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 born on December 13, 1818, to Eliza Parker and Robert Smith Todd, pioneer settlers of Kentucky. Mary lost her mother before the age of seven. Her father remarried; and Mary remembered her childhood as “desolate” although she belonged to the aristocracy of Lexington, with high-spirited social life and a sound private education.
When she was nearly 21, she went to Springfield, Illinois, to live with her sister Elizabeth Todd Edwards. Here she met Abraham Lincoln—in his own words, “a poor nobody then.” Three years later, after a stormy courtship and broken engagement, they were married. Though opposites in background and temperament, they were united by an enduring love and Mary’s confidence in her husband’s ability and his gentle consideration of her excitable ways.
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. Lincoln’s single term in Congress (1847–49), gave Mary and the boys a winter in Washington, but scant opportunity for social life. Finally, her unwavering faith in her husband won ample justification with his election as president in 1860.
Though her position fulfilled her high social ambitions, Mrs. Lincoln’s years in the White House mingled misery with triumph. She spent exorbitant amounts money on dresses and furnishings, stirring resentful comment from a nation at war. 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, appreciated her fulfillment of White House duties.
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 while critics skewered her in the press. After Tad died in 1871, she slipped into a world of illusion where poverty and murder pursued her.
A misunderstood and tragic figure, she passed away on July 16, 1882 at her sister’s home in Springfield—the same house from which she had walked as the bride of Abraham Lincoln, 40 years before.
You Might Also Like
Podcast Conversations from History Happy Hour
In this first episode of 2021, White House Historical Association President Stewart D. McLaurin introduces the Association’s popular virtual program Hi...
Podcast America’s Pastime and the Presidency
Baseball has been known as our national pastime and has links to the presidency as far back as the Abraham...
Collection The First Ladies
Biographies & Portraits
Collection Presidential Inaugurations
In April 1789, George Washington took the oath of office in New York City. Constitutional guidelines for inaugurations are sparse, offering...
Collection Animal Ambassadors
Animals, whether pampered household pets, working livestock, birds, squirrels, or strays, have long been a major part of White House...
Podcast Fearless Leadership: A Conversation with Jean Case
Fearless leaders have walked the halls of White House for centuries. In this episode, White House Historical Association President Stewart...
Collection Giving Thanks at the White House
Thanksgiving is a relatively quiet and personal holiday at the White House, as it precedes a very busy season of...
Collection Cherry Blossoms
Since the first cherry blossom planting in 1912 by First Lady Helen Herron Taft, Washingtonians have celebrated the scenic beauty and...
Collection All Hallows' Eve Haunts & Traditions
Today, the celebration of Halloween conjures images of costumed trick-or-treaters, sweets, and jack-o'-lanterns; but there was a time when All...
Collection The Presidents
Biographies & Portraits
Collection Women and the White House
While there has yet to be a female president, women have played an integral role in shaping the White House...
Podcast Entertaining at the White House
From diplomatic dinners to holiday gatherings, the White House has always played a central role in the nation’s official en...