Mary Ann Todd Lincoln, wife of the sixteenth President of the United States, was born December 13, 1818, in Lexington, Kentucky to Robert and Eliza Parker Todd. She was raised in a wealthy, yet dysfunctional family. She was well educated as a child, but needed more attention while growing up. Mary had a lot of problems as a Southern woman during the Civil War. Many people disliked her and people often criticized her actions while she was in the White House.

Her problems began early in her life. She had five brothers and sisters and was not given all of the attention she needed. This was difficult because she had a short temper and demanded a lot of attention. When Mary was four her baby brother Mary-Todd-Lincoln-1died. She didn’t know what exactly happened, but she still showed that she was hurt by his death. Two years later when Mary was six years old her mother died. Eliza Parker Todd was only 31 years old when she died and she left her husband Robert with six children to look after. Eliza’s death was extremely hard for Mary because she was just starting to get close to her mom. After just a year, her dad married Betsy Humphreys. Robert and Betsy were married on November 1, 1826. Betsy had eight children, giving them a total of 14 children to care for. This many children made it hard for Robert and Betsy to properly care for their children. Eliza’s children were not fond of Betsy and she did not care much for them either. Those children watched out for each other and Elizabeth, Mary’s oldest sister, took on her mother’s role. Mary started to become more independent just like her older sisters.Soon the Todd family moved into a new home in Lexington, which was yet another difficult change for Mary. Mary found an escape from the family problems in 1836.

She was 18, and had completed boarding school and was now leaving home. Her two sisters, Elizabeth and Frances, had already moved to Springfield, Illinois. Mary visited her sisters often and in 1839 moved to Springfield to live with Frances and her husband, William Wallace (Baker 79).After spending some time in Springfield, Mary started to look for a husband. It’s been said that “social affairs became critical episodes for women in their twenties, who soon must marry or be old maids” (82). The fear of being an old maid caused her to attend many social events where she met many guys. Mary’s brother-in-law, Edward, and her cousin, John Todd Stuart, both had government positions. They helped her meet her future husband, Abraham Lincoln, who at the time was a delegate in the state legislature. Mary and Abraham were two very different people, and their meeting was anything but love at first sight (83). In 1840, their relationship was going well and there was talk of marriage. A year later they both were having doubts and they broke things off for a while. Mary was scared that she was going to marry the wrong guy. Because in the 1800’s, one you were married that was it. Even if the love was no more, the marriage stayed. Lincoln had also. As the son of a farmer, he was worried financially, thinking he might not be able to support her. The break up was hard for both of them, especially Mary “…Mary Todd was caught in a female dilemma between girlish sociability and wifely withdrawal…”(92). The two got back together in 1842, after having a difficult time away from each other. In fact, three days after the election in November of 1842, Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln got married. The Lincoln’s’ marriage was not centered on love but on politics. Their relationship was more of a friendship with random signs of affection.. Mary provided Lincoln with children, friendship, and domestic, economic and political support (131). Mary used her background to teach Lincoln how to dress and proper manners to help him be successful politically. Politics were important in the Lincoln’s’ lives. While Lincoln gave speeches and introduced bills, Mary also got involved in politics. However, she was not interested in the political issues but the fame she got with the issues. She was always willing to help her husband if she was recognized in return (134).

They had three children by 1850, Robert, Edward and William. Tad, their fourth son, was born in 1853. Mrs. Lincoln stayed at home with the kids while Abraham was busy with his career. He was an Illinois representative in the United States Congress. Mary was fine with staying at home with the children because now they were now living in Washington D.C. in a boarding house and were close to Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln was a “…full-fledged, home-based counselor available for insightful judgments…” for her husband (Baker 135-136). Mary’s being involved in her career caused her to lose a lot of her friends. She devoted tons of her time to her children and her husband, trying to strengthen his reputation. It has been said that “politics brought them together, politics must remain, from her point of view a joint enterprise” (136). Lincoln was elected President in 1860. When he found out he had won the election he ran home yelling, “Mary, Mary we are elected” (162). Lincoln appreciated her help in all of his political success. In fact, though Lincoln’s success came mostly because of his leadership skills, they also came because of his wife’s faith and support. Mary was very happy by her husband’s election to the presidency; however, she was upset because for the first time she felt inferior to Lincoln. After Lincoln’s election, the family started moving into the White House. She had a difficult time dealing with the inequality of power in the relationship and so she started to speak her mind, never holding anything back. Often Mary got into trouble either with her husband or other politicians because of her outspokenness. It has been said of Mary that “none took up her duties under more difficult circumstances, none was so consistently criticized, none so vulnerable to criticism” (Turner 77). The people in Washington D.C. didn’t pay very much attention to her, only writing mean letters about “the southern lady in the White House” (79). The rejection by the media was hard for her to cope with because she had always been treated well, especially being raised in a socially accepted family. ” She had to find a way of proving that she was a well-bred, Intelligent and sophisticated woman, loyal to her husband and her country, and more than qualified for the demanding role that history had thrust upon her” (79). The First Lady also wanted to prove that she knew about politics. In February of 1862, the Lincoln’s third child, Willie, became very ill. His illness was very hard on Mary.

There was no medicine at the time of his illness, so Mary sat by his bed and watched him get worse. It was also painful for the President because there was nothing he could do. On February 20, 1862, Willie died. Mrs. Lincoln lost all control. She was very miserable and maybe suffered a mild nervous breakdown. She refused to enter the room where Willie died. She was also depressed and lonely for some time and didn’t go to any social events for over a year. Lincoln was concerned about her and threatened to put her in an insane asylum if she didn’t get over her grieving. It took Mary over a year to get over Willie’s death. Eventually she returned to her outgoing self, keeping any feelings of grief inside. She was now more involved with the war than she ever had been. She was brave enough to visit the wounded at the local hospitals, bringing flowers and stuff from the White House. Ironically, Mary didn’t receive any recognition for this. Not only did she visit the hospitals, she also told her opinion more freely to her husband (Barton 331). Mary wasn’t afraid anymore to tell Lincoln what she thought about his decisions. In fact, she even told him, in front of General Grant and his wife, that General Ord should be removed from his position. Another major issue that Mary faced was slavery. When she was little, her family had a lot of slaves. Coming from a slave-owning family, Mary wanted a few slaves herself. It’s been said that “her southern sympathies were to an extent responsible for Lincoln’s hesitation and slow movement toward emancipation” (Barton 335). After living in the north for over twenty years her opinion on slavery changed. Early in 1862, Mrs. Lincoln took action to convince her husband to free the Slaves and give them equal. Being a Southerner in the White House, she was always being accused of treason. Northerners thought that Mary had constant connections with the South and for protection purposes; she was not allowed to open her own mail (334). Throughout the entire Civil War, “southerners scorned her as a traitor to her birth, and citizens loyal to the union suspected her of treason” (Mary Todd Lincoln, part 6). In 1864, Lincoln was re-elected. Although the couple grew apart during the last year of the war, Lincoln noticed their problems and he was able to bring them back together. They were miserable mostly because the war. This all ended on April 14, 1865, when Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theater, where the couple was viewing “Our American Cousin” (218). After Lincoln died, Mary’s life seemed to be over. All her life she had devoted her time to him. Now she didn’t know if she had anything to live for.

She left to live with her oldest son Robert after her son Tad died July 15, 1871. A few years later, he had his mother declared insane on May 19, 1875. She was put into a private mental institution in Batavia, Illinois (Angle 508). She was a patient there for just over a year, until June 15, 1876 when she was declared sane again. Keeping to herself, Mary moved to Europe to get away from everyone. She returned in early 1880 after an accident in France. She was mounting a picture above a mantelpiece when she lost her balance and fell. She had both back and leg injuries. She then decided to stay in the United States with her sister, Elizabeth. Not long after she died on July 16, 1882. She died in the same house in which she and Lincoln had gotten married. Mary Todd Lincoln had an extremely difficult life. The challenges she faced from growing up in a dysfunctional Southern family affected many areas of her life. Marrying Abraham Lincoln made problems for her as well as the demands placed on both of them when he became President. “As a Southern woman in the White House during the Civil War Mary was disliked by many and often criticized” (Turner 78).

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2 Comments on "Mary Todd Lincoln: First Lady & Biography"

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Karin Nystrom
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The photograph at the top of the page (the larger one) is NOT Mary Todd Lincoln. It is Harriet Lane, niece of President James Buchanan.

Thank you,
Karin

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