Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Mary Lincoln

While Abraham Lincoln usually is regarded as savior of the United States, his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, is often remembered as a shrew and ranked by historians as the worst First Lady in American history. While she could be spiteful, dismissive, corrupt, and jealous, Mary Todd Lincoln could be gracious, caring, and supportive as well.

Her supportive side was very much in evidence during her husband's presidential campaign in 1860. Mary Lincoln was always available for comment on her husband's policies or prospects, was a willing tour guide of the Lincoln home, and was an adviser to her husband, discussing the political prospects of his competitors -- some of whom were her former beaus. It was Mary who had fired Abraham Lincoln's political ambitions and in 1849, had pressured him not to accept the Oregon governorship. Her involvement was so integral that when Lincoln won in November, he exclaimed, "Mary, Mary, we are elected!"

Mary Todd Lincoln was thrilled to become First Lady, a term that had recently entered the American lexicon to describe the President's partner. Mary held elegant buffet dinners, invited intellectuals and literary figures to the White House, and welcomed visitors and guests to her Thursday night receptions and spring and winter receptions. She balanced her social role with an interest in public affairs, reading political journals and newspapers, attending congressional debates, and advising her husband on administration appointments. But even as the public began to regard her as "First Lady," she referred to herself as "Mrs. President." Regardless of which term was used, as her husband assumed his duties under the toughest of circumstances, Mary Lincoln endured hardship simply by being the First Lady.

By the time the Civil War had broken out, criticism of the President and his spouse had become acceptable, and a new fleet of female journalists, focused on the most famous woman in the nation. Articles about Mary Lincoln were plentiful, detailing her spending sprees, her coarse, western ways, and her role as a Southern spy. Despite the latter charge, Mary was committed to the preservation of the Union and showed her support by housing troops in the East Room, ministering to sick and wounded soldiers, and twice refusing to leave Washington, D.C., when the capital was under threat of invasion.

But reporters ignored her courage and caring, often because Mary chose to keep such actions private. Instead, journalists focused on the high costs of her clothes, her frequent New York shopping binges, her trips to the shore, and her expensive redecoration of the White House. At a time when many American families were reeling from financial deprivation because husbands, fathers, and sons were going to war, Mary's lavish lifestyle and indiscriminate spending seemed offensive. When many of these same Americans were experiencing the loss of those same husbands, fathers, and sons, her excursions and activities seemed frivolous and callous.

As a result, when Mary Todd Lincoln mourned the death of her son Willie, few Americans offered their sympathy. She received few condolences and endured rumors that she had beaten her children. Even before she became First Lady, Mary had been sensitive to criticism; after the death of Willie, an already insecure Mary Lincoln had a nervous breakdown and began to suffer from severe depression. She sought solace by consulting mediums who promised contact with her dead son. She even held a seance in the White House.

Despite her grief and the rumormongering, Mary Lincoln rallied and involved herself in the prosecution of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln shared military secrets with her, and Mary, like many others, encouraged the President to replace the slow and passive General George McClellan. When France's Prince Bonaparte visited the United States, Mary spoke with him in perfect French.

But while Mary could be an asset to her husband, she was also a liability, often draining the President's energy and patience -- commodities already in short supply. Her frivolous expenditures for French wallpaper and china irritated Abraham Lincoln, who referred to them as "flub-a-dubs." Little did he know that by 1864 his wife was $27,000 in debt and was sharing political secrets with officials who she then pressured for personal loans. Lincoln suffered the embarrassment of Mary's jealous rages and acquiesced in her change of protocol so that on state occasions the President would escort the First Lady only. He -- and his campaign for reelection -- survived a rumor that Mary had become drunk with Russian sailors on one of her trips to New York. Nevertheless, the First Lady continued to be a campaign liability and a source of stress at a time when Abraham Lincoln did not need further strain and anxiety.

Criticized in the North for being a Southern spy, and censured in the South for betraying "the Cause," Mary Todd Lincoln could not win. Of course, she was, at times, her own worst enemy. In one instance, she tried to acquire the salary of an employee who had left the White House and whose responsibilities she had assumed, believing she should be compensated for her work. She, and the President as well, were fortunate that her padding of White House expenses to pay off her enormous personal debt remained a secret during Lincoln's reelection campaign of 1864.

Yet the accomplishments of this chameleon-like First Lady are notable. She willingly accepted the duties of hostess and fashion leader that had become synonymous with the role of First Lady and further cemented the idea that the White House was a gathering place for intellectuals as well as entertainers. Although Mary refused to support women's suffrage, she backed the establishment of a female nursing corps and helped women acquire employment in the Treasury and War Departments. Her interest in the abolition of slavery evolved as her friendship with dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley developed, and she became the first hostess to welcome African Americans as guests to the White House.

When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Mary Lincoln grieved doubly as she lost her beloved husband as well as her coveted role. Of the latter, she remarked, "God...what a change! Did ever woman have to suffer so much and experience so great a change? I had an ambition to be Mrs. President; that ambition has been satisfied, and now I must step down from the pedestal." As with those who had come before, and those who would follow, Mary Todd Lincoln lamented her demotion in station and loss of power.