History has not been kind to Mary Todd Lincoln.
In life and in the 136 years since her death, critics have maligned the wife of President Abraham Lincoln for her ambition, her spending habits, her connections to the Confederacy, and even her mental health. But the Lexington native actually deserves more credit than she often receives, according to two Kentuckians who have studied the former First Lady’s life.
On KET’s Connections, host Renee Shaw visited the childhood home of Mary Todd Lincoln to learn about her story and the tragedies she endured throughout her life. The program featured Gwen Thompson, executive director the Mary Todd Lincoln House, and Stuart Sanders, a history advocate with the Kentucky Historical Society.
The Todds were a prominent, slave-owning family in Lexington in the early 1800s. Mary’s father, Robert Smith Todd, was an accomplished businessman, banker, and politician at the local and state level. Her mother, Eliza Parker also came from a wealthy family. Born in 1818, Mary was the fourth of 16 children that Robert had with Elizabeth, and his second wife, Betsy Humphreys.
The family’s wealth and social stature provided Mary with a privileged upbringing. Gwen Thompson says Mary had at least nine years of formal schooling, which was uncommon for women of that era. When Mary was 13, the family moved from their original home on Short Street in Lexington to the stately, three-story and still standing brick house on Main Street.
“This building is well over 200 years old,” says Thompson. “It was actually constructed as an inn originally, and it ran as a commercial property for about 25 years, and then was purchased by the Todd family.”
Mary picked up her father’s interest in Whig Party politics and she became a fan of fellow Lexington resident Henry Clay. Thompson says Mary Todd even envisioned a role for herself in politics.
“It is said, according to family stories, that she was interested in marrying a politician,” says Thompson. “The stories say that she said she was going to marry a president some day.”
But to find the politician she would eventually wed, Mary Todd had to first move out of state. At 21, she went to stay with a sister who lived in Springfield, Ill. Stuart Sanders says other members of the Todd family also populated that area, including a cousin, John Stuart Todd. He was an attorney in Springfield who had recently taken on his first law partner, a former shopkeeper and postmaster named Abraham Lincoln.
Mary Todd wed the up-and-coming lawyer in 1842. She was almost 24 years old. The couple had four sons, one of whom died just before his fourth birthday.
The Life of a First Lady
Lincoln had already served in the Illinois legislature before his marriage, but some historians believe Mary Todd pushed him to pursue national politics.
“The Todd family was politically connected in Illinois as well as Kentucky,” says Sanders, who is a Todd family descendant. “So I think her marriage to Abraham Lincoln definitely helped set Lincoln up, in terms of his Congressional run, legislative politics, and ultimately his run for the presidency.”
Lincoln was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1846 and served one term in Washington. He made two unsuccessful bids for the U.S. Senate in the 1850s before winning the presidency in 1860.
Mary Todd settled into White House life, performing the traditional ceremonial duties of First Lady: entertaining guests, decorating, visiting wounded soldiers, and supporting her husband.
“She operated within the gender boundaries and norms of the day,” says Thompson. “Much of her role that she took on as the partner to Lincoln was relegated to the domestic and the social. What’s interesting to me is that the role of the First Lady has changed so very little over time.”
While the Civil War divided the nation and consumed Lincoln’s time and energy, Mary Todd became a lightning rod for criticism. Some opponents alleged she was a spy because of her family’s connections to the Confederacy. Others disparaged her for buying fancy gloves and dresses, and for sprucing up the executive mansion during the Civil War.
“The press did lay a heavy hand on her in terms of her spending and the fact that she redecorated the White House at a time when one would have thought that it would’ve been better to be a little more austere with spending,” Sanders says.
Enduring Tragedy after Tragedy
The presidential years also brought personal tragedy for Mary Todd and her husband. Their son Willie died of typhoid fever. Two of her brothers were killed in the war will serving in the Confederate Army. A brother-in-law, Confederate General Benjamin Hardin Helm was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863.
“When Abraham Lincoln found out about the death of [Helm], he actually wept because he and Helm were good friends before the war,” says Sanders.
And then an assassin fatally shot her husband just days after the end of the Civil War in April 1865. Mary Todd was at Lincoln’s side that night at Ford’s Theater, and she was so bereft over his death that she did not attend the president’s funeral. Thompson says the woman who once lived in the White House, dined with heads of state, and spent lavishly on her wardrobe was reduced to rooming in a Chicago boarding house and fighting to win a widow’s pension from the government. But an even worse indignity was yet to come.
“In 1875, about a decade after Lincoln’s assassination, her oldest son, Robert, took her to court and had her declared legally insane,” says Thompson. “This was the means by which he became her caretaker and the custodian of her estate.”
Sanders adds that Lincoln’s own private secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay also painted Mary Todd as irrational and erratic in their biography of the 16th president. But Sanders says it’s no wonder that she was depressed and perhaps even suffering from post-traumatic stress given all the tragedies she experienced.
Thompson says that Mary Todd’s mental health continues to be a hotly debated subject, especially in light of the fact that after being declared insane 1875, the court ruled that her reason had been restored just a year later.
“So the question today is… what does this say about her mental health in today’s clinical understandings, which are very different from in the past,” Thompson says.
Mary Todd moved back to Springfield, Ill., to live with the same sister she had first gone to visit back in 1839. She died there in 1882 at the age of 63.
“No other First Lady in our history has really endured as much,” says Sanders. “She deserves to be praised for having a stoicism in terms of dealing with the different issues that she and her husband faced.”
“I think her greatest legacy is that she is still the subject of ongoing debate and discussion,” says Thompson. “If you really want to get to know her, I think you have to examine all the perspectives, all of the opposing views… and then maybe form your own opinion on your take on her.”
The Mary Todd Lincoln House is closed for the winter but will reopen for public tours on March 15, 2019. The home is part of a mile-long Lincoln Lexington Walking Tour of 14 historic sites around the downtown area that date back to the years that Mary Todd lived in the city.