Of Love and Insanity: The Story of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd
Who would think that two people who were each battling mental illness could marry, love, and live successfully, with one of them becoming perhaps the greatest president of the United States? This is the love story of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln.
Honest Abe remains revered for his integrity, his stance on abolitionism, his leadership during the civil war, and his ability to inspire and keep the country together through it all.
Mary Todd, a young socialite born to wealth and political connections, was viewed, unfortunately, as a woman living in the shadow of madness. But she hadn’t always been that way.
A Privileged Childhood
Mary’s father, Robert Smith Todd, was a wealthy banker and slave owner. Her mother, Elizabeth Parker, died when Mary was six years old. She was educated and highly intellectual. Friends said she was kind and keen in conversation.
Mary spoke fluent French, studied dance, drama, and literature. She was interested in politics and was, like her family, a Whig. (A party during the Revolutionary period that supported the Revolution in opposition to the democrats).
Two years after her mother’s death, her father married again. Because Mary disliked her stepmother, she moved to Springfield, Illinois to live with her sister, Elizabeth, who married an influential Whig in the area, Ninian Edwards.
Upon adulthood, Mary indulged in spree-shopping and entertained grandiose thoughts. She progressively became more nervous and impulsive, yet remained the belle at parties, courted by young men with dreams of becoming lawyers and politicians, and enchanting them ever further with her education, conversation, grace, humor, and intelligence. She was jolly, smart, and ambitious -- the perfect wife for an aspiring young politician.
Lincoln became friends with Ninian and Elizabeth Edward, and frequented the Sunday parties in their lavish mansion -- parties that gathered the best educated people in Springfield under one roof. At one of these parties, Lincoln met Mary and by 1840 they announced their engagement. But the somber side of Lincoln had doubts about the wide gap in their social stature. Lincoln also ruminated on their different dispositions. For example, while Mary loved parties where she clearly stood out, drawing the attention of others, Abe, a self-taught, young lawyer, was moody, slow, and liked peaceful isolation. Mary grew up with luxury that he couldn’t provide. And so, he broke up with Mary Todd soon after.
However, Abe and Mary reconciled in 1842. He was 33 years old, and she was 23. They decided to marry right away. On November 4 that year, in the morning, Abe told an Episcopal minister that he wanted to marry Mary that same night, in the minister’s home. After setting the appointment he came across Ninian Edward and told him of the marriage. Ninian insisted the wedding should be in his home, and asked for one more day so they could make preparations.
And so, the following day, some 30 relatives and friends were hastily gathered for the event. Abe asked James Harvey, 24, to be his best man on the day of the wedding.
Honest Abe before marriage
Lincoln suffered from depression most of his life. Scientists say that if a family member – a mother or sibling – has depression, then one has a predisposition biologically to get it as well.
Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Abe’s parents, are believed to have battled melancholia (which today would be called clinical depression). Nancy Hanks Lincoln was almost always described as sad. John Hanks, her cousin, described her as a woman with “kindness, mildness, tenderness, sadness.”
Honest Abe’s father, Tom Lincoln, was a farmer and carpenter. Although he liked being with people and telling jokes, he often “got the blues” and grew somber, a neighbor said. He dealt with his depression by roaming the fields and woods alone. People felt this strange side of him meant he was losing his mind.
There was also madness in the relatives on Abe’s father’s side. His uncle Mordecai Lincoln had moods wings, and Mordecai’s three sons also suffered from melancholia. One of them went from melancholia to mania, with a weak grasp of reality. He spent hours writing notes and letters that were suggestive of his madness.
What does it actually mean to be born with a predisposition towards a depressive personality? It means that someone is more likely to become depressive than most, depending on a painful life experience especially from early childhood.
Abraham Lincoln’s only brother died in infancy. At age 9, an infectious disease killed Lincoln’s aunt, uncle, and his mother. They all died within one week after falling ill.
From childhood Lincoln was described as having a pervasive tension – perhaps due to his losses. At the same time, he found no support in his father. Their relationship was cool and unloving. And while his mother taught him letters and how to read, his father didn’t fund his education. As a result, instead of doing farm duties he would read or write poems. Because of this, he was considered to be a dull and lazy boy. Many studies note that lower parental support in childhood equates with increased depressive symptoms in adulthood.
When he was 19 Lincoln’s sister, Sarah, (whom he considered his bedrock), died while giving birth to a stillborn child. A neighbor said that when they told Abe about it, “He sat down in the door of the smoke house and buried his face in his hands. The tears slowly trickled from between his bony fingers, and his gaunt frame shook with sobs."
Permit a bit of context: In Lincoln’s time, one out of four infants usually died before reaching 1 year old, so the deaths were not unusual. But Lincoln’s depression in response to the deaths was.
More context: Those born in the 19th century experienced a time of great cultural change, partly from quarrels between fathers and ambitious sons. This contention was the norm at that time.
And so while Honest Abe was not a wounded child, he was very sensitive. He walked alone in the woods, studying and reading. He also spoke on behalf of animal rights, including an essay he wrote in school about the time he saw his classmate, John Johnstone smash the shell of a turtle against a tree. He once told his stepsister that an ant’s life was as sweet to it, as ours is to us.
At 21, Lincoln left home to settle in New Salem. He had no money nor friends. But soon, the people at Salem came to like him very much. Community members spoke of his sunny, cheerful, and energetic personality.
In 1832 Lincoln volunteered in the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War. He was elected captain of his first company, but never saw war. Instead, he jokingly said, "I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes." Though Lincoln had no military experience, when he was commander of his company he was considered a strong, competent leader. The Black Hawk war also provided Lincoln with lasting political connections.
Cracks in Lincoln's Disposition
After his success in Black Hawk, Lincoln tipped into financial danger when he and a partner opened a store with items purchased on credit. The store failed, and Lincoln fell into depression once more. His friends landed him a job as New Salem's postmaster, and he had another job as a deputy surveyor. But his earnings were just enough to keep his head above water. As his debts grew, he lost his surveying equipment, his horse, chain, and compass. It was all put up for auction. A friend, seeing Lincoln in despair, bought the equipment and gave it back to him.
Abe Lincoln's first Berry-Lincoln store
Lincoln's Great Depression
Abraham Lincoln fought clinical depression all his life. If he were alive today, his condition would be viewed as a political liability. And yet, it was his condition that gave him the tools to abolish slavery and keep the nation together.
After Abe and Mary Todd got married on November 4, 1842, they proceeded to a rented room in the Globe Tavern. It was shoddy compared to the luxury that Mary was used to, but she never complained. In 1843 their first son, Robert Todd Lincoln was born. The following year Mary’s father helped them purchase a small home of their own.
Mary gave birth again in 1846 to Edward. Because they couldn’t afford a maid, Mary cleaned, cooked, and cared for her two children. She sewed hers and her children’s clothes, while Lincoln’s suits were made by a local tailor.
This is the year when Mary started to show her temperament. She was exhausted and felt no support from her husband, who was either out on business, or spent time at home, working. Despite this, their devotion to each other remained strong, and Mary was proud of her husband and supportive of his work.
Their eldest son, Robert, was the only child who survived until adulthood. He was a student in Harvard during his father's presidency. He said in his writings that he couldn't see his father for even 10 minutes. Their next son, William, died in 1850 while living in the White House. He was 11 years old. The youngest child, Thomas, lived until he was 18, then died of tuberculosis on 1871.
The White House in The Time of Abraham Lincoln
As First Lady, Mary was both interesting and polarizing. She was ambitious and politically keen, the force that helped Lincoln become one of America's most admired presidents ever.
Mary was unpopular when she became extremely temperamental, moody, and delusional. She had constant headaches, a sour disposition, and was pale and unhealthy. In just four months she purchased 400 pairs of gloves and refused to return them. She redecorated the White House and held many parties, which the public deemed wasteful. Honest Abe believed that Mary's strange ways were merely "hysterical" female problems, and he regularly defended her in public.
When Mary was six years old her mother died. As earlier mentioned, in adulthood she lost three sons. She also lost three half-brothers, and a brother-in-law to the Civil War. Mary grew increasingly depressed and was then thrown to the ground in a carriage accident, hitting her head on a rock. She was incapacitated for a month and never fully recovered from the injury, according to her son, Robert. She became asocial, further stirring up public ire.
The press hounded her relentlessly, criticizing her gowns a calling her a hick. Her husband was constantly getting death threats regularly. In 1865 when John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln in a theater, Mary sat beside her husband, holding his hand.
About Lincoln's Assassin
historian and writer According to the book, Lincoln's Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldier's Home, by Matthew Pinsker, John Wilkes Booth was an actor from Maryland whom Lincoln admired. Lincoln invited Booth to the White House several times, but the actor always avoided these meetings. He told friends privately, “I would rather meet a Negro.
On April 14, 1865, Booth shot Lincoln in the back of the head in Ford’s Theatre in DC. It was there, while watching the play, “My American Cousin,” that Booth (who played the lead role), killed him.
Love and Marriage
Lincoln is revered today for his unrelenting stand on the abolition of slavery. His wife, however, is hardly thought of. Most people probably know more about John Wilkes Booth than they do about Mary Todd.
And Lincoln's achievements overshadow one other thing; he proved that two people who are dealing with mental illness can love and live together in the long term, and that success is very much within the realm of possibility for people who are mentally ill. Today, people still have preconceived notions and fears of mental illness. It is not a walk in the park, but this doesn't mean you can't change the world and make it better -- and be in a loving marriage, too.