles of Springfield. The age gap between Mary and Abraham played a role in shaping their relationship. Mary’s youth and vivacious personality complemented Lincoln’s more seasoned and reflective nature.

Their differing life experiences brought a balance to their partnership, with each offering a unique perspective on the personal and political issues they faced together. This blend of youth and experience contributed to the strength of their bond, enabling them to support each other through the myriad challenges of life in public service.

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.

READ MORE: The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln

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.

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, learned 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 Assassination 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, and soldier and son, Robert Todd Lincoln, was back at the White House; there was reason to assume that the wish for clemency toward 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 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.

What Happened to Mary Lincoln After Lincoln Died?

Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, Mary Todd Lincoln’s life entered a period of profound grief and tumultuous change. The former First Lady, having already endured the loss of her son Willie in 1862, faced an unimaginable tragedy with her husband’s death in 1865. This succession of personal losses deeply impacted Mary, leading to significant mental health challenges.

In the immediate aftermath, Mary Lincoln was consumed by grief. She moved out of the White House and began a life filled with mourning. Her intense sorrow was compounded by financial difficulties, as she struggled to navigate life without Abraham’s support. The death of her husband left her in a precarious position, both socially and financially, as the nation grappled with the end of the Civil War and the loss of its leader.

Mary’s later years were marked by efforts to secure a pension and maintain her family’s legacy. She traveled between the United States and Europe, seeking solace and a respite from the public eye. Her mental health continued to be a source of concern for her remaining son, Robert Lincoln, who eventually arranged for her to be temporarily committed to a sanitarium in 1875. This action, born out of concern for her well-being, added another layer of tragedy to her post-White House life.

Despite these challenges, Mary Todd Lincoln’s legacy and historical perception evolved over time. She became recognized not just as a widow of a slain president but as a woman who navigated immense personal and public challenges.

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, on one occasion in 1867, she traveled 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 Lincolns 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.

Mary Todd Lincoln House

The Mary Todd Lincoln House, situated in Lexington, Kentucky, stands as a testament to the early life of Mary Todd Lincoln and the Todd family’s prominence. This historic home, where Mary lived from 1832 to 1839, offers a glimpse into her formative years before she became part of the Lincoln family.

The house, originally purchased by her father, Robert Smith Todd, is a significant landmark in understanding Mary’s background and the environment that shaped her. Restored to its mid-19th century appearance, the Mary Todd Lincoln House now serves as a museum. It offers visitors an intimate look at the Todd family’s lifestyle, their social standing in Kentucky, and the early influences on Mary.

The house contains personal artifacts and furnishings that belonged to the Todd family, providing a tangible connection to Mary’s pre-White House life. Preservation efforts for the Mary Todd Lincoln House began in earnest in the 1970s, recognizing the need to maintain this crucial piece of American history.

Today, the house is not only a museum but also an educational center. It plays a crucial role in shedding light on the lesser-known aspects of Mary’s life, her Kentucky roots, and the societal norms of the time.

The preservation and public access to the Mary Todd Lincoln House ensure that Mary’s story and her contributions to American history are not forgotten. Visitors to the house can explore the early chapters of her life, gaining a deeper understanding of the woman who would become one of the most discussed figures of the Civil War era.

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 the 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.

  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.
  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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