Examining the Life of Mary Todd Lincoln

Posted on: March 27th, 2009 by Guest Writer
Mary Todd Lincoln, c. 1863 (Credit: Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Mary Todd Lincoln, c. 1863 (Credit: Library of Congress)

Mary Todd Lincoln, a deeply controversial figure of her day, continues to draw an intense amount of public interest, sympathy and even scorn. As much as we continue to debate Abraham Lincoln and his presidency, so too do we dissect his wife's actions and role in the overall Lincoln story.

Mary Lincoln was intelligent and highly educated (fluent in French, she received ten years of formal schooling to Lincoln's aggregate one year), with a well-connected family (Dolley Madison was a kinswoman and Henry Clay a neighbor and family friend), and had a keen interest in politics. Mary was one of the first to see the promise in Abraham Lincoln and, to her family's initial dismay, wed the prairie lawyer who was virtually unknown, unrefined, and lacking formal education and familial and political connections. Not unlike other first ladies, Mary Lincoln appears to have been intimately involved in Lincoln's political career, even at a time when overt involvement in politics by females was regarded as inappropriate or unwelcome.

It cannot be denied that when the Lincolns arrived in Washington, D.C., they entered a social and political minefield as the Civil War loomed. Opponents wasted no time deriding and ridiculing the Lincolns. Not unlike celebrity gossip rags today, the public gobbled up outrageous stories about Mary Lincoln, always eager for more. But for every sensational story - whether based in truth or not - published about Mary, you can find a redeeming one that drew little press attention. And for every judgment of Mary, you can find a great deal of context that's omitted.

Much is made of Mary's spending habits, but little is made of her frequent visits to hospitals to bring supplies and to help care for wounded soldiers. Fewer know of Mary Lincoln's letter to her husband requesting $200 to be donated to Elizabeth Keckley's Contraband Relief Association (CRA). The Lincolns' $200 donation was the largest donation received that year by the CRA, which provided relief to formerly-enslaved African Americans who had fled to the District after the D.C. Emancipation Act was passed in April 1862.

With her patriotism frequently questioned, Mary was called a traitor and a spy in large part because of her Kentucky roots and her Confederate family members. The theme of divided family is integral to the Civil War story, and was experienced first hand by the Lincolns while they were living at the Cottage. Yet Mary never publicly mourned the loss of her siblings who died fighting for the Confederacy, once saying in private, “They would kill my husband if they could, and destroy our government - the dearest of all things to us.”

Like all humans, Mary Lincoln had her faults and weaknesses. Her faults cannot be denied, but her strengths and admirable qualities deserve equal attention.

President Lincoln's Cottage, a National Trust Historic Site, strives to offer a balanced story of the Lincolns and their time at the Soldiers' Home. For those interested in learning more about Mary Lincoln, we welcome you to join us in May for Cottage Conversations, during which Catherine Clinton will talk about her new book, Mrs. Lincoln: A Life. Click here for more event information.

-Erin Carlson Mast

Erin Carlson Mast is the curator at President Lincoln's Cottage, a National Trust Historic Site.

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