This Day in History: The unexpected wedding of Mary & Abraham Lincoln
On this day in 1842, Mary Todd marries Abraham Lincoln, giving almost no notice to her family. Her family was not exactly pleased with the situation.
The bride and groom came from very different backgrounds. Lincoln was a farmer’s son with little formal education. By contrast, Mary had been born into a prominent Kentucky family, and she’d been educated in the some of the area’s best private schools. One similarity? Both had lost their mothers at an early age.
As a young adult, Mary left Kentucky behind. She moved to Springfield, Illinois, to live with her sister.
Mary was a true Southern belle! She was pretty, flirtatious, and engaging. She loved to dance and was once described as the “very creature of excitement.” However, even then, Mary reportedly experienced extreme mood swings. According to one person, Mary had “spells of mental depression . . . . she was always ‘either in the garret or cellar.’”
Mary soon met a lawyer by the name of Abraham Lincoln; he was nearly ten years older than she was. As the story goes, Lincoln saw Mary and approached her with the comment: “I want to dance with you in the worst way.” Mary later teased Lincoln that he had “literally fulfilled your request—you have danced the worst way possible.”
The details of Lincoln and Mary’s courtship remains the subject of some controversy. What pushed the match forward? Did they really love each other? Lincoln was socially awkward and shy, whereas Mary never enjoyed “herself more than when in society and surrounded by a company of merry friends.” On the other hand, Lincoln was a rising star, and Mary was ambitious. For one reason or another, the two were soon engaged.
Well, at least, they were engaged for a little while. Lincoln began to have doubts.
He began to believe that they “were not congenial, and were incompatible.” Finally, on “that fatal first of Jany. ‘41,” the engagement was broken off. The details of that day remain unclear, but Lincoln became depressed afterwards. Was he sad about losing Mary? Or was he just worried that he’d done something dishonorable?
“[I]t seems to me,” he wrote a friend, “I should have been entirely happy, but for the never-absent idea, that there is one still unhappy whom I have contributed to make so. That still kills my soul. I can not but reproach myself, for even wishing to be happy while she is otherwise.”
A little more than a year later, the two ran into each other again. Their courtship was renewed, this time in private.
Then the unexpected happened. On November 4, 1842, Lincoln went to a minister’s house, informing him that he intended to get married by the end of the day. You can imagine how shocked Mary’s family was to hear that she had agreed to such a scheme! They were not very happy, but they insisted that she at least be married in her family home.
Some have speculated that the two got married because Mary seduced Lincoln and convinced him that she could get pregnant. One fact supporting this theory is that Robert Todd Lincoln was born almost exactly nine months after the wedding.
The new Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln moved into a local boarding house. They would live in Springfield for the better part of two decades before Lincoln was elected President. During their time there, they had four sons, although only one lived to adulthood.
There is more to Mary Lincoln’s story, of course. She was criticized for the manner in which she spent money as First Lady. Some later believed her to be mentally ill, and she was even committed to a mental institution by her son!
Naturally, those are all stories for another day.
Catherine Clinton, Wife versus Widow: Clashing Perspectives on Mary Lincoln’s Legacy (Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association; 2007) (Vol. 28)
Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005)
Jean Harvey Baker, Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (2008 reprint edition)
Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Joshua Speed (March 27, 1842)
Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2013)
Robert P. Watson, Affairs of State: The Untold History of Presidential Love, Sex, and Scandal, 1789–1900 (2012)
Ronald C. White, Jr., Abraham Lincoln: A Biography (2009)
Stacy Pratt McDermott, Mary Lincoln: Southern Girl, Northern Woman (2015)