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An American Marriage

An American Marriage Summary

An enlightening narrative exploring an oft-overlooked aspect of the sixteenth president’s life, An American Marriage reveals the tragic story of Abraham Lincoln’s marriage to Mary Todd.

Abraham Lincoln was apparently one of those men who regarded “connubial bliss” as an untenable fantasy. During the Civil War, he pardoned a Union soldier who had deserted the army to return home to wed his sweetheart. As the president signed a document sparing the soldier’s life, Lincoln said: “I want to punish the young man—probably in less than a year he will wish I had withheld the pardon.”

Based on thirty years of research, An American Marriage describes and analyzes why Lincoln had good reason to regret his marriage to Mary Todd. This revealing narrative shows that, as First Lady, Mary Lincoln accepted bribes and kickbacks, sold permits and pardons, engaged in extortion, and peddled influence. The reader comes to learn that Lincoln wed Mary Todd because, in all likelihood, she seduced him and then insisted that he protect her honor. Perhaps surprisingly, the 5’2” Mrs. Lincoln often physically abused her 6’4” husband, as well as her children and servants; she humiliated her husband in public; she caused him, as president, to fear that she would disgrace him publicly.

Unlike her husband, she was not profoundly opposed to slavery and hardly qualifies as the “ardent abolitionist” that some historians have portrayed. While she provided a useful stimulus to his ambition, she often “crushed his spirit,” as his law partner put it. In the end, Lincoln may not have had as successful a presidency as he did—where he showed a preternatural ability to deal with difficult people—if he had not had so much practice at home.

About the Author

Michael Burlingame, whose website is, is the holder of the Chancellor Naomi B. Lynn Distinguished Chair in Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois-Springfield.

He was born in Washington DC and attended Phillips Academy, Andover. As a freshman at Princeton University, he took the Civil War course taught by the eminent Lincolnian David Herbert Donald, who hired him a research assistant. When Professor Donald moved on to Johns Hopkins University, Burlingame upon graduation from Princeton followed him to that institution. There he received his Ph.D.

In 1968 he joined the History Department at Connecticut College in New London, where he taught until retiring in 2001 as the May Buckley Sadowski Professor of History Emeritus. He joined the faculty of the University of Illinois-Springfield in 2009.

An American Marriage Introduction

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


At the age of thirty, a tall, wiry, up-and-coming Illinois lawyer-politician, Abraham Lincoln, met a short, plump, twenty-year-old, well-educated Kentucky belle, Mary Todd, the cousin of his law partner, John Todd Stuart. He initially encountered her shortly after she had left her family home in Kentucky to live in Springfield, Illinois, with her eldest sister (and surrogate mother), Elizabeth, and her husband Ninian Edwards, son of Illinois’s first governor. At parties in the Edwards’s home on “Aristocracy Hill,” Mary Todd flirted with young men searching for a wife. At the time, Springfield had a dearth of eligible young women.


During the social whirl that accompanied sessions of the Illinois General Assembly, Mary Todd was popular, even though “she was not what you could call a beautiful girl,” as a schoolmate remembered. A young man from Springfield termed her “the very creature of excitement” who “never enjoys herself more than when in society and surrounded by a company of merry friends.” Among those friends was Kentuckian Joshua Speed, a merchant in his mid-twenties. To social events on Aristocracy Hill, Speed brought along a fellow Kentuckian, his lanky friend, and roommate Abraham, and so Lincoln began seeing Mary during the winter of 1839–1840.

Elizabeth Edwards at first encouraged a budding romance, for she considered Lincoln “a rising Man,” and thus a possible mate for her sister Mary. As time passed, however, Elizabeth had second thoughts, for he lacked basic social graces; she reported that he “Could not hold a lengthy Conversation with a lady—was not sufficiently Educated & intelligent in the female line to do so—He was charmed with Mary’s wit and fascinated with her quick sagacity—her will—her nature—and Culture—I have happened in the room where they were sitting often & often and Mary led the Conversation—Lincoln would listen & gaze on her as if drawn by some Superior power, irresistably So: he listened—never Scarcely Said a word.”

Elizabeth Edwards presciently warned her sister that Lincoln and she were not “Suitable to Each other,” for they “had no congeniality—no feelings &c. alike.” Mary “was quick, lively, gay—frivalous it may be, Social and loved glitter Show & pomp & power.” Elizabeth and her husband “told Lincoln & Mary not to marry” because “they were raised differently.” Their “natures, mind—Education—raising &c were So different they Could not live happ[il]y as husband & wife.

Sharing their skepticism was Mary Todd’s cousin Stephen T. Logan, who warned her that Abraham was “much too rugged for your little white hands to attempt to polish.” But Mary thought that if another of her cousins, John Todd Stuart, found Lincoln to be a suitable law partner, perhaps this Lincoln might also be a suitable life partner.

In Springfield, Lincoln was variously described as “a mighty rough man,” “uncouth,” “moody,” “dull in society,” “badly dressed,” “ungainly,” “careless of his personal appearance,” as well as “awkward and shy.” Soon after moving to the Illinois capital in 1837, he said that he avoided church because “I am conscious I should not know how to behave myself.” His manners were indeed somewhat oafish. Shod in heavy Conestoga boots, he would enter a ballroom and exclaim: “How clean these women look!” In the opinion of Mary Owens, whom he had courted before he met Mary Todd, Lincoln “was deficient in those little links which make up the great chain of woman[’]s happiness.”

Unsurprisingly, young ladies in Springfield shied away from Lincoln. “We girls,” Catherine Bergen Jones remembered, “maneuvered so as to shift on each other the two awkward, diffident young lawyers, Abraham Lincoln and Samuel H. Treat.” Lincoln briefly dated Mary’s older sister Frances, who recalled that “he took me out once or twice, but he was not much for society. He would go where they [we?] took him, but he was never very much for company.” At that time, he was considered “the plainest man in Springfield,” she said. Another Springfield woman marveled at the “almost prophetic insight” that led Mary Todd to choose “the most awkward & ungainly man in her train,” one “almost totally lacking in polish.”


Lincoln had been uncomfortable around young women from his days in Indiana, where he lived from the age seven to twenty-one. Hoosier maidens liked him but not as a beau, for they thought him “too green.” One remembered that “he was so tall and awkward” that “the young girls my age made fun of Abe.” Although he “tried to go with some of them,” they would “give him the mitten every time,” because he was “so tall and gawky.” Another young lady complained that he “just cared too much for books.

Similarly, in Macon County, Illinois, and later in New Salem (locales where Lincoln dwelt from the age of twenty-one to twenty-eight), young women thought he “was not much of a beau.” One described him as “a very queer fellow,” “homely,” “awkward,” and “very bashful.” At social events, he “never danced or cut up.”

Although in Indiana Lincoln had refused to dance, explaining that “my feet weren’t made that way,” later in Illinois he managed to overcome his shyness enough to approach Mary Todd at a party, allegedly saying: “I want to dance with you in the worst way.” She accepted his invitation, but his terpsichorean ineptitude was so pronounced that she told him afterwards: “Mr. Lincoln I think you have literally fulfilled your request—you have danced the worst way possible.”


Despite that inauspicious beginning, Mary Todd pursued Lincoln, though just how she did so is unclear. In 1875, Lincoln’s good friend Orville H. Browning said: “I always thought then and ever since that in her affair with Mr. Lincoln, Mary Todd did most of the courting.” Browning added that “Miss Todd was thoroughly in earnest [in] her endeavors to get Mr. Lincoln,” and that there was “no doubt of her exceeding anxiety to marry him.” Browning knew whereof he spoke, for—as he told an interviewer—in “those times I was at Mr. Edwards’ a great deal, and Miss Todd used to sit down with me, and talk to me sometimes till midnight, about this affair of hers with Mr. Lincoln.”

Sarah Rickard, sister-in-law of Lincoln’s friend and host William Butler (at whose Springfield home/boarding house Lincoln took his meals for several years), recalled that Mary Todd “certainly made most of the plans and did the courting” and “would have him [Lincoln], whether or no.” Joshua Speed, Lincoln’s closest friend, testified that “Miss Todd wanted L. terribly.” To impress Lincoln, she “read much & committed much to memory to make herself agreeable,” according to a member of the Springfield elite.

At first, Mary Todd’s strategy worked. Lincoln reportedly admired her “naturally fine mind and cultivated tastes,” for she seemed like “a great reader and possessed of a remarkably retentive memory,” was “quick at repartee and when the occasion seemed to require it was sarcastic and severe.” Her “brilliant conversation, often embellished with apt quotations,” made her “much sought after by the young people of the town.” Her friends “looked upon her as a well-educated girl of bright and attractive manner, when she was not stirred to sharp rejoinder.”

William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and biographer, recollected that before she wed, Mary Todd was “a very shrewd girl,” “somewhat attractive,” “a fine judge of human nature,” as well as “polite,” “civil,” “rather graceful in her movements,” “polished,” “intelligent,” “well educated,” “a good linguist,” “a fine conversationalist,” “highly cultured,” “witty,” “dashing,” and “rather pleasant.” Lincoln’s friend and physician William Jayne called her “a woman of quick intellect,” a “bright, lively, plump little woman—a good talker, & capable of making herself quite attractive to young gentlemen.” Lincoln was doubtless impressed that she knew her townsman Henry Clay, Lincoln’s beau ideal of a statesman. (Clay and Mary’s father were good friends in Lexington, Kentucky.)

Moreover, Lincoln may have been drawn to Mary’s youthful qualities. A woman speculated that Lincoln saw in his wife, “despite her foibles and sometimes her puerileness, just what he needed.” In all likelihood, it was because of that “puerileness” rather than despite it that he was attracted to her. As Helen Nicolay (daughter of Lincoln’s principal White House secretary) noted, Lincoln’s “attitude toward his wife had something of the paternal in it, almost as though she were a child, under his protection.”

Indeed, Lincoln had a deep-seated paternal quality that made him enjoy children and child surrogates, and Mary Todd fit the latter role well. According to one of her most sympathetic biographers, Ruth Painter Randall, Mary Todd “aroused the paternal instinct that was always so strong an element in his make-up.” Randall noted that “in some ways” Mary Todd “never grew up” and “had a timidity and childlike dependence upon the strength and calmness of others.”

As First Lady, she was, in Randall’s view, “a child” in the hands of unscrupulous men and was “as defenseless as a trusting child” among the scheming women of Washington society. After she was married, “nothing pleased her more than having her husband pet and humor her, and call her his ‘child-wife.’ ” In 1848, when Lincoln was a congressman in Washington and she, then staying in Kentucky with her parents, expressed a desire to join him in the nation’s capital, he asked her:

Will you be a good girl in all things, if I consent?” Two decades later, Mary Lincoln described her husband as “always a father” to her. Her best friend during Lincoln’s presidency, Elizabeth Keckly, wrote that when he “saw faults in his wife he excused them as he would excuse the impulsive acts of a child.

Mary’s keen desire to wed Lincoln caused her to overlook much, for she had “a bitter struggle with herself” whenever he “would carelessly ignore some social custom or forget an engagement.” He occasionally failed to “observe the conventionalities of society,” much to her annoyance. When she criticized him “for committing some faux pas,” he would “look at her quizzically” as though to say, “How can you attach such great importance to matters so trivial?

Nonetheless, Mary Todd kept pursuing him. The two could have seen each other in Springfield throughout the first quarter of 1840, but they were apart from April to November; he was then practicing law on the Eighth Judicial Circuit and campaigning for the Whig party throughout southern Illinois, while she spent much of that summer in Missouri visiting relatives. So they courted through the mail. According to Joshua Speed, Lincoln “wrote his Mary—She darted after him—wrote him.

Sometime in the late fall of 1840, Abraham and Mary evidently became engaged, though there was no ring, no public announcement, no shower, and no party. Lincoln seems to have proposed because he desired a “child-wife,” and because he evidently believed she wanted him to do so.

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An American Marriage

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Product details:

EditionInternational Edition
ISBN1639362096, 978-1639362097
Posted onMay 10, 2022
Page Count310 pages
AuthorMichael Burlingame

An American Marriage By Michael Burlingame PDF Free Download - Epicpdf

An enlightening narrative exploring an oft-overlooked aspect of the sixteenth president's life, An American Marriage reveals the tragic story of Abraham Lincoln’s marriage to Mary Todd.


Author: Michael Burlingame

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