The dance was over and the tall, somewhat gangly and awkward, young man had just politely escorted Mary, a very pretty young lady, back to her seat, next to her sister. As he walked away, Mary smiled and told her sister, “Mr. Lincoln had said that he wanted to dance with me in the worst way, and he just did!”
That evening, Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd had the first of many dances for the next 25 years.
When she first met Abraham Lincoln, Mary Ann Todd was twenty years old, well educated in the classics, spoke fluent French, passable German, enjoyed social interaction with many friends, and had numerous suitors, including Stephen A. Douglas whose political career would shadow Lincoln’s. She was self-confident (for her era) and an engaging conversationalist, but her witty comments could occasionally have a bit of sting. She enjoyed political debate and kept well informed of local, state and even national issues; and she did not hesitate to express her strong opinions. On one occasion, her sarcasm toward the Illinois State Auditor in an anonymous letter to a local newspaper nearly forced Lincoln, her fiancee, to fight a duel to defend her honor. One contemporary noted that “Every thought that crossed her mind, was quickly spoken.”
Mary had grown up in Lexington, Kentucky where she lived a genteel life surrounded by a large family of brothers and sisters. Her father, Robert Todd, was a hero in the War of 1812, a banker, and owned a small plantation. He also owned about thirty slaves, some of whom Mary knew well as they served as nannies and house servants, but most were field hands with whom Mary had little contact. After her mother died when Mary was only six, her father quickly remarried but Mary and her new stepmother never bonded and their relationship deteriorated as Mary entered her teen age years. Some, who knew Mary and her step-mother, said that as Mary became a young woman, the two seemed to vie for the family’s lead role in Lexington social circles. When she was nineteen, her sister Elizabeth married Ninian Edwards, a wealthy businessman and political insider in Springfield, Illinois, and Mary began to spend more time there and, in essence, left her father’s home for good. In part she moved to get away from her stepmother, but also very important to Mary, she was immediately accepted into Springfield society and began to receive flattering attention from several eligible gentlemen.
But Mary chose Abraham Lincoln. After a tumultuous period of courting, and one broken engagement, they married on November 4, 1842; he was 33, she was 24.
Although her “Mr. Lincoln” was not wealthy, he was a popular citizen of Springfield and, as his law practice flourished and his political influence grew, Mary seemed to enjoy her perceived aristocracy. And, according to numerous friends at that time, she was a caring mother who insisted that her children become well educated, and a dedicated wife who was helpful to her husband’s political interests and to his legal career.
However, later in her life, Mary was characterized harshly by some contemporaries and then, after her husband’s death, by biographers of Abraham Lincoln. Further, there is no question that she had given her critics adequate justification.
Much of the negative information about Mary during her “Springfield” days came from Lincoln’s last law partner, William Herndon, who despised Mary; and the feeling was mutual! Immediately after Lincoln’s death, Herndon embarked on a one year quest to interview many of Lincoln’s (and Mary’s) acquaintances. When Herndon wrote his 1889 biography of Lincoln, a few years after Mary’s death, he included many unflattering anecdotes about her, some of which her contemporaries said were either exaggerated or simply untrue. He once commented that Lincoln spent so much time traveling on the legal circuit because “his home life was hell and absence from home was his heaven.” And Carl Sandburg’s monumental six volume biography of Lincoln, written from 1926-1939 and based to some degree on Herndon’s book and articles, was only somewhat more balanced toward Mary. After nearly a century, a few modern biographers began to present Mary’s story in a more sympathetic light; while not overlooking her seemingly steady transformation from popular socialite into an abrasive “First Lady” and then into an erratic (possibly mentally ill) widow.
So what changed in Mary’s life that would cause her to become regarded as “difficult at best and unstable at worst” by so many?
For the first half of her life, Mary had a few experiences when she was saddened by the loss of a relative or friend and she would demonstratively grieve and usually seek solitude for a while; but then gradually recover. Mary also could easily become frustrated with situations (or individuals) and would quickly lash out in anger at friends, and even her husband; but would hardly ever apologize. Almost all who remained close to her came under her fire at some point, but most, including Lincoln, seemed willing to accept that “It was just Mary being Mary.” Contemporaries noted that, while she might remain in “her moods” for a little longer than most, she was able to resume positive social interactions with her friends and family over time.
However, when she was about thirty, there began an ever building crescendo of disappointments and personal tragedies in Mary’s life which had a compounding negative effect on her ability to cope and to regain her perspective. While most people recover from adversities and heartaches in a reasonable time, after this point in her life, it would appear that Mary could not.
The episodes included a rejection of Mary by Washington’s social elite in 1847 and again in 1861, hardly a crisis for most people but devastating experiences for Mary. More tragically, she also faced the deaths of three of her sons; the division of her family in the Civil War as some of her brothers and other relatives fought, and four died, for the Confederacy; and then she witnessed the assassination of her husband.
When these episodes are viewed in sequence, Mary’s descent seems unavoidable.
In 1847 Lincoln won election to the U.S. House of Representatives and Mary found herself in Washington DC. While Mary had thrived as a socialite in Lexington and Springfield, she quickly learned that a first term Congressman’s wife, especially from the “backwoods” state of Illinois, had no social status. To her great disappointment, for the first time in her life, Mary did not have an easy entrée into the social circles that she desperately wanted. But, rather than follow her sister’s advice to try to cultivate a few friends through church and charitable activities, which would have gradually allowed more of the women of Washington to know her, Mary instead complained incessantly; further alienating those she hoped to join. To many of her contemporaries, and later historians, Mary’s over-reaction to the perceived rejection seemed shallow; but to her, it was a humiliating experience and a personal insult.
So, she bolted!
Only returning to Washington for a few weeks at a time, she spent much of the next two years in Kentucky with her family, in New York with her two children, or back in Springfield. While she had always supported her husband’s political career, she was probably pleased when Lincoln, who considered his Congressional experience a failure, chose to not seek a second term in 1849.
After the disappointing time in Washington, Abraham Lincoln returned to his home, his friends, his law practice, and his family in Springfield. Lincoln had made many valuable contacts in the Capital who would be helpful later in his political career; however, Mary was never able to forgive or forget the affront by the social elite of Washington.
But, she was home and her life returned to a familiar and comfortable pattern.
Then, in February 1850, her four year old son, Eddie, died of pulmonary tuberculosis. Mary was grief-stricken and isolated herself for several weeks from her husband and son Robert; and would refuse to eat for days. For the first time, Lincoln expressed concern for her health with her family. While he was also a person known to only slowly recover from such loss, Lincoln was supportive of Mary while she was in mourning; and over time, she seemed to gather herself and move on.
For the next few years, it appears that Mary regained some of her confidence and again became a popular hostess in Springfield, supported her husband’s efforts to broaden his clientele for the law firm, and helped to promote his political influence. Lincoln’s personal popularity had not waned after his short time as a Congressman and it soon became clear he might run for another office; possibly for Governor, but more likely as a U.S. Senator in 1854. And Mary was determined to help him; telling her sister “I always knew he would again be a politician, and I would again be a politician’s wife.”
U.S. Senators at that time were chosen by state legislatures, not elected by the voters, and Lincoln’s Whig Party was in the minority in 1854; but, he was popular enough among some Democrats that he had at least a reasonable chance for the appointment. And, in fact, Lincoln received the most votes (48%) of the four candidates on the first two roll-calls, but he could not gain the 51% necessary to win. Fearing that a pro-slavery candidate who was in second position could be selected, Lincoln requested that his supporters switch to Lyman Trumbull, the candidate in fourth place, who, like Lincoln, also opposed the expansion of slavery. With Lincoln’s supporters added to his own, Trumbull collected enough votes to be selected. Lincoln, as always, graciously conceded and even visited the winner’s home, entertaining the crowd with a few of his humorous stories; and he remained friends with Trumbull for the rest of their lives. Mary, on the other hand, believed that Trumbull should have been the one to step aside, and became so bitter over the loss that for years she refused to speak with his wife, Julia Trumbull, who had been her best friend and bridesmaid.
A few months later, Lincoln told Mary that he would run for the same office in four years against Stephen A. Douglas, the other Illinois Senator and Mary’s former suitor. In a move that would require months of thorough explanations to retain his many followers, Lincoln left his Whig Party and joined the new Republican Party, which more clearly opposed the expansion of slavery than either the Whigs or Democrats; both of which had pro-slavery southern contingents. Ever a supporter of Lincoln’s political ambitions, Mary, who knew well the various party platforms, agreed with her husband’s decision to become a Republican and re-engaged in the social whirl to help his chances. The Lincoln home again became a place to be seen in Springfield. Her guests were influential politicians, newspaper publishers, merchants, and ministers from all parts of Illinois who she (and he) thought might support Lincoln’s candidacy, in 1858, to replace Senator Douglas, a Democrat. In these settings, Mary was a gracious hostess, a witty and informed conversationalist, and an effective advocate for her husband.
The 1858 campaign for U.S. Senator from Illinois was unlike any other in the nation’s history. Senator Douglas and Abraham Lincoln had known each other for years, had been opponents in the courtroom, and their political differences were striking; however, they respected each other. Both were recognized as entertaining orators and, to the delight of citizens in Illinois then, and historians today, they agreed to hold seven debates in towns across the state. The Lincoln-Douglas debates drew national attention because the two men presented opposing arguments on the major issues of the day; the need for national railroad and telegraph service, the use of federal lands in the west for individual homesteads; and, critical to the future of the nation, whether or not to limit slavery. Underlying the slavery issue was the real threat by several Southern states to secede from the United States if the Federal government attempted any restrictions on slave ownership. Newspapers throughout the country reported on the debates and, based on the interest by many citizens, the debate manuscripts were published in book form and became a sensational best-seller.
When the Democratic majority in the Illinois Legislature chose to re-appoint Senator Douglas, Abraham Lincoln again congratulated his opponent. Mary, also as before, publicly criticized those who she did not feel gave enough support to her husband; and some of her friends described her as “almost in mourning” for a while.
After this latest political setback, although her husband would not be going to Washington as a U.S. Senator, neither would Mary’s situation return to normal. While there would be no real tragedies during the next few years, neither would there be any period of stability and calm in her family life.
Because of the popularity of his message, helped in part by his humorous delivery, her husband had become a national political figure; and he was now in demand as a speaker in states throughout the north. Between his travels for his growing case load as an attorney, now representing more corporate clients, and his trips for political speeches, Mary often found herself alone in Springfield with her sons and she was known to complain, sometimes bitterly, during Lincoln’s absences. But, she also took great pride in her husband’s growing national prominence as evidenced in her correspondence with her family and later remembrances by her friends.
By early 1860, it became clear that her husband would be a viable candidate for President of the United States and Mary was an enthusiastic hostess to numerous political delegations from the various “northern” states. After a difficult presidential campaign which lasted from January to November, Mary would again leave Springfield for Washington DC.
But this time, as the wife of the nation’s President!
It is clear from her correspondence and comments recalled by friends that Mary thought she would receive a different welcome this time. Surely she must have expected to be standing in the center of the city’s social circle. But, in some ways, Washington society was now worse for Mary than before. Earlier she had been ignored in part because she was unfamiliar and in part because of her husband’s rather low position in the Washington political arena. Now, however, she was certainly well known and her husband occupied the highest office in the nation, but she again found herself an outcast by many who she had hoped would accept her. The grand ladies of Washington DC did not embrace Mary; and they never would.
With few friends, Mary threw herself into plans for renovation of the White House which, by all accounts had been allowed to run down by prior occupants. Many of her ideas were approved by the Congressional committee which authorized the funds but Mary quickly overspent her allocations, primarily by choosing furniture, rugs, draperies and wallpaper which were outrageously and unnecessarily expensive. Some of the blame must be placed on the merchants to the wealthy elite who took advantage of Mary, but she failed to seek other bids or advice. Her activities became an embarrassment to the President as the appropriations committee made the overspending a political issue. As one politician noted, “There is a Civil War going on, boys are dying, and the President’s wife is devoted only to extravagance!” For the first time in American history, the wife of a President was ridiculed by the press and a subject of gossip at many social gatherings.
However, unlike her earlier experience in Washington in 1848, Mary could not bolt! She had to stay in a town where she did not feel welcome.
But to be fair to Mary, not all of her time was devoted to the White House renovation. Throughout the first year in Washington, without any fanfare, Mary spent many days in military hospitals visiting wounded soldiers. Observers recalled that she could sit beside young men, some with terrible wounds, and quietly comfort them. She wrote hundreds of letters dictated to her by those who could not write for themselves and often read poetry to small groups. Her husband told several friends that he was proud of her dedication to this important work and Mary must have felt useful; even if not included socially by those whose acceptance she so much desired.
But then, the next tragedy struck. After lingering for two weeks, Mary’s nine year old son Willie died of typhoid fever on February 20, 1862; and Mary would really never fully recover. Her grief was so deep that for over a month she rarely communicated with her husband or with her young son Tad except through a friend, her dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley. Although Mary resumed some semblance of normal White House responsibilities after three months, from then on and for the rest of her life, she seemed to walk a fine line between reasonable and outrageous behavior.
Always a religious woman, Mary now turned to the occult in an attempt to “contact poor Willie and Eddie on the other side” and even invited charlatans into the White House for séances. When Lincoln objected, she just moved the meetings elsewhere.
A few months after Willie’s death, she again began to schedule her hospital visits but not with the frequency as before.
In Mary’s lifetime, most people believed that “time heals all wounds” and an individual’s inability to recover from despair was often considered a personal weakness. It would be another generation before psychiatric researchers would better define deep depression and state that some might not recover without treatment; and could possibly drop over the edge into “the abyss of mental illness.”
Mary was getting closer to the abyss.
Her mood swings now became more pronounced, and she would even occasionally insult visitors in White House reception lines. Her jealousy toward women who showed even the most basic courtesy to the President might result in a sharp verbal retort; however, occasionally her outbursts toward the women were disruptive and embarrassing to her husband. In one instance, widely reported in the Washington press, Mary berated the wife of a Union General with highly volatile insults until pulled away by the President. Lincoln told Mary to apologize; and although she did so, and the General’s wife graciously accepted, witnesses said Mary’s apology was obviously insincere.
While we do not know what went on behind closed doors, White House observers, including Mrs. Keckley, later commented that Lincoln usually showed remarkable restraint and would try to comfort his wife following one of her episodes.
While the Civil War was raging, Mary also had to live daily with heart wrenching divisions within her own family. Mary’s grandparents, parents, and most siblings were committed southerners and, while Kentucky remained in the Union, five of her brothers and half-brothers joined the Confederate army and three of them, as well as a brother-in-law, were killed by Union forces. With her family’s southern heritage and support for the Confederacy, many in Washington questioned Mary’s loyalty to the Union; and comments were made in public and written in newspapers which grieved both Mary and Mr. Lincoln. A Congressional committee even began hearings on the matter until Abraham Lincoln, deeply saddened, appeared unannounced at a meeting to defend his wife; and for a while, the furor died down. Most historians agree that she did not deserve the doubts and criticism about her commitment to the Union or her opposition to slavery. Mary had spoken against slavery early in her life, actively supported the Contraband Society which aided former slaves, and openly discussed her despair when her brothers chose to renounce the United States.
Then, in an incident over which Mary had no control, her troubles were compounded. While her husband was in Washington focused on the critical battles at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Mary was traveling outside the city in the carriage frequently used by the President. The driver was suddenly thrown off resulting in a high speed crash and Mary was ejected; suffering a serious head injury, which her doctors described as near fatal. Investigators subsequently discovered that most of the bolts which held the driver’s seat in place had been removed which caused suspicion, never proven, that it was an attempt to harm the President. Mary’s physical recovery required several weeks of careful attention by her doctors and nurses but the circumstances of the accident just added to her worries. Her son Robert later came to believe that her head injuries may have been permanent and contributed to her erratic behavior as she grew older.
Fortunately for Mary and for President Lincoln, beginning with Gettysburg, the Union began to claim more victories over the Confederacy and by 1864 the positive public sentiment toward her husband resulted in his landslide re-election. Mrs. Keckley and others noted that Mary seemed to improve and was usually in good spirits; with one exception. Her son Robert, now twenty one years old and studying at Harvard, felt obligated to join the Union Army; but Mary, fearing the loss of another son, was adamantly opposed. When Lincoln arranged for Robert to join General Grant’s staff, Mary again became overwrought for several weeks and openly berated the President.
By this time in her life, one of Mary’s few remaining pleasures was to attend plays and dramatic readings at any of the several theaters in Washington DC, where she and the President would be seated in a special box. On April 14, 1865, Mary and her husband went to Ford’s theater to see a popular comedy. That evening the assassin struck Abraham Lincoln, and Mary stepped into the abyss.
Certainly Mary had been deeply hurt by the unwillingness of Washington society to respect her. The loss of Eddie twenty years earlier was difficult for her and the death of Willie in the White House broke her down for months. The divisions, and deaths, within her family in the Civil War distressed her, and possibly the carriage accident did more harm than first thought. But watching the murder of her husband was certainly the cruelest of tragedies. Her depression deepened and she wore only black clothing for the rest of her life.
Over the next few years she isolated herself and refused to live in Springfield where she had family and friends; instead she rented a home in Chicago. Unfortunately, Mary was already estranged from the one friend she had leaned on through several tragedies; Elizabeth Keckley, her dressmaker. Keckley, who was born as a slave before she obtained her freedom and became a successful businesswoman, had published an autobiography which included details of her four years working for Mary; and emphasized their friendship. Although favorable toward Mary, the book was denounced by Mary and Robert because they thought it violated the privacy of the Lincoln family; and Mary never again spoke with Mrs. Keckley.
Her sisters and a few friends noted that Mary had become obsessed with money, or rather a fear of the lack of money, and she began to accuse her eldest son Robert of squandering assets left by her husband. Robert, however, was scrupulous in his handling of his father’s meager estate which consisted of the Springfield house and a few thousand dollars in Illinois bonds; and, in fact, unappreciated by Mary, Robert was personally covering some of her expenses. At the time, however, there was no pension allocated for former Presidents nor for the widow of a former President, so her income was very limited. Lincoln had no remaining financial interest in his former law firm; and the Todd estate in Kentucky had been decimated during the War and the remnants divided through two generations so Mary could get no financial support from her family. Her resources would have probably been sufficient in Springfield, but not for a home in Chicago, extensive travel in Europe, and an occasional wild buying spree of furnishings she could not use and clothing she would not wear.
After numerous petitions by friends of Abraham Lincoln, Congress finally, by a close vote, awarded Mary an annual pension of $3,000 (equivalent to over $100,000 today).
With her financial situation somewhat stabilized, she moved to Europe with Tad, where she was welcomed by the English, French, and German aristocracy. However, after three years living abroad, for reasons that she did not make clear, Mary decided that she and her son would return home.
But, as at other times in her life, tragedy struck soon after they were back in the United States. Tad Lincoln, at nineteen years of age, fell ill with congestive heart failure, complicated by pneumonia, and became the third of her sons to die.
Mary’s public conduct now became even more bizarre as she made unfounded claims that she had been robbed several times and that she had been poisoned. In 1875, after Mary attempted to jump from a window to escape an imagined fire, her son Robert requested that a court declare his mother insane; and her confinement was ordered. Upon hearing the ruling, Mary attempted suicide by a drug overdose that was only unsuccessful because her apothecary, alarmed at her behavior, had substituted a placebo for a narcotic. Within weeks of her hospitalization, Mary and a few of her remaining friends, including Myra Bradwell, one of the nation’s first female lawyers, began a campaign for her freedom by sending letters to newspapers and to Congress alleging Robert had misled the court. Four months after her commitment, embarrassed by the accusations against him, Robert did not contest his mother’s release; and Mary then moved back to Springfield to live with her sister.
Over the next few months, Bradwell championed Mary’s legal case and asked for a second formal hearing which could clear her name; and in that forum, Mary was “officially” declared sane. Also, during this time, Bradwell successfully petitioned Congress to increase Mary’s annual pension to $5,000. With her financial situation secure, Mary then left the United States and again lived in France until her health began failing in late 1880.
Mary was only 63 when she died at her sister’s Springfield home on July 16, 1882. In a final tragedy, she had refused to reconcile with Robert, but finally agreed to have him visit a few days before her death.
So, was Mary the angry, despondent, confrontational woman described in most biographies? Certainly, at times she was. Historians generally agree that during their Springfield days, while Mary could be petulant, she was supportive of, and helpful to, Lincoln’s law practice and political endeavors. However, when her husband was President and his responsibilities were the most grave and exhausting, Mary became an added burden, rather than a source of comfort and companionship; and there is no question that he was often exasperated and distracted by her irrational behavior. As a result, almost all biographers of Abraham Lincoln have been relentless in their criticism of Mary, especially during her White House years.
But when her life is viewed as a series of tragedies, adversities, and disappointments, I just see a promising, intelligent, and witty young woman gradually losing her self-confidence, turning very sad, then bitter, and, in the later years of her life, likely becoming mentally ill.
Who, among her most severe critics, can say with certainty that they would have weathered all of the storms she faced and not also have neared the abyss?
Contact the author at email@example.com