Mary Todd Lincoln House shines a light on complicated life

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) – One of the most important presidents in American history spent three weeks in 1847 in Lexington, Ky., where he stayed with one of the region’s most respected families: the Todds.

On their way to Washington DC after being elected to the United States House of Representatives, Abraham Lincoln, his wife, Mary Todd, and their sons stopped at the family home of Mary Todd.

The tour makes for a fun fact throughout a visit to the Mary Todd Lincoln House, but the museum in the heart of downtown Lexington highlights so much more than this three-week tour. Her mission is to “cultivate public interest in the past on many levels by sharing the story of a woman whose experiences resonate today.”

“A lifestyle built on the backs of others”

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

“When it comes to Mary Todd Lincoln, some people say, ‘Why didn’t she keep a diary?'” said Gwen Thompson, executive director of Mary Todd Lincoln House. “I don’t know. Maybe she did and maybe she was destroyed.”

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

Thompson said the museum doesn’t shy away from telling the full story of the Todds, including that the family owned slaves, who hadn’t been granted their freedoms at the time of Robert Todd’s death.

“Much of their prosperity, comfort and way of life rested on the backs of others,” Thompson said. “And those stories are relevant and worth telling.”

Although they grew up to be a strong supporter of the Union, historians know nothing of Mary Todd Lincoln’s personal thoughts on slavery.

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

“She was smart, lively, independent,” Thompson said. “And if anything, the American spirit has always been seen as one of being fiercely independent.”

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

A divided house

As Mary Todd Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln built a life together, the country and her family in Lexington were torn apart.

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

When the tension around 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 Todd’s six children to support the Union.

Thompson said divisions of the Todd family followed the Lincolns to Washington D.C. after a Todd sister encountered Union troops.

“Emily, who was a recent Confederate widow and unwilling to sign an oath of loyalty to the Union, was literally Abraham Lincoln’s guest at the White House,” Thompson said, explaining that President Lincoln had summoned Emily to the White House. “[This] shows you how very, very complicated family dynamics were during this time.”

That family dynamic, Thompson said, helped fuel speculation that she was a Confederate sympathizer.

“It’s totally unfounded,” Thompson said. “That’s not true, but you could see how that could really be press fodder.”

Mary’s detractors

Rumors about Mary Todd Lincoln’s allegiances were far from the only negative chatter surrounding the First Lady.

“No matter what she’s done, it seems like there are detractors out there who can find ways to criticize Mary,” Thompson noted.

As the critics swirled around her, Mary Lincoln continued to fulfill her duties as First Lady. She hosted White House balls and wrote letters to Union troops.

“It all might sound very domestic and apolitical,” Thompson said. “But it was really directly in support of [Lincoln’s] career.”

As the nation faced the tragedy of the Civil War, the Lincolns grappled with their own tragedy.

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

Thompson said Mary Lincoln was overwhelmed with grief and often couldn’t bear to leave her room.

“There are those who criticize him for mourning the loss of Willie too deeply,” Thompson explained. “But there are those who blame him for not doing it.”

Thompson said that 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 that was a role that really meant to her,” Thompson said. “She loved her children.”

Standing upstairs in the Todds’ home, Thompson pointed to a silver cup, one of her favorite artifacts on display in the house.

“It goes back to 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] to be 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’s death, Mary Todd Lincoln was struck by another tragedy: the death of her husband.

“It’s very sad that they couldn’t have a life together after his presidency,” Thompson said.

Thompson noted that for some people, Mary Todd’s story ends with the death of her husband.

“But she had a life after her presidency,” Thompson said. “She did things they wanted to do. She traveled to Europe – twice.”

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

“She thought it was unfair [not receiving a pension]”, Thompson explained. “She, alone, led a campaign by writing letters, by writing to influential people to make this happen.”

Although she lived largely out of the spotlight when she left the White House, Mary Lincoln couldn’t completely escape controversy.

In 1875, his eldest and only surviving child, Robert had his mother placed in an institution against her will.

“I think I understand both his perspective and his perspective,” Thompson said. “He could have been genuinely worried about his mother, but maybe he didn’t do what was in her best interest.”

Todd Lincoln’s mental health continues to be debated, but he did not spend his final years in an institution.

“A year later, she returned to court and was declared ‘recovered to sanity,'” says Thompson. “But she felt her son had betrayed and humiliated her and so she cut off communication with him.”

“History is more complicated than a short sentence”

Thompson has been talking to reporters about Mary Todd Lincoln for many years. Although she knows the media, she is also aware of the limits of what she can say.

“The story is more complicated than a soundbite,” Thompson said.

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

“The story is actually about those controversies, those debates, that analysis,” she said.

These controversies, debates and analyzes often emerge from initial narratives that can be distorted.

“Honestly, a lot of [the rumors] were fundamentally sexist,” Thompson said.

According to historians, William Herndon, a legal partner of Abraham Lincoln and one of the sixteenth president’s early biographers, had an antagonistic relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln.

Thompson said there is still much to discover about one of “history’s most fascinating characters”, including questions about his thoughts on slavery and his mental health.

“The other way I think she represents the American spirit is that she’s very complicated,” Thompson said.

Thompson said that like America, Mary Todd Lincoln was fallible.

“In some ways it also embodies the American spirit in that we’re complicated,” Thompson said. “We are all human, we all have virtues and vices. He was a real person who had both sides of the coin.”

Visit the home of Mary Todd Lincoln

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

“The Mary Todd Lincoln House is the first restored historic home for a First Lady,” Thompson said.

The house 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 house, visit the Mary Todd Lincoln House website.

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