Mary Todd Lincoln: Facts, Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about Mary Todd Lincoln, her life, her role as First Lady, and her later years in which she suffered mental illness. We will also highlight some of her quotes.

Witness to a National Tragedy

Can you imagine the horror of seeing your husband killed? Mary Todd Lincoln experienced just this in Ford's theater in 1865 when President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The sadness and pain she carried with her for the remainder of her life was indeed profound.

Mary Todd Lincoln lived an interesting life. As a young woman she drew the romantic affection of two rival politicians. As an an older woman she suffered from significant mental health issues. Let's learn more about the wife of Abraham Lincoln.

Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882).

Early Life and Marriage

Mary Todd Lincoln was born in 1818 in Lexington, Kentucky, the fourth of seven children. Her parents owned slaves and led an aristocratic and well-to-do family. Mary Todd received an excellent education and was exposed to cultural refinement. She grew into a charming and beautiful woman - the desire of many suitors.

Stephen A. Douglas actually courted Mary Todd for a short period of time. Stephen A. Douglas was a Democratic politician known for running against Abraham Lincoln in the Election of 1860. Lincoln and Douglas also squared off in series of well-known debates, commonly called the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.

Of course, by this time, Mary Todd had married Abraham Lincoln. The two were married in 1842 in Springfield, Illinois. She was 23; he was ten years older. They lived there between 1844 until they moved into the White House in 1861. The couple had four sons, but only one would outlive his mother.

Being the First Lady

As First Lady of the United States, Mary worked hard to fulfill obligations and meet social expectations. Despite being a charming socialite, she was not always well liked. Her fancy cloths and refurbishing of the White House during the Civil War was severely criticized because of the associated costs.

In response, Mary said in conversation, ''I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity. ...To keep up appearances, I must have money -- more than Mr. Lincoln can spare for me. He is too honest to make a penny outside of his salary; consequently I had, and still have, no alternative but to run in debt.''

Despite these criticisms, Mary was praised for visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals in the Washington, D.C. area. She regularly went out of her way to show care and compassion for Union soldiers, even writing them letters of encouragement.

But Mary had her own ''demons'' to deal with. During her time as First Lady she had regular spells of mental illness. She suffered severe headaches throughout her entire life, and regularly had fits of depression and anger outbursts. These outbursts were an embarrassment to Lincoln and others in the White House, and caused considerable stress.

After the Assassination

Shortly after the Civil War ended, Mary was made a widow when President Lincoln was assassinated while attending a play called Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater. Sympathetic to the Confederacy, actor John Wilkes Booth sneaked into the couple's private viewing box and shot the president in the head.

He died the following day. Mary was so hysterical that she had to be forcibly removed from the room. Mary experienced profound grief, which only worsened her already poor mental health.

This image shows Mrs. Lincoln by the side of her husband during his assassination.

Now a widow, Mary moved to Chicago where she lived with her sons. She petitioned Congress, and in 1870 was awarded a $3,000 a year allowance for life.

During this time, one of Mary's former confidants and a former slave, Elizabeth Keckley, published a tell-all autobiography in which she detailed her interactions with Mary Todd. It was called Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. The book was heavily criticized as a breach of confidentiality, and for its portrayal of Mary's personal life.

Elizabeth Keckley wrote about her interactions with Mary Todd Lincoln.

By 1871, Mary had lost three of her four sons, and a husband. Overcome with grief, she sank further into depression. In a letter to her sister she said, ''In grief, words are poor consolation - silence & agonizing tears are all that is left the sufferer.''

Mental Illness and Death

Mary Todd Lincoln began to demonstrate increasingly erratic behavior, and after she nearly jumped out of a window to escape a non-existent fire, her only surviving son, Robert, decided to have her committed to an asylum.

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