Mary Todd Lincoln was born in Lexington, Kentucky on December 13, 1818. The fourth of sixteen children, Mary was a daughter of one of the town’s more prominent men, Robert Smith Todd, and his first wife, Elizabeth Parker, who died when Mary was six years old. A businessman and politician, Robert provided his children with social standing and material advantages that Mary's future husband, Abraham Lincoln, lacked in his own youth.
Mary moved in the highest levels of Bluegrass society and acquired an extensive education from Frenchwoman Madame Charlotte Mentelle. At her father’s large home on Main Street, maintained by household slaves, Mary mingled with influential political guests. The most prominent of these was Senator Henry Clay, three-time presidential candidate and leader of the Whig party. Clay, a family friend, lived less than two miles from the Todds.
In 1832, Mary’s oldest sister, Elizabeth, married Ninian Edwards, the son of a former governor of Illinois. The couple moved to Springfield, which soon became Illinois’ new capital. Mary visited her sister Elizabeth in 1839. At a dance in Springfield, she met a junior partner in her cousin's law firm, Abraham Lincoln.
Abraham and Mary were a study in contrasts. Nine years older, Abraham came from a comparatively poor and undistinguished background. He was socially awkward, with less than two years of formal education. Her vivacity and occasional flashes of the “Todd temper” was in marked contrast to his self-deprecating personality. Yet many things brought them together, including a love of poetry, literature, and a formidable interest in Whig politics. Mary recognized her husband’s intellectual depth and political ambition before many others did. They wed in her sister Elizabeth's house in November 1842.
In marrying Abraham, Mary exchanged her life of relative ease and privilege for that of a working lawyer’s wife. He was gone for extended periods riding the circuit while she did much of the household labor and raised four sons. He valued her judgment and once observed he had no reason to read a book after Mary had reviewed it for him. Abraham’s political career progressed slowly, and in 1858 he was defeated in a race for the United States Senate at the hands of Mary’s former suitor, Stephen A. Douglas. Yet as the division between the northern and southern sections of the country widened, Abraham’s much admired speeches from his senate campaign helped elect him as the nation’s first Republican president in 1860.
Mary Todd Lincoln’s life in the White House was marked by controversy and tragedy. Many felt she was a rustic from the “west." Some assumed that as a member of a slave-holding family she had Confederate sympathies, and several of Mary’s siblings supported the Confederacy through marriage or military service. Not surprisingly, the divided loyalties within the Todd family fueled much controversy in the nation’s press.
Mary’s own behavior sometimes alienated those who might have sympathized with her situation. Her expenditures on the White House were criticized as extravagant, even scandalous, in time of war. Public displays of temper sometimes overshadowed her valuable work with contraband slaves and wounded soldiers.
Yet few denied that Mary Todd Lincoln suffered greatly in the White House. The pressures and anxieties of the war were unrelenting. Mary watched her husband age under the strain. In early 1862, when they lost eleven-year-old son Willie to typhoid fever, Mary was prostrate with grief. The heaviest blow fell on April 14th, 1865. Abraham’s assassination at Ford’s Theater was a shock from which Mary never recovered.
Mary lived seventeen years after her husband's death. Mary took solace in travel and a growing interest in the practice of spiritualism. After returning from a long visit in Europe, her youngest son, Tad, died of pneumonia and pleurisy in 1871. Four years later, at her son Robert's instigation, Mary was confined against her will for several months at an asylum in Batavia, Illinois. Estranged from her only surviving child, Mary left the country, living quietly in France. Illness eventually forced her to return to the United States where she died July 1882, having spent much of her last year in seclusion at her sister Elizabeth's home. Mary is entombed, along with her husband, in Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Illinois.