Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882)

Figure 1.--Here is Mrs. Lincoln and her two sons, Willie and Taddy in 1861. Her husband had just become president. The portrait was taken by E. Anthony on Broadway in New York. She was in New York on one of her celebrated shopping trips. The boys are wearing matching neck buttoning jackets with small collars. Notice their peaked caps.

Mary Todd Lincoln is beyond doubt the most tragic of all America's First Ladies. Other have suffered great losses, but none so many losses beginning at such an early age. As a result, she was incapable of giving her husband the support that would have been so valuable for a man undergoing the trials faced by few men. It should always be remembered that the bright, vivacious young lady that Lincoln marred was a great asset to his Illinois political career and without Mary, he may never have been so successful politically. We know more about Mary Lincoln as a failing First Lady and not about the years in Springfield where was a valuable partner in her husband's political career.


Mary was the daughter of Eliza Parker and Robert Smith Todd, pioneer settlers of Kentucky. Robert Todd was a wealthy pillar of society.


Mary lost her mother before the age of 7. This was the first of a list of tragic deaths which populate Mary's life. Until her mother died, she had had a happy childhood, but this soon changed. Her father remarried after a few months. She felt betrayed. Mary grew up in luxury, but remembered her childhood as "desolate" although she belonged to the aristocracy of Lexington, with high-spirited social life and a sound private education. The major problem was her step-mother. The two did not get along at all. Her step-mother once referred to her as "the Devil's spawn" which surely explains why Mary was anxious to get out of the home..


Mary grew up in a large family. She had a large numbers of brothers and sisters from both of her father's marriage. Mary was the fourth of seven children from her father's first marriage. When his first wife died, her father married again and had nine more children. Mary seems to have been overwhelmed in this large brood. She felt neglected by her father which was probably the case with a second wife and so many children. And Mary did not get on well with her step-mother. [Berry} Her insecurity as a child must have been a factor in her insecurity as First Lady. Her brothers were to support and fight for the South--some were to be killed in the coming War. It was to a sister that she went to live to live to escape her step-mother. Her sister lived in Springfield where she had married a former governor. It was in Springfield of course that she was to meet Abraham.


As a girlhood companion remembered her, Mary Todd was vivacious and impulsive, with an interesting personality--but "she now and then could not restrain a witty, sarcastic speech that cut deeper than she intended...." A young lawyer summed her up in 1840: "the very creature of excitement." All of these attributes marked her life, bringing her both happiness and tragedy.


She was better educated than most women of the day and had much more formal education than her future husband. She had 12 years of formal education. She spoke French with a Parisian accent. She was better educated than most men of her day. As a young lady she developed an interest in politics. This may have been a way of obtaining attention from her father whom she adored.

Young Lady

Just 5 feet 2 inches at maturity, Mary had clear blue eyes, long lashes, light-brown hair with glints of bronze, and a lovely complexion. She danced gracefully, she loved finery, and her crisp intelligence polished the wiles of a Southern coquette.

Nearly 21, she went to Springfield, Illinois, to live with her sister Mrs. Ninian Edwards. She was not a beautiful young woman, but attractive enough. It was her personality and intelligence which attracted men. She was soon the most popular young lady in Springfield. Mary continued to have a great interest in politics.


Here she met Abraham Lincoln--in his own words, "a poor nobody then." Its unclear what Mary saw in Lincoln. His frontier crudeness appalled her family. She spent their entire marriage trying to cultivate him. He was awkward at teas and dances, socially primitive. Her sisters advised Mary against the marriage. One sister called him "the ugliest man in town." Mary remembers being approached by a unknown young man who said he was dying to dance with her in the worst way. She later added "And he was right." But Mary Todd, however, saw something very special in the gainly young lawyer.


About 3 years after they met, after a stormy courtship and broken engagement--Mary and Abraham were married in 1842. The two were opposites in background and temperament. They were united, however, by what one historian describes as "an an enduring love"--by Mary's confidence in her husband's ability and his gentle consideration of her excitable ways. Others are not as convinced of the bonds between the two. Mary's incessant efforts to change him to what she thought was a cultivated man must have been exasperating, much as he knew it was needed. This perhaps explains the extended periods riding the circuit or long hours in his law office eating bologna sausages and crackers.

Rising Politician

Their years in Springfield brought hard work, a family of boys, and reduced circumstances to the pleasure-loving girl who had never felt responsibility before. They bought a house in 1844/45?. It was the only house that the Lincoln's ever owner. She groomed him by helping with his attire and manners. Mary and Abraham were first photographed in 1846. Lincoln's single term in Congress, for 1847-1849, gave Mary and the boys a winter in Washington, but scant opportunity for social life. She returned to Illinois. Lincoln served only one term in Congress and joined her. Lincoln by this time ha become a very successful lawyer. But this mean spending long periods of time away from home on the circuit. This was a very difficult time for Mary, alone with two boys.


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. Eddie and Taddie bubbly, Willie more contemplative. Taddie may have been mildly retarded or at least had learning difficulties. Willie was a very bright child. They 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. Willie perhaps the most beloved of all the Lincoln children died in the White House. 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.


Finally her unwavering faith in her husband won ample justification with his election as President in 1860. Mary Todd his thought of by many historians as perhaps the worst First Lady at a critical junction in American history. If ever a president needed the support of the First Lady it was Lincoln. It should be stressed, however, that without the social polish that Mary helped Lincoln acquire, he may have never become president. Once president, however, rather than support, it was tantrums, over spending, and behavior that often created difficulties for her husband.

First Lady

The Civil War divided not only the nation, but also families--especially in the Border states. The First Family was no exception. Virtually all the Todds supported the Confederacy, even though Kentucky did not succeed from the Union. Some of Mary's brother's even fought for the Confederacy. Washington looked on Mary with her Southern connections with some suspicion when she arrived with the President. [Berry] A British correspondent referred to Mary Lincoln as "First Lady" and the name of course as stuck to this day. On her first day in the White House, Mary and the boys went from room to room and was appalled at the shoddy furniture. Mary decided to refurbish the White House as a symbol of the Union. Congress in fact gave her an appropriation to do so. She wildly over spent. Lincoln was appalled. He thought it unseeming to spent large sums on fancy furniture at a time when money was needed for the troops. Lincoln called it "flubdubs for this dammed old house. Though her position fulfilled her high social ambitions, Mrs. Lincoln's years in the White House mingled misery with triumph. An orgy of spending stirred resentful comment. While the Civil War dragged on, Southerners scorned her as a traitor to her birth, and citizens loyal to the Union suspected her of treason. When she entertained, critics accused her of unpatriotic extravagance. When, utterly distraught, she curtailed her entertaining after her son Willie's death in 1862, they accused her of shirking her social duties. Yet Lincoln, watching her put her guests at ease during a White House reception, could say happily: "My wife is as handsome as when she was a girl, and I...fell in love with her; and what is more, I have never fallen out."


Mary Todd had personal relations with slaves that her husband never had. She was raised in a elegant home with slaves as servants. She was raised by a black woman who she was much closer to than her step-mother. Quite a difference experience than her husband. After marring Lincoln, the two must have discussed slavery. I'm not sure what Mary's attitude toward slavery was at the time. Certainly she was not a strong proponent or she would not have married Lincoln. After becoming First Lady she took a personal at interest in the plight of the slaves who had escape to Union lines. The Union Army referred to them as contraband. There situation was dire as they had no money, food, or clothing. The situation was brought to her attention by her seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley (check spelling). Keckley had previously worked for the future Mrs. Jefferson Davis. Keckley soon became the First Lady's closest confident. Mary Lincoln donate money to the escape slaves and only told her husband afterwards. This relationship is interesting in that America was still a very racist society. The idea of the First Lady participating in a charity to assist them would have been unheard of at the time.


Mrs Lincoln was known for her shopping. In fact it eventually became a campaign issue in 1864. She was a stylish lady and after becoming First Lady thought she should be able to indulge herself. She made repeated trips to both New York and Philadelphia, the two most fashionable cities in the United States. Some of these trips were described by the newspapers in detail. Sometimes if the truth was not sufficiently interesting, reporters made up accounts. Within weeks of her husband's election, she was on her way to New York (December 1860). It was only her second visit to the city. Until Lincoln's election, the family circumstances while not strained, did not permit lavish shopping. This time she was a public figure with an entourage and the shops were all to willing to offer unlimited credits. "The to-do made over Mary Lincoln by solicitous merchants, who were quite happy to extend credit to the future Mrs. President, was an undeniably thrilling experience, and Mary did not hang back from picking out whatever she wanted. But even better was the fawning welcome of the city's leading citizens: powerful, wealthy, and sophisticated New Yorkers." [Fleischner, p. 197.] This was just the first of many such trips. She bought large quantities of both clothing and material to redecorate the White House. She bought expensive fabrics, many imported from Europe. [Ross, p. 126.] The shopping was especially outrageous that first year. But continued, especially after Willies death (1862). One historian writes, that shopping was "like a drug for her tortured nerves, she indulged in her orgies of buying things. She hoarded her old possessions in innumerable trunks and boxes, keeping even outmoded dresses and bonnets she had brought from Springfield. The charge accounts for her purchases mounted to appalling sums things she could never use, for which she could never hope to pay. A Washington merchant sent in a bill for three hundred pairs of gloves ordered in four months. At A. T. Stewart's New York department store, she bought furs, silks laces, jewelry, three thousand dollars for earrings and a pin; five thousand for a shawl." [Leech, pp. 309-310.] The shopping might have been criticized even if the Civil War had not been raging, but even to the President it seem unseeming.

Children's Clothes

The author has found very little information about Mary Lincoln and children's clothes. Based on the available photographs she does not seem to have picked out any particularly fancy outfits for the boys. This is intreaguing because the First Lady was a very fashionable lady. We do know that she took several shopping trips to Philadelphia and New York. During one, a letter to the President mentions that she had brought "two outfits for Taddie". She does not mention the style. Certainly the major Northeastern cities would have had more fashionable an a larger selection of clothes than would have been available in Washington at the time. Which of course is why she made the purchases on her trip.


Her husband's assassination in 1865 shattered Mary Todd Lincoln. The next 17 years held nothing but sorrow. With her son "Tad" she traveled abroad in search of health, tortured by distorted ideas of her financial situation.

Tad Dies (1871)

Tad died (1871). He was only 18 years old. The cause of death is not known for sure. It is commonly described as tuberculosis, but period accounts vary. He have seen the cause described as a pleuristic attack,[pneumonia,[15] or congestive heart failure. He died t the Clifton House hotel in Chicago. John Hay who was close to the family and Lincoln's secretary in an obituary affectionately used the term 'Little Tad'. Funeral services were held in his surviving brother's home in Chicago. He was buried in the Lincoln Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery, alongside his father and two of his brothers, in Springfield. Robert accompanied the casket on the train back to Springfield. Their mother was too distraught accompany Robert on the trip.

Last Years

After Tad died in 1871, Mary slipped into a world of illusion where poverty and murder pursued her. Robert had to have her committed for a while. Mary never forgave him for this--in effect losing her last son. A misunderstood and tragic figure, Mary Tod Lincoln passed away in 1882 at her sister's home in Springfield--the same house from which she had walked as the bride of Abraham Lincoln, 40 years earlier.


Berry, Stephen. House of Abraham: Lincoln and the Todds, a Family Divided by War (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), 255p.

Fleischner, Jennifer. Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave.

Leech, Margaret. Reveille in Washington..

Ross, Ishbel. The President's Wife: Mary Todd Lincoln.


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Created: June 25, 1999
Spell checked: 4:37 AM 2/14/2013
Last changed: 4:37 AM 2/14/2013