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Spotlight on the American Spirit: Lexington native Mary Todd Lincoln

Posted at 5:10 PM, Jul 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-08 09:39:53-04

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — One of the most consequential presidents in American history spent three weeks in 1847 in Lexington, Kentucky, where he stayed with one of the most well-respected families in the area: the Todds.

On his way to Washington D.C. after being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Abraham Lincoln, his wife, Mary Todd, and their sons stopped at Mary Todd's family home.

The visit makes for a fun anecdote along the tour of the Mary Todd Lincoln House, but the museum near the heart of downtown Lexington highlights much more than that three-week visit. Its mission is to "cultivate public interest in the multilayered past by sharing the story of a woman whose experiences resonate today."

'Lifestyle built upon backs of other people'

Those who study Mary Todd Lincoln regard her as one of the most fascinating figures in American history, despite the mystery that surrounds some of her life.

"When it comes to Mary Todd Lincoln, some people say, 'Why did she never keep a diary?'" said Gwen Thompson, executive director of the Mary Todd Lincoln House. "I don't know. Maybe she did and maybe it got destroyed."

Born in 1818 to a father immersed in local politics, Mary Todd was the fourth of eventually sixteen children from Robert Todd's two marriages.

Thompson said the museum does not shy away from telling the full story about the Todds, including the fact that the family owned slaves, who were not granted their freedoms by the time Robert Todd died.

"Much of their prosperity and their comfort and their lifestyle was built upon the backs of other people," Thompson said. "And those stories are relevant and deserve to be told."

Despite growing up to be a strong supporter of the Union, historians do not know anything about Mary Todd Lincoln's personal thoughts on slavery.

Raised in a large family, Thompson said Todd distinguished herself through her educational pursuits and her interest in politics.

"She was intelligent, vivacious, independent," Thompson said. "And if anything, the American Spirit has always been considered one of being fiercely independent."

A mutual interest in politics was one of many reasons Mary Todd and a young lawyer in Illinois were attracted to each other.

A House Divided

While Mary Todd Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln were building a life together, the country and her family in Lexington were being torn apart.

"The Todd family was a microcosm of what was happening to the nation," Thompson said.

When tension over slavery divided the United States, it also drove a wedge between the Todd siblings.

Eight of Mary Todd Lincoln's siblings supported the Confederacy. She was one of six Todd children to support the Union.

Thompson said the divisions in the Todd family followed the Lincolns to Washington D.C. after a Todd sister had an encounter with Union troops.

"Emily, who was a recent Confederate widow and refusing to sign a loyalty oath to the Union, literally was a guest of Abraham Lincoln's in the White House," Thompson said, explaining that President Lincoln summoned Emily to the White House. "[This] shows you how very very complicated family dynamics were during this time period."

Those family dynamics, Thompson said, helped fuel speculation that she was a Confederate sympathizer.

"That is completely unfounded," Thompson said. "It is not true, but you could see how it could really be fodder for the press."

Mary's Detractors

The rumors about Mary Todd Lincoln's allegiances were far from the only negative chatter surrounding the First Lady.

"No matter what she did it seems like there are detractors who can find ways to criticize Mary," Thompson noted.

With criticism swirling around her, Mary Lincoln continued to fulfill her duties as First Lady. She hosted balls at the White House and wrote letters to Union troops.

"All that may seem very domestic and non-political," Thompson said. "But it really was directly in support of [Lincoln's] career."

While the nation was faced with the tragedy of the Civil War, the Lincolns were grappling with a tragedy of their own.

Their eleven-year-old son, Willie, died from typhoid fever in early 1862 when the Lincolns were in the White House.

Thompson said Mary Lincoln was stricken with grief and often could not stomach leaving her room.

"There are those who criticize her for mourning too deeply Willie's loss," Thompson explained. "But then there's those who criticize her for not."

Thompson said of all of Mary Lincoln's many roles, her role as a mother was one of her most cherished.

"I think it's important that we talk about her as a mother because it was a role that really mattered to her very deeply," Thompson said. "She loved her children."

Standing upstairs in the Todds' home, Thompson pointed to a silver mug, one of her favorite artifacts displayed in the home.

"It's from the White House years," Thompson explained. "But it has nothing to do with them being President and First Lady. It has to do with their personal trials [and] being parents."

The mug was given by a government official to Willie's younger brother, Tadd, as a gift after Willie's death.

A life after Lincoln's assassination

Only three years after Willie died, Mary Todd Lincoln was hit with another tragedy: the death of her husband.

"It's very sad that they did not get to have a life together after his presidency," Thompson said.

Thompson noted that to some people, Mary Todd's story ends with her husband's death.

"But she did have a life after his presidency," Thompson said. "She did things that they wanted to do. She traveled to Europe--twice."

Mary Lincoln lived for seventeen years after her husband's death. Thompson said during that time period, she successfully lobbied Congress for a widow's pension.

"She thought that was unjust [not receiving a pension]," Thompson explained. "She, on her own, led a campaign writing letters, writing influential people to make that happen."

Despite living largely out of the spotlight when she left the White House, Mary Lincoln could not fully escape controversy.

In 1875, her eldest and only surviving child, Robert had his mother institutionalized against her will.

"I think I understand both her perspective and his perspective," Thompson offered. "He could have genuinely been concerned about his mother, but maybe not have done the right thing that was in her best interests in her eyes."

Todd Lincoln's mental health continues to be a subject of debate, but she did not spend her final years in an institution.

"A year later she went back to court and was declared 'restored to reason,'" Thompson explains. "But she felt that her son had betrayed her and humiliated her and so she cut off communication with him."

'History is more complicated than a soundbite'

Thompson has been speaking to journalists about Mary Todd Lincoln for many years. Although she is media-savvy, she is also aware of the limitations of what she can say.

"History is more complicated than a soundbite," Thompson said.

According to Thompson, history is much more than reciting facts and dates.

"History is actually about those controversies, those debates, that analysis," she said.

These controversies, debates, and analyses often emerge from initial narratives that may be skewed.

"Quite frankly, a lot of [the rumors] were fundamentally sexist," Thompson opined.

William Herndon, a law partner of Abraham Lincoln, and an early biographer of the sixteenth president had an antagonistic relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln, according to historians.

Thompson said there is still much more to be uncovered about one of the most "fascinating figures in history," including questions about her thoughts on slavery and her mental health.

"The other way that I think she represents the American spirit is she's very complicated," Thompson said.

Thompson said like America, Mary Todd Lincoln was fallible.

"In some ways that also embodies the American spirit in that we're complicated," Thompson said. "We're all human, we all have virtues and vices. She was a real person who had both sides of the coin."

Visiting the Mary Todd Lincoln House

The Mary Todd Lincoln House was restored to serve as a museum in 1977.

"The Mary Todd Lincoln House is the first historic house restored for a First Lady," Thompson said.

The home is located on West Main Street in downtown Lexington. It is open for self-guided tours Monday through Saturday.

For more information on planning your visit to the home, visit the Mary Todd Lincoln House website.