Abraham Lincoln - A Portrait in Grief

Chapter One

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four



When the memory of President Abraham Lincoln is recalled in the hearts and minds of most Americans he is typically thought of as the President who “freed the slaves”. Some Americans even remember him as the first President to be assassinated while holding the office of the Presidency. Many children find a place for President Lincoln in their hearts because they are required to memorize a portion or all of his notorious Gettysburg address.

Few however, know very much about Lincoln’s personality, his family life or the lifelong turbulent journey through many repeated grieving incidents that he endured until that fateful evening at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC in 1865 that concluded his mortal course.

As a young boy at age 9, Lincoln not only watched his mother die slowly and miserably over a period of two weeks, but he also was required to help his authoritative and somewhat emotionless father bury her on the family property. The fortunate outcome of that process was that his father married a woman who was very willing to take young Abraham under her watchful care . She provided the encouragement and support Lincoln needed to prepare Lincoln to move in different cultural and social circles than he did as a young adolescent in Kentucky and Indiana.  

Years later Lincoln’s only sister would die during the birth of her first child. Lincoln’s grief was quickly layering in heavy patterns in his still very inexperienced life. When Lincoln was informed of his father’s eminent death, he calmly declined the opportunity to attend the funeral claiming that his attendance would not serve any genuine purpose.

He emerged into manhood with the conviction that “whatever is to be will be”, and Mrs. Lincoln declared that this was his answer to threats concerning his assassination; that it had been his lifelong creed[1]. It is often thought that this personal creed was formed in his early psychology from attending the Baptist Church in Kentucky with his mother and father.

Baptist Churches of the early to mid 19th Century were often very strong in the presentation of Calvinist doctrines, especially those promoting a predestined mentality. It tended to give God a more sovereign rule over His creation, countering the Methodist doctrines of man’s free will. Predestination doctrines promote such a mentality that God has already determined what is to happen in everyone’s life and course of circumstances. Thus, Mr. Lincoln’s conviction that “whatever is to be will be”, was also somewhat of a religious doctrine and the philosophical framework in his life.   

In addition to his convictions, there also came an unfortunate backdrop to Lincoln’s story is his relationship to his wife, Mary Todd, the mother of the four Lincoln children. On November 4, 1842 Abraham Lincoln wed a woman far more socially skilled and well-educated than he[2].  Mary Todd had walked a very similar path to what Lincoln had experienced, especially when it came to the arena of personal grief and loss. Through all of the personal loss they both would experience in their marriage together, Mary Todd Lincoln was never quite able to emerge from a continuous baptism of anxiety, loss and grief long enough to regain her mental stamina and cognitive stability.

Mary Todd Lincoln was often referred to by their contemporaries as a liability to President Lincoln. She exercised virtually no discipline in her own financial endeavors or in those of the budget allowed to the Lincoln family for living in and staffing the Presidential mansion. Often Mary Todd would throw parties and lavish balls at times when the general public of Washington DC deemed it most inappropriate. Such attitudes and public sentiment seemed to have very little impact on her. She was also very opinionated and often vocalized her anger without hesitation. By today’s standards of law enforcement, she would have probably been charged with domestic violence on any number of occasions.  

Yet, the two of them managed to hold their marriage somewhat together, despite the death of their sons and the almost unbearable pressures of public opinion and criticism rendered by a nation experiencing the most intense civil war recorded in the history of western civilization. Lincoln stood up to congress, his recalcitrant Cabinet and public opinion, leaving them to mind their own affairs[3]. In a day with minimal communicative technology, such problems and circumstances resolved very slow and often times never experienced a definable conclusion.   

Their first son Robert Todd Lincoln (named after his mother’s father), was born in 1843. He would end up being the sole surviving child that reached adulthood and produced heirs in the Lincoln lineage. Their second son Edward “Eddie” Baker Lincoln was born 1846. He died on February 1, 1850 of tuberculosis while the Lincoln family lived in Springfield, Illinois.

Eleven months later William Wallace "Willie" Lincoln was born on December 21, 1850. His death on February 20, 1862 was a devastation to the Lincolns while they lived in the White House during the throws of the Civil War and Lincoln’s first term as President.

In the household Willie had been a great consolation to Lincoln, who derived little emotional satisfaction from his spouse or his eldest child.[4] Lincoln had become very emotionally and relationally attached to Willie during the latter half of the 11 years of Willie’s life.  Willie’s death was a turning point for His father.[5]

This attachment is strongly evidenced in the memorializaton of Willie. The Lincolns had Willie embalmed. The art and science of embalming the dead was a fairly new practice in the mid 19th century and was not all that common in the United States. It was definitely only reserved for those who could financially facilitate it.

After the funeral service Willie Lincoln’s casketed body was placed in a holding vault at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, (Washington DC). The vault was owned by the Carroll family, who were political friends of President Lincoln from Illinois, but also living in Washington DC. They had three of their children who had died placed in that vault, so it an appropriate gesture for them to offer the space until Mr. Lincoln’s term as President had ended and the family could transport Willie’s coffin back to Springfield, Illinois to a permanent resting place.

For months after the funeral Mr. Lincoln would periodically go alone to the vault to view his beloved son’s face and meditate. In those days this was not an uncommon practice for those who could afford the embalming of their family members. Lincoln also spent many hours in Willie’s untouched bedroom at the White House for months after the funeral. Mary never entered the bedroom again after Willie died. Willie’s casket would later make the journey to Springfield Illinois in the same funeral train car as his father’s coffin in the spring of 1865.      

The fourth son and last child to be born to Abraham and Mary Lincoln was Thomas "Tad" Lincoln. He was born on April 4, 1853. He tried for years to console his mother after the assassination of his father in April 1865. But he was a frail child who had also been very sick at the same time his brother Willie died in 1862, probably of the same suspected typhoid fever. He eventually died of cardiac related problems at age 18 on July 16, 1871, six years after his father’s assassination in Washington DC. .

Some historians and philosophers have called the Lincoln’s marriage an arrangement of political convenience that displayed somewhat of a sympathetic heritage representing the South through Mary Todd Lincoln, and the compassionate, yet firm leadership of Mr. Lincoln himself being the role model of a Northern Republican abolitionist.

Others still have seen Abraham and Mary’s relationship as a marriage that was never meant to be, simply because of the many complex losses that they both endured during their 22 year long adventure together. Regardless of the perspective taken, both of the Lincolns made a lifelong journey of unresolved grief and a vague spirituality which not only affected their own lives, but those immediately surrounding them, and eventually the entire Nation. In the spotlight of a divided nation they appeared united, yet though literally dozens of the Lincoln photographs can be found in the various archives of our land, there is not one photograph of them together.

[1] Barton, William E. The Soul of Abraham Lincoln (New York, G.H. Doran Company, 1920) p.50

[2] Townsend, Timothy P. Abraham Lincoln (Fort Washington Pennsylvania, Eastern National, 2014) p.14

[3]  Bowman,  John  The History of the American Presidency (North Dighton, MA, World Publications Group, 1998) P.71

[4] Burlingame, Michael  The Inner Life of Abraham Lincoln   (The University of Illinois, 1994 ) p.66

[5]  Martinez, Susan B. The Psychic Life of Abraham Lincoln (Franklin Lakes New Jersey, Career Press, 2007) p.121

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