Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the sixteenth president of the United States, was born in Lexington, Kentucky, on December 13, 1818. The fourth of sixteen children, Mary was daughter to one of the town’s wealthier and more prominent men, Robert Smith Todd. A businessman and politician, Todd provided his children from two marriages with the social standing and material advantages Abraham Lincoln lacked in his own youth.
Although a town of less than seven thousand residents in the 1830s, Lexington was compared to Philadelphia and Boston in its wealth and cosmopolitan sophistication. 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 young Whig party. Clay, a family friend, resided less than two miles from the Todds. He once promised young Mary she would be among his first guests in Washington should he become president. Mary Todd’s path to the White House, however, ran in a different course.
In 1832, Mary’s older sister Elizabeth married the son of a former governor of Illinois. After his graduation from Lexington’s Transylvania University, Ninian Edwards moved with Elizabeth to Springfield, which soon became Illinois’ new state capital. Mary followed in 1839. At a dance she met a junior partner in cousin John Todd Stuart’s law firm, Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln and Mary Todd were a study in contrasts. Nine years older, Lincoln 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 deep interest in Whig politics. Mary recognized Lincoln’s intellectual depth and political ambition before many others did. They wed in November, 1842.
In marrying Lincoln, Mary exchanged her life of relative ease and privilege for that of a working lawyer’s wife. While he was gone for extended periods riding circuit, she was doing much of the household labor and raising four sons. But Mary continued to advance her husband’s political career. He valued her judgment and once observed he had no reason to read a book after Mary had reviewed it for him. Still, Lincoln’s career progressed slowly. One term in Congress came amidst several failures to gain his party’s nomination for political office. Defeat in a race for the United States Senate in 1858 came 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, Lincoln’s much admired speeches on limiting the spread of slavery while preserving the union secured him election 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 simply a rustic from the “west ” out of her depth in Washington. Some unfairly assumed that as the product of a slave-holding Kentucky family she had confederate sympathies, while others felt her partnership with Lincoln was a betrayal of her Southern heritage. Furthermore, 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, however, at times alienated those who might otherwise have sympathized with her situation. Her expenditures on the White House were publicized as extravagant and pretentious, even scandalous, in time of war. And her sometimes public displays of temper 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 visibly under the strain. In early 1862 when she lost eleven year-old son Willie to typhoid fever, Mary was prostrate with grief. And in early 1865 the heaviest blow fell. Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theater on April 14th was a shock from which Mary never recovered. Although she lived for seventeen years after her husband’s death, Mary never escaped from the shadow of that event.
With a small circle of family and friends she could look to for support and aid, Mary took solace in travel and a growing interest in the practice of spiritualism. After an extended sojourn in Europe with his mother, eighteen year-old Tad died of pneumonia and pleurisy in 1871. Increasingly dependent on medications such as laudanum and chloral hydrate for a variety of physical and emotional ailments, the bereft Mary's episodes of erratic behavior resulted in a brief period of confinement in 1875 at an asylum in Batavia, Illinois, at son Robert's instigation. Estranged from her only surviving child, Mary retired to Europe to live out her life in some semblance of peace. 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.
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