The Lincoln Children

Figure 1.--This is a CDV of an engraving based on two different portraits. The first portrait was of the President and Tad. This is the only image taken od President Lincoln wearing glasses. It was photographed by Anthony Berger for Matthew Brady and became the most popular of the Lincoln images during the war. People at the time woud have instantly recognized Willie's absence. The original portrait had only President Lincoln and Tad. Thousands of copies of this portrait were madeand sold. It was Currier and Ives that created the composit image here, adding the portrait of the First Lady. It became Meserve variant 41.

The Lincolns had four sons. Mary would have certainly liked to have had a little girl to dress up and fuss over, but she loved the boys deeply. It is difficult to imagine two more loving parents. The Lincoln boys had extremely varied personalities. Robert was somewhat dour. Eddy and Taddie bubbly, Willie more contemplative. Taddie may have been mildly retarded or at least had learning difficulties. Willie was a very bright child. The Lincolns were extremely permissive parents and the antics of Taddie and Willie are legendary. Willie perhaps the most beloved of all the Lincoln children died in the White House. Tragedy, however, stalked the Lincoln family. Mary would lose three of the four. Only two of the children survived their father and only one lived to maturity. The loss combined with the assassination of her husband was too much for one woman to bear. Even before he was shot, her husband had agonized over her sanity.

The Lincoln Home

Mary Lincoln is one of the most criticized of the first ladies. The Mary Lincoln that married Abraham and set up the Lincoln home seems a very different person than the woman better known to history during the White House Years. She came from a prominent Kentucky family--the Todds. She grew up in considerable luxury, although her childhood was affected by the loss of her mother and problems with her step-mother. The drudgery of daily 19th century life was taken away by slaves. She had married well below the social level of the Todd family, in part to get away from her step-mother. The fledgling lawyer had little money to afford the niceties of life that she was accustomed to as a child and young woman. Yet she through herself into her duties, cleaning the home, caring for the children, cooking the meals, sewing her own and the children's clothes. [Baker, p. 109.] As far as we know she did not complain to her husband about these tasks. And perhaps because of her unhappy childhood, she created a wonderfully happy home environment for her husband and the children that came in due course. In addition she was often left alone with the children while her husband was away traveling with the circuit court.

Permissive Parents

Mary and her husband shared power as parents. Lincoln was often absent riding the circuit as a young, ambitious lawyer and at the state legislature. Thus Mary played a key role in the children's upbringing. The Lincolns by all accounts were permissive parents. It is noteworthy that none of the four boys were named Abraham. Accounts exist of just how permissive they were. One account reports that on one train trip the other passengers were appalled by the behavior of the boys who Lincoln referred to as the "little codgers". They were racing down the isles disturbing the other passengers. His law partner complained of the boys discarding orange peels and other trash on the floor of their office, pulling out and disturbing files. The Lincoln home was a child-centered home. Mary would hold birthday parties when such events were not common. Mary would dress up for roles in Robert's theatrical performances. The Lincolns encouraged the boys to recite poetry (usually Burns and Shakespeare). Many considered this an inappropriate intrusion into adult social functions. Historians usually stress Lincoln's permissive approach to parenthood. Some authors believe that, if possible, Mrs Lincoln was even more permissive and at times criticized her husband in the apparently rare attempts he made at discipline. [Baker, p. 120.]

Tumult in the White House

The permissive approach continued in the White House. Robert was initially away at school. The roof of the White House was converted to a play area for the younger boys, Willie and Tad. They were, however, allowed to run throughout the White House. They especially love to slide down the banisters. Sometimes the President would romp about with them. Both boys delighted in their father carrying them on his shoulders. Lincoln was of course very tall and the boys could often reach the rafters in the ceiling which delighted them. The tumult in the White House was not just perpetrated by the two boys. They made friends and were allowed to bring their friends to the White House and romp around. The boys with their friends or pets would break into important meetings and not be chided by their father. The boys had numerous pets including ponies and goats. The goats would pull carts including inside the White House.


We know of very little written material addressing the clothing of the Lincoln children. We have seen letters from Mrs. Lincoln to the president while on her shopping expeditions to New York. She briefly refers to clothes she is buying for Willie and Tad. The primary source of information on the boys' clothes, however, is the photographic record. We have found several portraits that provide us some basic information. `

The Boys

The Lincolns had four children, all sons. Only two of the children survived their father and only one lived to maturity. Eddy was the first to die and we do not know as much about him as the other boys. He died at an early age before the Lincolns were well known. From all accounts it was a tragedy from which their parents never recovered, especially his mother. The two middle boys entered the White House together with their parents. Their antics amused a nation immersed in the tragedy of the Civil War. Their father who was not much of a disciplinarian to begin with, virtually allowed them the run of the White House and to do what they wanted--which included firing their toy cannon at the Cabinet. They were the two most famous presidential boys and they left a trail of destruction and mayhem in their wake. The President for the most part saw it as great fun. The entire nation grieved when Willie tragically died. The loss of another child combined with the assassination of her husband was too much for one woman to bear. Even before he was shot, her husband and agonized over her sanity. Mary also lost Tad. Only Robert survived to adulthood and he and his mother had a strained relationship.

Robert Todd (1843-1926)

Robert was the Lincoln's oldest son. He was never as close to his father as the younger boys. He was a young adult when the Lincolns arrived in Washington, much older than his two younger brothers. He served briefly in the Civil War and studied law at Harvard University, and served as Secretary of War and Ambassador to Great Britain in future Republican administrations. In later life, problems developed between Robert and his mother. He had her briefly committed to an asylum. This cause disagreements within the family. Robert at the end of his life was buried as a veteran in Arlington Cemetery, apart from his parents and brothers.

Eddy (1846-50)

The Lincoln's second son, Eddy was born on March 10, 1846, in the Lincoln home on Eighth and Jackson Streets. He was named after Edward Baker, a friend and political ally of Lincoln's. One authority tells us that, "Both Abraham and Mary only spelled his name Eddy in all letters they ever wrote." [Justin] Eddy only lived to be 3 years and 10 months old. After a long illness he died in the family home (February 1, 1850). Because he died so young, little is known of his still-developing personality, only a few impressions of him have survived. Mrs. Lincoln wrote of an occasion when Robert brought home a kitten. When Eddy "spied it his tenderness broke forth, he made them bring it water, fed it with bread himself, with his own dear hands, he was a delighted little creature over it...." On the day that Lincoln said farewell to the people of Springfield as he left for the White House, he thought of Eddy. Summing up what Springfield had meant to him, he said: "To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born and one is buried."

Willie (1850-62)

The third Lincoln child, Willie, was born on December 21, 1850, in the family home in Springfield. He was named for his Uncle William Wallace, who married Mary Todd Lincoln's sister Frances. Willie was described as being amiable, cheerful, mature for his age, and the son who was the most popular with his playmates. His mother said that Willie "was a very beautiful boy, with a most spiritual expression of face." However, the use of the word "spiritual" here does not mean that he was not ready to join his younger brother Tad in pranks and mischief whenever the occasion presented itself. He was the apple of his father's eye. Willie could do no wrong in his father's eyes. Willie died in the White House on February 20, 1862, at the age of 11, while his father was President. It was one of the saddest events in the White House. His death was a devastating blow to his parents, and it cast a dark shadow over the remaining years of Lincoln's Presidency, already made tragic by the Civil War. Lincoln grieved silently in his son's bedroom for 2 days. Mary wailed for days.

Thomas (1853-71)

Thomas was the Lincoln's youngest child, and as often occurs with the youngest--his father's favorite. Thomas, was born on April 4, 1853, in the Lincoln home in Springfield. He was named after Lincoln's father, Thomas, but, Abraham nicknamed him "Tad," short for "Tadpole," apparently because of his appearance as an infant. Tad was inventive in thinking up mischief and he became rather famous for his pranks, which he often carried out with the help of his older brother Willie. Hampered by a speech impediment, Tad was slow to learn to read and write, and he had trouble communicating with others, but his father could understand Tad perfectly and empathized with the boy's frustrations. Known for his affectionate and impulsive personality, Tad became the focus of Lincoln's attentions after the death of his older brother William Wallace. Tad died on July 15, 1871, at the age of 18, about 6 years after the assassination of his father. His death was a great loss to his mother, because she had depended upon him for love, companionship, and understanding after her husband's assassination.


Baker, Jean H. Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (W.W. Norton: New York, 1987), 429p.

Donald, David Herbert. We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends (Simon &Schuster, 2003), 269p.

Justin. Executive Assistant to Mr. Keya Morgan. E-mail message, October 1, 2014.

Lincoln, Mary.


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Created: 1:25 AM 11/4/2004
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