Abraham Lincoln’s Wife: Mary Todd

Abraham Lincoln may be known as the greatest president of the United States, but his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, is widely labeled among historians as the worst First Lady. She was not only known as corrupt, but she was also vindictive and full of jealousy. However, Mary Todd was also courageous, compassionate, and well-mannered despite all this.

Mary Todd showed the nation her capacity for enormous support when her husband campaigned for the presidency in 1860. She gave tours of their family’s house and willingly gave herself up to the press and spoke about her husband’s political plans. And, as some of Lincoln’s political rivals were her former lovers, she informed her husband about their political plans.

Historians often cite Mary Todd’s social ambitions as the spark that ignited her husband’s political drive. When Lincoln was elected to the presidency, Mary Todd was excited to take on the role of First Lady. She hosted extravagant dinners and welcomed guests, which included prominent writers and intellectuals. She balanced her domestic roles as First Lady with her concern for public issues by reading newspapers and watching debates. She also influenced her husband’s decision on who to appoint to various positions. When people started calling her First Lady, she remained firm on calling herself “Mrs. President.” And so, during the time that Lincoln responded to the demands of his work, Mary Todd faced the difficulties of being First Lady.

There were already numerous women working in the press when the Civil War erupted, and negative comments on the presidential couple had been commonplace. And so, the women in the press made the First Lady the centerpiece of their work. Innumerable articles about Mary Todd appeared in the newspapers, focusing on her expensive lifestyle, unpolished western manners, and rumors about her being a Southern spy. In the middle of all this, Mary opened up the East Room, where she attended to the wounded and maimed soldiers. And twice, when Washington seemed about to be attacked, she showed remarkable courage by choosing to stay in the White House.

Not surprisingly, reporters did not write about Mary Todd’s bravery and compassion and instead published articles about her shopping sprees in New York and her costly refurbishment of the White House. This was during a period when many were suffering from poverty because of the war and when fathers, sons, and husbands were being killed in battles. Mary Todd was now portrayed as a villainous first lady. As a result, when her son, Willie, died, few people extended their condolences to Mary. Worse than this, rumors abounded that she had hit her children. The press may have seen her courage and grit to endure these rumors as insensitivity, but Mary Todd had been feeling the sting of criticism from the start. Now, with the death of her son, she broke down in nervous exhaustion and fell into depression. To ease her pain, she invited mediums or people who claimed to have the ability to talk with spirits. She let these mediums into the White House in her hopes of contacting her dead son.

Despite her personal pain, Mary Todd continued in her role as First Lady. When Prince Bonaparte of France paid a visit, Mary Todd welcomed him and conversed with him in fluent French. As a young woman, she had received an excellent education and was proud of having learned the French language so well. However, Mary Todd’s expensive tastes continued to burden Abraham Lincoln. She had French wallcoverings installed, and this exasperated the president. The year before Lincoln was assassinated, Mary Todd’s debt had reached $27,000, and she was leaking precious political information to government officials, who she then forced to lend her money. During Lincoln’s run for re-election, he heard rumors that, on one of Mary’s trips to New York, she had gotten drunk with Russian seamen. Once, when one of the employees inside the White House left, she tried to claim the employee’s salary, saying that it was she who took over the abandoned responsibilities.

Still, Mary Todd’s accomplishments as a warm White House hostess stood out. She established the White House as a meeting place for distinguished men and influential writers. Mary Todd stood against granting women the right to vote, but she supported the idea of the development of a nursing contingent. Furthermore, she assisted women in securing work in the War and Treasury Departments.

In 1865, after Lincoln was shot in the head by John Wilkes Booth, Mary Todd not only mourned the death of her husband, but she also mourned the loss of her status as First Lady. She was reported to have cried about the change she would have to undergo and if there was ever a woman who had suffered as she did and then gone through such a change. She whined further that now, she had to step down from her elevated position.