The Polarizing Mrs. Lincoln

  Mrs. Lincoln is never viewed in neutral.  You either love her or hate her.

mary for suite

Mary Lincoln was always a polarizing figure during her own time, and forever after. One either is a great partisan or a great detractor.

Some historians evaluate Mary Todd Lincoln as a termagant who made Lincoln’s life a misery.  Some claim she is one of the most misunderstood characters who ever lived.  Her supporters usually are in a position of being apologists rather than devotees.

Mary Lincoln:  The Bad Press

Much of the spate of hate about Mrs. Lincoln comes from William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner of nearly twenty years.  There was no love lost between Mrs. L. and Billy Herndon, considered by many to be a notorious drunk and liar.  Much of his comments on Mary Lincoln were spiteful, and in some cases, outright fabrications.  The Herndon-Weik book (Herndon’s notes were given to Jesse Weik, and published after both Herndon and Mary Lincoln had died) was taken as gospel for generations.


William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and later biographer, could not stand Mary Lincoln. She detested him in turn.

Mary, of course, did little to help her own cause.  She had a hair-trigger temper, and little control over her emotions.  What she felt in her heart went flying right out of her mouth – or her pen – bypassing brain entirely.  John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary, referred to her as “the Hellcat.”  Most people who knew her did not like her.  The incessant shopping and overspending were scandals while she was still in the White House;  the dozens of letters she sent to powerful political figures demanding money that she believed was “due to her” as the widow of the martyred president were tacky at best;  the later publicity of the Widow Lincoln trying to sell her clothing; and her trials for insanity that were printed in all the newspapers sealed her reputation beyond salvaging.

Mary Lincoln: The Better Press

Some forty-odd years after Mary’s death in 1882, her niece Katherine Helm, by then an elderly woman herself, wrote Mary’s biography.  It was the first biography devoted solely to Mrs. Lincoln.   Even adjusting for the glossy Victorian language, it provides a wealth of information about a woman who looms high in history for no other reason than association:  a reflection of Abraham Lincoln’s glory.

The assassination

Mary Lincoln was always emotionally fragile, but the assassination of her husband in 1865 traumatized her for life.

There are many historians and psychologists today who surmise that Mrs. Lincoln likely suffered from a bi-polar condition, or perhaps a “personality disorder,” or perhaps both.  Vital information about Mary’s childhood indicated that Mary was “either in the garret or the cellar,” or likened to a day in April, smiling and sunny one minute, then dissolving in tears the next.  The bi-polar suggestion obviously has merit.  So does a personality disorder.  They are not mutually exclusive, but in Mary’s time, diagnosis and treatment was practically nil.

Today, there are dozens of major biographies about Mrs. Lincoln, all with their own distinct points of view.  A collection of her letters, meticulously researched and annotated, has become an invaluable resource to biographers and historians.  They never fail to engage the reader with quick and lively wit, her easy dimpled smile, and her warm affection and generosity to those she liked.  Still, she never fails to be her own worst enemy.  It shows up in black and white, in her own words, and no matter how much one may try to “befriend” her, or even pity her.

Mary Lincoln:  Searching for Neutral Ground

One sad truth pervades the life of Mary Todd Lincoln: she was a deeply lonely woman.  As a child, she had playmates and classmates, particularly since she came from a large family.  But her relationships with her siblings were never especially close, either in childhood or adulthood.  As a young woman in Springfield, Illinois (prior to her marriage), Mary Todd was arguably at her peak of social happiness.   She was part of her little “coterie”, of young folks who went to dances and lectures and plays.

Once she married, however, her husband became “her all,” a common term and condition among Victorian women.  Old friendships faded as husband and children became central.   She had some pleasant neighbors and exchanged visits.  Once Lincoln became more prominent, his professional companions and peers entertained each other from time to time.  But there are few instances of her friendships, possibly because people moved away and letters were exchanged at rare intervals; possibly because the associations were superficial and paths diverge.

mary in mourning

After Lincoln’s assassination, Mary wore nothing but morning clothing until she died seventeen years later.

In the White House, she alienated society from the start.  First Lady Mary saw her position as superior, rather than equal.  Congressional or cabinet wives in her circle were few.   Most of those around her might be considered good, kind women who believed it to be their moral duty to befriend a generally friendless, and after her son Willie died, sorrowful woman.  What becomes obvious in any study of Mary Lincoln, is that there were very few people who genuinely liked her for herself, and who enjoyed her company.   Nothing is more telling than the conspicuous absence of family when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.  Many had come for the first Lincoln inauguration, but no one rushed to Washington to be at her side in April, 1865.

There are and always will be those who make and keep friends easily.  There are and always will be those who never seem to find a home among people.  Was she mad, as some said?  Few psychologists today would classify Mary Lincoln as insane.  More likely, she was an emotionally fragile soul, permanently traumatized by loss, grief and one horrendous event.  Had she been married to anyone else, she would be completely overlooked by history.  But she wasn’t.  She was married to Abraham Lincoln, and if for no other reason, it is practically impossible to be neutral.


Clinton, Catherine – Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, 2009, HarperCollins

Helm, Katherine – Mary, Wife of Lincoln, 1928, Harper and Brothers

Turner, Justin G. and Turner, Linda Levitt – Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, 1972, Alfred A. Knopf,

About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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3 Responses to The Polarizing Mrs. Lincoln

  1. energywriter says:

    Good job, honest and compassionate. sd

  2. Susan Ozmore says:

    Wonderful post. I recently picked up the Turner book at a used book store and look forward to delving into it. I knew she wasn’t viewed neutrally by many people , but you have summarized it beautifully. Thanks.

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