By Steven Wilson, Assistant Director, Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum
Mary Todd was born in Lexington, Kentucky to a prominent banker and his wife. If Mary had not been buffeted about by the swells of life’s misfortunes her futures might have been assured. But Mary’s mother died when she was six, and her father’s marriage to Elizabeth Humphries, compounded the pain of that lose. There was always a void in Mary’s soul, a sense of longing weighed by shame, anger, and a lack of self-confidence. These are natural conditions brought about by abandonment. An intelligent child, well educated (she attended a finishing school for twelve years) Mary Todd was bright, ambitious, and accomplished in her role as a lady of the 19th Century. Twenty-year-old Mary Todd joined her sister Elizabeth and her husband Ninian Edwards in Springfield, the raw frontier capital of Illinois. In a whirlwind of social events, the sophisticated, vivacious Mary met Abraham Lincoln. The man I marry will be president of the United States; Mary is reported to have said. Her blazing ambition to achieve and acquire makes such a statement possible. They were married, the lady of society, and the self-made country lawyer, in 1842.
Mary Todd Lincoln is unfairly condemned by history. She was difficult, and had an explosive temper, and once she felt you had wronged her, there would be no reconciliation. But she managed a home for her husband and children on Lincoln’s modest income. Mary Todd Lincoln was the driving, if tyrannical force in the Lincoln family’s livelihood. Her husband was something of a child himself, often slipping into melancholy, or setting out for months on a time to ride the circuit. She referred to him as Mr. Lincoln, and he called her Molly. Theirs was a quaint, sometimes playful relationship punctuated at times by Mary’s volatile temper.
She might have envisioned a reprieve from the mundane drudgery of everyday life when she and her family arrived at the Executive Mansion in 1861. But Washington was a dreary town, the Executive Mansion had all the charm of a second-rate boarding house, and the city’s inhabitants looked upon her and her husband as nothing more than crude frontier folk. Mary Todd Lincoln was abandoned once more—her husband was consumed by the war, many of her family had chosen to fight for the Confederacy, and she was adrift in a dark sea of faithless sycophants.
William Wallace Lincoln, age eleven, died early in 1862. She was the most powerful lady in the land, and yet she was not immune to loss. Willie was the second child to be taken from her—little Eddie died in 1850. She immersed herself in mourning, teetering on the edge of madness, a pathetic spirit dressed in black, wandering the halls of the Executive Mansion. For a while she withdrew to her room, cutting herself off from all human contact. Eventually, Mary Todd Lincoln emerged from the darkness, deeply scared by pain, melancholy, and fear.
She sought the companionship of others who had suffered as she had, and found them in the military hospitals surrounding Washington. She visited these cities of comfort filled with horribly wounded and sick soldiers, sat at their bedsides, and spoke to them. She would read letters from loved ones, or write for those unable too. She forbade any acknowledgement of her service, insisting that she remain anonymous.
It is unfair for tragedy to make repeated visits during one person’s life. But equitable or not, just or not, it is the nature of life. Mary Todd was a victum of heartbreak, and misunderstanding, and deserves, under the sometimes harsh glare of history, compassion.
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