Episode 69: Mary Todd Lincoln, Part OnePosted 4 June 2016 by The History Chicks
Mary Todd Lincoln’s life can’t be defined by who she married and her husband’s legacy–she was a lot more than simply a southern born wife of a president. Actually, she wasn’t simple at all.
Mary Ann Todd was born into Kentucky aristocracy on December 13, 1818. Her family had helped form Lexington from some shacks behind a stockade fence into a fairly sophisticated town. On the surface, Mary’s place in that society was about what you would expect for a daughter in a wealthy southern family. Except Mary didn’t exactly fit that mold.
Always bright, outgoing and downright spunky; after her mother died when Mary was only 6, and Papa married again as soon as was socially acceptable- she only got spunkier. (We didn’t actually use that word in the podcast, but we should have.) Like both her mother and her step-mother, Mary was educated (let’s not go crazy here: Papa believed in educating girls so they would be more interesting to men; make more interesting wives.) But unlike a lot of girls of the time, when she reached 14 she didn’t stop her education. She loved school, excelled, studied hard and was overall and advanced student. Also unlike a lot of girls of the time, she loved politics. Maybe it was the only way she could spend time with her very busy, and frequently absent father, but whatever the reason she read the papers and followed it. In the “children should be seen, not heard” era, she wasn’t a quiet, timid child- she spoke her mind through a thin filter, was prone to mimicry of people and was an excellent temper tantrum thrower. (Because if you do something, you should do it well.)
By the time she finished her schooling Mary was well read, spoke fluent french and had sharpened the wit and social skills that would take her out of Lexington and into a large, white house. Of course we go into a lot more detail in the podcast- what she studied, where she studied, how her very large family grew (and a couple lessons in 1800’s birth control), the romanticism and reality of duels and of course we talk about slavery. How could we not?
When Mary was 21, she met 31 year-old Abraham Lincoln while visiting her sister in Springfield, Illinois. For the spectator the physical differences between the two must have been amusing- she was 5’2″, polished and refined and he…wasn’t. Personality-wise they were also opposites: she was comfortable in social situations, educated, vivacious and he…wasn’t. But they fit! A shared interest in poetry and politics brought them together despite her sister’s insistence that he was too awkward, unsophisticated and uneducated.
He called her, “Molly”, she called him “Mr. Lincoln” and their marriage was beyond a shadow of a doubt a love match. We do a little objectifying of Abe (and throw in Daniel Day Lewis in Last of the Mohicans because we can.)
Mr and Mrs Lincoln set-up house first in a rented room, then in their own home- the only home they would ever own. It was where they worked together on his political career, where Mary advised him, entertained and helped fix those manners he didn’t have when they met. It was where they began raising their four sons and where one of those sons died. It was were Abe worked his way up through the maze of politics to become the candidate for the presidency in 1860…and where they lived when he ran home shouting to Mary, “We are elected!”
Mary Lincoln (she never used “Todd” after she was married, over the years it has somehow been tacked onto her name in common usage) was 43 when her husband became president. She had done a lot of living in those years and we cover it all in this episode.
Next time: First Lady and beyond
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All the rest of of our media recommendations for this episode will be in the show notes of Part Two (we can’t give any spoilers, can we? No, we cannot.)