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.

Part III: A Ship in the Storm–Lincoln’s Steady Hand in the Tumultuous Final Years of War

By Duane Soubirous 

January 1, 1863, the day Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation and declared freedom for all slaves living in the Confederate States of America, was just like any other New Year’s Day to those slaves. In order to gain freedom, they would need to escape behind Union lines or wait for Union troops to advance past them. Slaves living in the loyal border states and parts of the Confederacy that had been pacified by the Union army were kept in bondage. The Emancipation Proclamation freed no one the moment it was issued, but it was the beginning of the end of slavery in the United States. Three years later, slavery was abolished throughout the U.S. with the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

Though the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln had issued a preliminary proclamation 100 days earlier, on Sept. 22., This warned that emancipation was coming, but rebels could keep their slaves if they put down their arms and rejoined the Union (no one took that offer). Midterm elections in November 1862 showed that many in the Union agreed with Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who called the Emancipation Proclamation “the most execrable measure recorded in the history of guilty man.”

1864Racial violence perpetrated both sides of the conflict. That year, the Democratic Party ran a racist, anti-war campaign, warning that emancipation meant black people would move North in droves and force whites out of their homes. “The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was, and the negroes where they are,” was their campaign slogan. Democrats gained 34 seats in the House of Representatives, won gubernatorial races in New York and New Jersey, and won control of several state legislatures. In 1863, Horatio Seymour, the Democratic governor of New York, said, “I assure you I am your friend,” to anti-draft rioters who had lynched black doormen and burned down the Colored Orphan Asylum in New York City. 

Unfazed by backlash to the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln pressed for emancipation in the loyal states. He encouraged a constitutional amendment that would gradually emancipate slaves (until 1900) and provide compensation to slaveholders. Lincoln believed that his emancipation plan for the border states was “one of the most potent, and swift means of ending” the Civil War. “Let the states which are in rebellion see, definitely and certainly, that, in no event, will the states you represent ever join their proposed Confederacy, and they can not, much longer maintain the contest.” To people who didn’t want tax dollars spent on buying slaves, Lincoln replied that compensated emancipation would cost less than a prolonged war: “I had not asked you to be taxed to buy negroes, except in such way, as to save you from greater taxation to save the Union exclusively by other means.” Lincoln also warned that failing to accept gradual, compensated emancipation might lead to immediate, uncompensated emancipation.

  Many soldiers who had enlisted to defend the Union had reservations about fighting to free the slaves. Lincoln deployed his power of persuasion in a letter to be read at a Union rally in Springfield, Illinois: “You say you will not fight to free negroes. Some of them seem willing to fight for you; but, no matter. Fight you, then exclusively to save the Union. I issued the proclamation on purpose to aid you in saving the Union.”

 General Ulysses S. Grant was one soldier who didn’t need convincing. He wrote in a usgletter to Lincoln, “I have given the subject of arming the negro my hearty support. This, with the emancipation of the negro, is the heavyest blow yet given to the Confederacy … by arming the negro we have added a powerful ally. They will make good soldiers and taking them from the enemy weakens him in the same proportion they strengthen us. I am therefore most decidedly in favor of pushing this policy to the enlistment of a force sufficient to hold all the South falling into our hands and to aid in capturing more.”

 After the major Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg in July 1863, the war dragged on through 1864 and Democratic anti-war sentiment rose again. Democrats believed the war could end and the Union restored by negotiating a peace agreement that upheld slavery. Such a treaty would overturn Emancipation Proclamation, which said slaves with disloyal masters “are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.” Lincoln was up for reelection that year, and though his electoral prospects looked grim that summer, he decided to hold firm on his proclamation and insist upon abolitionism in any peace talks.

By the fall of 1864, a string of Union victories dampened anti-war sentiment, and Lincoln and Republican legislators were resoundingly endorsed by the electorate. During the lame-duck session of Congress, when many Democratic congressmen had only a few months left before being replaced by Republicans, Lincoln pressed the House to pass the 13th Amendment, which had passed the previous April with the requisite 2/3 majority in the Senate. After much personal lobbying by Lincoln, just enough lame-duck Democrats either abstained or voted yes to clear the amendment through Congress on Jan. 31, 1865. It was then sent to the states and finally ratified in December 1865.

2nd inag abeLincoln’s second inauguration happened on March 4, 1865, when Union victory was imminent. He closed his Second Inaugural Address by extending an olive branch to the defeated Confederates and looking ahead to Reconstruction: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

After news reached Washington that Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, crowds gathered at the White House to hear Lincoln speak. Instead of delivering a bombastic victory speech, he addressed Rreconstruction. It was the last speech he gave, and true to form, he encouraged moderation. Radical Republicans didn’t want to accept Louisiana back into the Union because its constitution didn’t enfranchise black people. While Lincoln said that he personally supported enfranchisement for “the very intelligent” and “those who serve our cause as soldiers,” he asked, “Will it be wiser to take [Louisiana’s constitution] as it is, and help to improve it; or to reject, and disperse it? Can Louisiana be brought into proper practical relation with the Union sooner by sustaining, or by discarding her new State Government?”

  A distraught Confederate sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth attended Lincoln’s speech and was outraged to hear Lincoln endorse black suffrage in Louisiana. “That means n—-er citizenship. Now by God I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make,” Booth reportedly said. He assassinated Lincoln three days later.

Abraham Lincoln closed the Gettysburg Address by saying, “We here highly resolve that these dead men shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Freedom for all Americans was a work in progress when he died, but it began when Lincoln insisted that for slavery to end, its expansion must be culled.

Lincoln is exalted as a god among men today; he is seen as the savior of black American slaves, and the sole reason that slavery ended. Like all people, Lincoln was flawed–his actions and thoughts, judged by today’s society, would make many uncomfortable. Still, he believed in moderation, in fairness, and in the importance of listening to both sides. This, in any era, makes him one of the nation’s most remarkable leaders. He certainly deserves credit for his handling of the Civil War years.