Historians have varying theories regarding the nature of the relationship between Mary and Abraham Lincoln. Some claim that it was a happy marriage while others claim that Mary was known to become so angry, on occasion, that she ran her husband out of the house with a broom. What we do know is that they were devoted to their boys and to one another. Mary was among Lincoln’s political advisers and supported his political efforts, including the responsibility of repeatedly moving their home and small children to keep up with his political aspirations. She even stood behind his efforts in opposition of slavery, which resulted in alienation from some of the members of her slaveholder family.
The move to the White House in Washington, DC, proved to be the most difficult move of all. Washington had become a place of more than politics – it was a social hub of sorts, with its own unique hierarchy. Mary felt the pressure of being First Lady in an Executive Mansion which had a reputation to uphold, and she overran the budget allocated by Congress for redecorating. Her efforts in the social scene of Washington were also met with frustration. The Lincolns were seen as having originated from what was, at that time, the western frontier of the country, and were thus considered by some to be ‘coarse and pretentious’ in spite of Mary’s education and social position.
While Washington’s social elite took a haughty attitude towards the Lincolns, others queued up to petition the president for favours. Even the First Lady received requests for assistance when it became known that Mary had her husband’s ear. The Secret Service, charged with protecting the president today, had not been created then, making access to the president, his wife, his office and their home far from difficult. Political rivals, opportunists and reporters could walk into the Executive Mansion unchallenged.
The south face of the White House, 1846, known as the Executive Mansion during the time when the Lincolns occupied the residence.
Social and political pressures were not the only troubles the Lincolns endured. They had lost one son before Lincoln was elected to the White House. They lost another son in 1862, and several of Mary’s siblings were lost to the war. She had suffered a serious head injury in a carriage accident, which some believe might have been one of the many attempts on Lincoln’s life. Mary began to have migraines and her behaviour was reported as erratic, with sudden temper fits, mood swings, public outbursts and overspending.
By the time Lincoln was sworn in as president on 4 March 1861, he and his family had been living in Washington for several months. Little more than a month after the inauguration, Confederate forces fired on Federal soldiers entrenched in Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. The American Civil War had officially begun. Lincoln would spend the next four years trying to hold the fledgling country of the United States together. Ending slavery took second place as a priority while Lincoln searched for a way to bring about an amicable end to the war, carrying on a balancing act between coping with pressure from all sides and continuing to do what he felt was right.