First Lady Feature: Mary Todd Lincoln

By Duane Soubirous

Like Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd was born in Kentucky, but their childhoods were worlds apart. The Todds were as well off as the Lincolns were poor. While Lincoln educated himself by reading in the candlelight after laboring all day, Mary Todd was sent to exclusive schools. The one childhood similarity they shared is what led them to meet: the death of their mothers. Mary Todd did not get along with her new stepmother, so she came to Springfield to live with her sister, who was married to a former governor of Illinois. Lincoln worked in Springfield as a state legislator, and their paths crossed in the Springfield political scene.

abraham-lincoln-youngLincoln wasn’t exactly smitten with Mary Todd. After they got engaged, Lincoln had second thoughts and he tried to get out of their engagement. Several of Lincoln’s friends recollected his misgivings about Mary, which Michael Burlingame documented in his book Abraham Lincoln: A Life. Lincoln confided to John J. Hardin “that he thought he did not love her as he should and that he would do her a great wrong if he married her.” To Mrs. William Butler, Lincoln declared, “it would just kill me to marry Mary Todd.”

Shortly after Lincoln and Mary Todd reunited, they shocked Mary’s family one morning by announcing  they would get married that day. Despite his apparent urgent desire to marry Mary Todd, Lincoln didn’t seem enamored by her. Lincoln’s best man recalled Lincoln telling him “directly and indirectly” that “he was driven into the marriage,” Burlingame wrote. While Lincoln dressed for the wedding ceremony, “he was asked where he was going. ‘I guess I am going to hell,’ came the reply.” Historian Wayne C. Temple hypothesized that Mary Todd had seduced Lincoln and convinced him he was honor-bound to marry her. This argument is supported by the birth of Abraham and Mary’s first son, Robert Todd Lincoln, which happened just three days shy of  nine months after the wedding.

Lincoln patiently listened to Mary’s many opinions, but he didn’t often follow them. One time Lincoln did yield to her was when she vetoed his plan to become governor of Oregon, a position offered to Lincoln by president Zachary Taylor’s administration after Lincoln campaigned for Taylor in the election of 1848. Mary Todd Lincoln refused to move to the frontier. “During her husband’s presidency,” Burlingame wrote, “Mary Lincoln ‘did not fail to remind him that her advice, when he was wavering, had restrained him from “throwing himself away” on a distant territorial governorship.’”

The White House was in a dilapidated state when the Lincolns arrived in 1861, and Mary Todd Lincoln immediately set to work refurbishing it. In contrast to Abigail Adams using the East Room to hang laundry, Mary Todd Lincoln used that room to host receptions. “The most exquisite carpet ever on the East Room was a velvet one, chosen by Mrs. Lincoln,” wrote Mary Clemer Ames, quoted in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. “Its ground was of pale sea green, and in effect looked as if ocean, in gleaming and transparent waves, were tossing roses at your feet.”

Mary Todd Lincoln overspent her $20,000 budget (about $560,000 in today’s dollars) by $6,800 ($190,000 today). She tried to hide her opulence from Lincoln in several corrupt schemes, explained by Goodwin. She asked the White House groundskeeper to inflate his budget and pass the extra money over to her. She offered patronage in exchange for cash from wealthy donors or reduced bills from vendors. After failing to raise all the money she needed, Mary sent an intermediary to ask Lincoln for help. Lincoln was indignant when he heard the news. “He said it would stink in the land to have it said that an appropriation of $20,000 for furnishing the house had been overrun by the President when the poor freezing soldiers could not have blankets,” the intermediary said, quoted by Goodwin. “He swore he would never approve the bills for flub dubs for that damned old house!”

Mary Todd Lincoln’s lavish East Room hosted a mob of people vying to get a glimpse ofhith-10-things-lincoln-assassination-E General Ulysses S. Grant at his first appearance in Washington, D.C. as the top general in the Union army. That reception, a journalist noted, was the first time Abraham Lincoln wasn’t the center of attention in the East Room. Grant was elected president in the first election after Lincoln’s assassination. He might have been assassinated with Lincoln on April 14, 1865, if Mary Todd Lincoln hadn’t thrown a tantrum a few weeks earlier in front of Grant’s wife Julia Dent Grant. Even though the morning newspaper reported that the Lincolns and the Grants would attend a showing of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre, Julia persuaded Ulysses into traveling home to New Jersey instead of going out with the Lincolns. Julia Grant later said she “objected strenuously to accompanying Mrs. Lincoln,” Burlingame wrote. “Grant said ‘we will go visit our children … and this will be a good excuse.’”

Loss of a loved one was a recurring theme in Mary Todd Lincoln’s life. Between losing her mother in childhood and witnessing her husband’s assassination, she lost three brothers who all fought for the Confederacy, even though Kentucky officially remained loyal to the Union; one son died before Lincoln was elected president and another died in the White House. In 1871 her youngest son died shortly after turning 18. Four years later, Mary was declared insane and sent to an asylum. Her sole surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, testified against her. “There was a second trial, at which she managed to convince the jury that she was perfectly sane,” Richard Norton Smith wrote in First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women. “She and Robert never really reconciled.”

Mary Todd Lincoln spent the rest of her life in relative obscurity, and died while living with her sister back in Springfield, Illinois–in the same house where she’d wed Abraham Lincoln 40 years before.

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