Monday, December 13, 2010

The Trials Of Mrs. Lincoln

Magnet # 416:  Mary Todd Lincoln Photo, Signature


Material:  Metal, Paper, Mylar Shell


Purchased By:  Me

In Paris, Kentucky on this day in 1818, Mary Todd was born to wealthy banker Robert Smith Todd.  Her mother would die when she was six and her father would go onto marry a woman with whom young Mary would clash, as their family grew to include sixteen children.  She felt neglected in the brood, but still managed to grow up to become an accomplished dancer and musician, able to speak French fluently and charm young men with her personality and wit.  Her father was also involved in politics and a friend of Henry Clay, a frequent guest at the family home, and Mary came to eagerly share his interest.  Later, she joined her older sister Elizabeth, who had recently married the son of a former governor, in Springfield, Illinois.  Mary Todd went on to enchant the upper class gentry there, including Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.  It's said the future President approached her at a ball and said he wanted to dance with her "in the worst way."  The two became engaged, but due to his misgivings, it was broken off twice before the pair married in 1842.  They'd spend about ten years together, happy for the most part, before he was sworn in as President and Mrs. Lincoln's troubles truly began.

Even before Mary Lincoln got to the White House, the former First Lady, Harriet Lane, niece to James Buchanan who was beloved by the country, and much of the Washington elite had written her off as a hillbilly from the West, and she was determined to prove them wrong and uphold the prestige of her husband's office.  To this end, she spent lavishly on furnishings and dinnerware, exceeding the budget Congress had set aside for her and many came to view her as a spendthrift.  And coming to the White House from a Southern state that permitted slavery during the Civil War proved to be particularly difficult for her.  Even though Kentucky didn't secede from the Union, many of her relatives joined the Confederate side, some of whom considered her to be a traitor.  There were also plenty of Union supporters who accused her of keeping secret Confederate sympathies, much to her dismay.  Her personal life only grew worse as she lost siblings to the fighting and when her son Willie died at the age of 11, it was a blow from which she never recovered.  She began having seances at the White House in hopes of contacting him.  She also suffered a head injury during a carriage accident that further contributed to her increasing instability.  Mary Lincoln often had unpleasant outbursts which proved to be rather embarrassing for her husband.  And when he was assassinated before her eyes in 1865, she was so distraught that she didn't leave the White House until a month after his death.  The death of her son Tad in 1871, when he was 18 only added to her misery.  She also became increasingly unstable, terrified that she would end up penniless, yet irrationally buying lavish items that she never used.  She also heard voices and was unable to be alone.  In less than four years, she had become so unglued that her only son left alive, Robert, felt he had to institutionalize her for her own safety.  At a trial, she was found to be insane and confined to a mental asylum.  But Mary refused to go quietly, sending letters to her supporters and the editor of the Chicago Times.  Myra Bradwell, one of the nation's first female lawyers, filed an appeal on her behalf and the director of her asylum backed down and recommended Mary be released, concerned about the negative publicity his institution might receive.  She was declared sane and took off for France, not wanting to stay in the United States after the awful treatment she had received there.  Four years later, she returned to Illinois, where she spent the final years of her life at her sister Elizabeth's home.  On the anniversary of Tad's death in 1882, she suffered a stroke and passed away herself the next day.  Her body was interred with that of her husband's at the Lincoln Tomb in Springfield Illinois' Oak Ridge Cemetery.  Finally, Mary Todd Lincoln was at peace.

Never in the history of the Presidency has a First Couple been so mismatched in their popularity with the masses.  So much of the Union adored President Lincoln and in the time since his death, he has become one of the most beloved Presidents ever.  But his wife was vilified and her irrational behavior caused her to be labeled a loose cannon.  There is even current speculation that she suffered from a bipolar disorder.  It would be interesting to know just what misgivings Lincoln had with Mary Todd that almost drove him away from her before they were ever married.  At least a closer look at her life shows that Mary Todd Lincoln dealt with great difficulties all of her life that drove her sporadic behavior, from a stepmother who allegedly called her the "Devil's spawn" to a family that was driven apart by warfare to losing three of her four children and her husband and being estranged from the only son that outlived her.  It's said that Mary Todd often spoke of her ambition to become the wife of a President and although she got her wish, she never could have imagined how much it would cost her.  To this day, such a long time after her birth in 1818 she remains the most tragic First Lady in our nation's history and it's impossible not to sympathize with her after learning of the many troubles she faced.

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