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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Mary Todd Lincoln Born, December 13, 2006

Today in 1818, Mary Ann Todd was born in Lexington, Kentucky. She would become known to the world as Mary Todd Lincoln, First Lady of the United States and wife of President Abraham Lincoln.

Mary Todd's childhood could not have been more different from her future husband's. While Abraham Lincoln was born in rural surroundings south of Hodgenville, Kentucky to uneducated parents, Mary was born into a prominent, moderately wealthy family. Abraham's family joined a small, independent Baptist congregation at one point during his childhood because of the church's anti-slavery stance; Mary's family owned slaves. Abraham was largely self-educated; Mary received an extensive formal education for a woman of her era.

The pair may never have met were it not for Mary's move to Illinois in 1838 to live with Elizabeth, her sister. Mary was introduced into society and was courted for a time by Stephen A. Douglas, the Democratic nominee in the Presidential election of 1860. Later, Elizabeth introduced her to a young, tall, rugged lawyer who was also born in Kentucky. Love blossomed and the two were married on November 4, 1842. They had four children, all boys. Robert Todd came first, in 1843, and was the only one of the children to outlive his mother. Edward Baker arrived in 1846, but died shortly before his fourth birthday of pulmonary tuberculosis. Wallace was born in 1850 and died in the White House of typhoid fever in 1862. Thomas, the youngest, was born in 1853 and like his older brother, died of typhoid fever. He was 18.

The Lincoln's marriage has been described as both loving and stormy. Both were interested in public affairs and current events and both were competitive and ambitious. Mary was the more high-strung and uneasy of the two. She was prone to fits of anger over perceived slights and sometimes acted irrationally. Modern historians believe that she probably suffered from depression first brought on by the death of her son Eddie in 1850. Whatever the cause, she was not popular with the groups in which the couple circulated.

Mary came onto the national stage in the spring of 1861 when she became the First Lady of the United States. The Civil War began a little over a month after the Lincolns moved into the White House. The war would shadow their lives for the next four years and had a great effect on Mary and Abraham's personal life. Mary had several relatives who served in the Confederate Army; when this fact was made public, rumors began to circulate in Washington that the First Lady was a southern spy. While this was certainly not true, her behavior did not help matters. During the war, Mary saw fit to refurnish the White House. While this had not been done in nearly a generation, spending taxpayer money on such luxuries while the nation struggled to survive was seen by many as, at best, insensitive. She was also fond of shopping sprees, another activity that did not endear her to polite society in wartime Washington. Mary spent much time visiting sick and wounded Union soldiers in the area; this was very rarely reported by the newspapers of the day.

Mary lost her beloved husband to an assassin's bullet in April, 1865. She had already lost two of her sons. She sank deeper into depression and continued to spend money lavishly. Her son Robert, now grown, had her committed to an insane asylum in Illinois in an attempt to bring her finances under control. While she only spent three months in the facility, she never forgave Robert for what she saw as disloyalty. Once free, she left the United States and took up residence in France. She spent the next four years touring Europe.

By the late 1870's, Mary's health was failing. She had cataracts in both eyes which rendered her nearly blind. Her spinal cord was injured during a fall from a step ladder, an accident that was probably caused by her poor eyesight. She was only 63 when she died in Springfield, Illinois on July 16, 1882. She was once again at her sister Elizabeth's home, without whom her life would undoubtedly have been completely different.

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