Who Was Mary Todd Lincoln?
Mary Todd Lincoln married politician and lawyer Abraham Lincoln on November 4, 1842. When the Civil War began, Mary's family supported the South, but she remained a fervent Unionist. After her husband's assassination, Mary fell into a deep depression and her surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, had her temporarily committed.
One of the most unpopular first ladies in American history, Mary Todd Lincoln was born into a prominent family in Lexington, Kentucky—a town her family had helped found—on December 13, 1818. Mary grew up wealthy; her father, Robert Todd, was a successful merchant and a politician. Mary lost her mother when she was only 6 years old. Her father soon remarried, and her strict stepmother had little regard for Mary. Despite whatever ill will existed between her and her stepmother, Mary received a remarkable education for a young girl during this time period. She studied at a local academy and then attended boarding school.
In the late 1830s, Mary left home to be with her sister, Elizabeth Edwards, in Springfield, Illinois. There the smart, outgoing young woman attracted a number of admirers, including Stephen Douglas and up-and-coming politician and lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. Her family did not approve of the match—Abraham was nine years older than Mary, had little formal education and came from a poor background. But Mary and Abraham shared a love of politics and literature and seemed to deeply love each other. The couple married on November 4, 1842, and nine months later, their first son, Robert Todd Lincoln, was born.
In 1846, the Lincolns welcomed their second son, Edward. Mary proved to be a staunch supporter of her husband's political career. She offered him advice, hosted events and sought recommendations for him as he worked on advancing his career in public life. When he won his Congressional seat, Mary set tongues a-wagging when she decided to accompany him to Washington for part of his term. The Lincolns seemed to be quite the team. When he learned that he had won the presidential election in 1860, he ran home yelling "Mary, Mary, we are elected," according to White House Studies.
In November 1860, Abraham's election as the 16th President of the United States caused 11 Southern states to secede from the Union. Most Kentuckians from the Todd's social circle, and indeed her stepfamily, supported the Southern cause, but Mary was a fervent and tireless supporter of the Union. Widely disliked in the White House, Mary was emotional and outspoken and spent lavishly during a time when budgets were tight to fight the Civil War. Some even accused her of being a Confederate spy.
Mary's time in the White House was also marked by tragedy. The couple had already lost their son Edward in 1850 to tuberculosis, and when typhoid fever struck their third son William, better known as "Willie," he died in 1862. Mary was overcome by grief for a long time. The intensity of her sadness was so great that even Abraham was concerned for her mental health, according to American Heritage magazine. Mary began to explore spiritualism around this time, another interest of hers that was derided. Little did she know that even more heartbreak was in store for her.
On April 14, 1865, Mary sat next to her husband at Ford's Theatre when he was shot by an assassin. The president died the following day, and Mary never fully recovered. She returned to Illinois and, following the death of her youngest son Thomas in 1871, fell into a deep depression. Her sole surviving son, Robert, brought her to court on charges of insanity in 1875. He claimed that her spending sprees, distorted view of her finances and fears for her own safety were signs of mental illness. The court sided with Robert, and Mary was committed to an insane asylum outside of Chicago. She was released several months later, but the incident caused her to become estranged from her son. It also left her with a lasting public perception of her as being crazy.
In 1876, Mary regained control over her property after a court found her to be of sound mind. She feared that her son might try again to institutionalize her again and chose to live abroad. In 1881, Lincoln returned to the United States, choosing to live with her sister Elizabeth in Springfield, Illinois. She died of a stroke there on July 16, 1882, at the age of 63.
Historians have debated many aspects of Mary's character over the years, including her sanity. She definitely had a high-strung personality, shopaholic tendencies and an interest in some offbeat ideas, but she also showed herself to possess a keen mind and wit.
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