Faces criticism and tragedy as first lady

By the late 1850s, the debate over slavery had created a huge rift between the Northern and Southern sections of the United States. Growing numbers of Northerners believed that slavery was wrong. Some people wanted to outlaw it, while others wanted to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But many Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow the practice. They did not want the national government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life. America's westward expansion only increased the tension between the North and South. Both sides wanted to spread their political views and way of life into the new states and territories.

Abraham Lincoln joined the antislavery Republican political party and ran for the U.S. Senate in 1858. He emerged as an outspoken opponent of slavery during a series of debates with Democrat Stephen Douglas (1813-1861). Although Lincoln lost the election, he gained a national reputation. In 1860, he was elected president of the United States. At this point, several Southern states decided that the U.S. govern-

Mary Todd Lincoln's husband, Abraham, and son, Thomas (Tad).

(Photograph by Anthony Berger. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Mary Todd Lincoln's husband, Abraham, and son, Thomas (Tad).

(Photograph by Anthony Berger. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

ment and its antislavery president could no longer represent their interests. They announced their intention to secede (withdraw) from the United States and form a new country that allowed slavery, called the Confederate States of America. But Lincoln and other Northern politicians were determined to keep the Southern states in the Union. The Civil War began in April 1861, just a few weeks after Lincoln took office.

Once the Lincolns moved to the White House in Washington, D.C., Mary Lincoln decided to redecorate their new home. She felt that the president's house should reflect his important position. She purchased new china, furniture, carpets, and artwork for the White House. Although the items she chose reflected her good taste, they were also very expensive. In fact, she ended up exceeding the $20,000 budget for redeco-ration—which was supposed to cover the entire four-year term of her husband's presidency—within the first year. She also bought a striking new wardrobe for herself. People in the North criticized the first lady's spending habits. They thought it was inappropriate for her to live so extravagantly when thousands of young men were suffering and dying in the war.

Some people even questioned Mary Lincoln's loyalty to the Union. After all, she had been born in Kentucky, and her family had owned slaves. Four of her brothers and three of her half-brothers served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. But in reality, Mary Lincoln felt a deep commitment to the Union cause and strongly endorsed her husband's policies. The stress of the war created some strain in their marriage, but she stood by the president and defended him against his critics. She also supported him by visiting sick and wounded soldiers in hospitals, and by helping to entertain important military and political leaders in the White House.

Mary Lincoln also faced a great deal of personal tragedy during the war years. The Lincolns' beloved son Willie died of typhoid fever in 1862. She struggled to deal with his death and remained secluded in her room for several months. Afterward, she refused to enter the room where Willie had died. She also held a mystical meeting called a séance to try to contact his spirit. Then in 1865, just as the Union celebrated victory in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was shot in the head, as he and the first lady attended a play at Ford's Theatre in Washington. He died the next day, April 15, 1865. The shock and grief over her husband's violent death left Mary Lincoln deeply depressed and virtually unable to function.

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