Abraham Lincoln and Executive Power Print E-mail
We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution
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Mary Todd Lincoln (1818–1882)


Born into a prominent family in Lexington, Kentucky, it is thought that Mary’s brother-in-law may have prevented her marriage to Lincoln for months because he was deemed socially inferior. The couple overcame this obstacle and finally married in November 1842. There also existed conflict between Mary and her husband’s semiliterate family: Thomas and Sarah Lincoln did not attend their son’s wedding and never saw their grandchildren.

The first of Mary and Abraham’s four sons, Robert Todd, was born in 1843, followed in 1846 by the birth of Edward. In 1847, the family relocated to Washington, D.C., when Lincoln assumed a seat in the House of Representatives. Edward died in 1850; the couple’s third and fourth children, William (born 1850) and Thomas “Tad” (born 1853), both died before maturity.

Although worldly by Kentucky standards, Mary’s anxieties about being a relatively unsophisticated westerner in the cosmopolitan world of Washington, D.C., led to inconsistencies in her behavior toward finances. She alternated between irrational extravagance and miserliness. Otherwise, she seems to have performed her duties as First Lady adequately until William’s death in 1862. Increasingly troubled, she turned to a series of spiritual mediums and advisers before finally rejecting this path and rejoining society.

Still, her troubles worsened as she tried to hide her spending habits from the president, fearing that if he lost the 1864 election he would learn of her debts. Lincoln expressed to her on the day he was assassinated that they should both strive to be “more cheerful in the future.” Instead, the assassination of her husband plunged her so deeply into grief that she could not attend his funeral ceremonies, and did not vacate the White House for more than a month after his death.

A series of financial and emotional crises (including the death of Tad) culminated in an insanity trial brought by her son, Robert. Mary spent four months in a private sanitarium before her release to her sister’s family. Yet, as her finances were finally brought under control, her health deteriorated. She spent the final months of her life in a darkened bedroom of her sister’s home.