Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd. A Surprising, Enduring Union.

The awkward, lanky bumpkin approached the sophisticated rich girl at a ball in Springfield, Illinois, in December 1839. "Miss Todd," he said, "I want to dance with you in the worst way." Thus began a courtship that was a study in contrasts: Mary Todd, 21, was educated; Abraham Lincoln, 30, was barely schooled. She came from a rich, slaveholding family; he was from backwoods poverty. But they also had much in common: born in Kentucky and later transplanted to Illinois, they had both lost their mothers at a young age. Both were fascinated by politics, and, above all else, both were ambitious. 
This 1846 portrait was taken the year he was elected to Congress, in Springfield.
 After moving to the home of her married sister Elizabeth Edwards on Springfield's "Aristocracy Hill" (in part because the ratio of suitable women to eligible bachelors was far more encouraging in Springfield than in Lexington, Kentucky.), the blue-eyed, charming Todd allowed herself to be wooed only by young politicians. Lincoln's future rival, Stephen A. Douglas, was among her suitors. Soon, however, she was engaged to the rawboned young lawyer and state legislator she had met at the dance, much to the distress of her upscale relatives, who felt that the awkward Lincoln was beneath her. 
Southern Belle Mary Todd Lincoln in 1846.
The Todd family's concerns seemed confirmed when Lincoln broke off the engagement shortly before the appointed wedding day, January 1, 1841. Lincoln's friend and biographer William Herndon claims that the future President jilted his fiancée on the wedding day itself, but this account has largely been discredited by historians. (Herndon and Mary Todd detested each other.) Today, most historians believe that Lincoln was suffering cold feet, perhaps brought on by relentless snubs from Todd's family; others think another belle had turned his head. 

Whatever the cause, Lincoln, who regarded his integrity as "the chief gem of my character," felt that he had behaved dishonorably; for him, no sin could be worse. For the second time, a romance cut short led to a mental breakdown so complete that friends feared he might take his life. He wrote to his good friend Joshua Speed, "I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family there would not be one cheerful face on the earth." 

But within a year, friends had intervened to broker a reconciliation. The wife of the editor of the Sangamo Journal arranged to have Todd and Lincoln run into each other "unexpectedly" in her home. Soon, they were meeting regularly (and secretly) there. On the morning of November 4, 1842, Lincoln, now 33, barged in on Charles Dresser, the local Episcopal minister (and Todd's brother- in-law) at breakfast and blurted out, "I want to get hitched tonight. "In a hastily-arranged ceremony that evening, the groom handed Todd a ring inscribed with the words LOVE IS ETERNAL

Mrs. Lincoln's sights perhaps did not extend so far into the future. When friends asked why she had married so far beneath her station, Mary answered matter-of-factly: "He is to be President of the United States someday. If I had not thought so I never would have married him, for you can see he is not pretty."

Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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