The Broken Crystal – The Misunderstood World of Mary Todd Lincoln

Earl Cripe asked:




In the year was 1818, Robert Todd, wealthy patrician and descendant of Revolutionary War heroes, Indian fighters, merchants, politicians and philanthropists from the various branches of his family tree (Todds, Porters, Parkers) occupied the president’s chair in the Lexington branch of the Bank of Kentucky.

Robert Todd, in addition to his banking duties, held minor political office. It was not greatly important by itself, but it put him in league with Henry Clay. That was important, both for him and the tiny daughter born to Robert and his wife Eliza Parker Todd on December 13 of that year. The Clay connection put Robert in close counsels with every other prominent Whig in Fayette County and most of the state. Robert and his wife entertained, in copious style, the important politicians from the Senate and from state houses, party politicians, and important visitors from across the country and abroad.

Early on the Todds pampered little Mary, a charming and vivacious child to a fault. She was often to be found at her father’s bank sitting on the lap of one of her favorite people, a man she called ‘Uncle,’ but who was in actuality no relationship to her. He was Calvin Morgan, master of Hopemont Estate in Lexington.

Etched in little Mary’s mind was a day when she looked out the window at a long line of Negroes in a chain gang slowly walking and chanting sadly as they made their way on the torturous journey south to the slave auctions. “Oh, look, Uncle Calvin!” Calvin Morgan took her and turned her back to the room, his face reddening and his manner upset.
Mary remembered Mr. Morgan leaving the bank and then pausing outside the window to look long and hard at her father. Then he turned and watched the slow, doleful procession, shaking his head sadly.

Mary also found lap on the person of the great Henry Clay, on whom she had a childhood crush. She thought he was the handsomest man in the world.

A Dramatic Turn of events

When she was six years old, Mary’s ideal world took a violent tumble. Her mother died after giving hard birth to her fourth child and Mary’s only living brother, Robert Jr., had died in babyhood. Seventeen months later, her father married again and fathered nine more children. Her stepmother, Elizabeth (“Betsy”) Humphreys was a good woman from a good family, but not a good mother of so large a family. Mary went from being pampered to being neglected. Mary was never trained in the Southern womanly virtues of patience and self-control. She continued to feel that she should get the attention she had always gotten, but did not get it for a number of years.

Before long, Mary, a vivacious, outgoing girl with a passion for nice clothes, developed worldly ways. She did not divorce her religion but it was no longer the whole consideration in her future plans as it had been earlier. She made an earnest effort to be sedate and sweetly pretentious like girls were expected to be, but she simply could not keep her real self in.

Mary’s Countenance

As she reached young womanhood, that open face was pretty and intelligent but not accurately placed in the category of striking beauty. It was complimented by a small, up-turned nose, a broad forehead, pretty blue eyes set moderately wide apart, a rosy complexion, and soft brown hair with touches of copper-gold. Her mouth always looked sternly set because it was juxtaposed by a chin that jutted a little and was a bit too large. But these flaws that showed up when posing for photographs were lost in a ready smile and the merry eyes. She was short but not inordinately so at five feet, two inches. Later it was to fret her a good deal beside the six feet, four-inch frame of her husband. Her well-rounded figure and her full bosom were just the thing for the trends of the times. Her best physical feature was her artistic arms and hands that hung perfectly at her sides and went into clever motion when she spoke.

A Political Bent

Mary Todd had a love of and a flair for politics. At the age of fourteen she was a “fiery little Whig” who said the most dreadful things about Andrew Jackson and how she thought that Henry Clay was the grand man of finest manners and had the brightest future as a Whig.

The Very Influential and Important Mammy

One of the early influences of Mary’s life was her very own Mammy Sally who put her in mortal fear of the “debil!” As Mary began to take note of the world around her, she was greatly troubled about the slave auctions, whippings. and public hangings that took place in Lexington. She came to understand the revulsion of Mr. Morgan and she was happy to know that Mammy was part of the Underground Railroad in the very small sense of leaving out food for runaway slaves passing through and those hiding in the city.

Mary Starts the Journey

In the fall of 1832 the Todd house on Main Street was swamped with children, servants and visitors and Mary’s step mother Betsy was relieved to see her go off to boarding school, only coming home on weekends. The boarding school was a fashionable place called Mentelle’s. The proprietors were Victories Charlotte LeClere Mentelle and her husband Augustus. Mary spent four years there during which time she learned to speak and write French fluently, became an accomplished student in English literature, learned etiquette and excelled in the polka, the schottische, the gallop and the waltz. Like everything she ever did, Mary applied herself totally to her education. She was now in the position to put on airs with the best of them. But Mary had something that few others, male or female, possessed. She had a brilliant and smart and a ready mind; and she found putting on airs inferior to a demonstration of what she really was and what she really knew.

Sadly Misplaced in History

If any woman was ever born one hundred years too soon, it was Mary Todd. In her day, the brightest most educated, most intellectually superior woman had no future outside of matrimony. When she completed Mentelle’s at age seventeen, that–whether or not she knew it, planned, to or wanted it– that was the next step. In the fall of 1836, her sister Elizabeth, the matchmaker of the family invited her to Illinois. Mary did not stay in Springfield as Elizabeth had hoped, but returned to Lexington where she committed herself to post-graduate studies. She was there until 1839. Then she returned, why she did not know, to Springfield. She did at times return to Lexington for a few years thereafter, but finally stopped going home, except on rare occasion.

A Major Change for Mary and America

When Mary arrived back in Springfield in October to make her permanent home with Elizabeth and Ninian she found it much different than she remembered and eminently acceptable. The Edwards’ home was beautifully situated on a hilltop over looking the city and was a meeting place to a lively and fascinating group who called themselves the ‘Coterie.’ It was an elite group and those who were excluded from it had another name for it: The ‘Edwards Clique.’ It included the towns most beautiful and marriageable girls and the most eligible bachelors, among whom were Stephen A. Douglas, Edward D. Baker, James Shields, Lyman Trumbull, and a newcomer named Abraham Lincoln; all of whom would make their mark in history. Mary was very popular there and very much in demand. Both Douglas and a man named John C. Conkling were known to covet her hand. Conkling wrote to a friend about her: “She is the very creature of excitement you know, and never enjoys herself more than when in society and surrounded by a company of merry friends.” Her brother-in-law Ninian W. Edwards revealed even more of her powers: “Mary could make a Bishop forget his prayers.”

A Dance that Changed the World

It was at a ball shortly after her return that Mary Todd first met Abraham Lincoln. He had made a place and a modest name for himself in association with the Stuart Law Firm and a growing reputation in Springfield for intelligence and integrity. Mary was immediately drawn to Lincoln but not for his good looks or his abilities on the dance floor. The story is told of the first time they met and danced. Lincoln is supposed to have said, “Mary, I want to dance with you the worst way.” Her later, witty comment to her cousin was: “And he certainly did.” But Mary saw behind and beyond. He was not like any of the men she knew or had grown up with. His background, his presence, his manners, and his intellect were anomalous to her circle. Still he fascinated her. At thirty, he was extraordinary and Mary Todd saw it when no one else did. Like many highly intelligent, cultured, and finished people, he was a lonely and barren man. Earlier he had been deeply involved with Mary Owens, a perfectly lovely and qualified girl but Lincoln did not see in her the understanding that would make his life with a mate what he desperately needed it to be. The physical attraction was there, but not the congeniality of mind. But when the winsome Mary Todd turned her energies, her interests and her charm on him, he saw what he had not seen before. She understood him. Not a person to ever put on airs, Mary laughed lustily at his dry humor because she thought it was hilarious. She sat and earnestly discussed poetry, literature, and politics with him and disdained other swains who tried to toll her away for lighter fare. Sometimes she just sat and looked at him, warmly, approvingly, and understandingly. Those were the most impressive times of all to Lincoln.

The Strangest of All Engagements

Mary and Abraham let it be known to all their friends that they had an understanding and were to be married. On New Years day, 1841, they broke off their relationship and both went into an extended period of pain and loneliness. Many were the stories of what happened. They ranged from Lincoln supposedly telling Douglas that he simply did not love her enough to the utterly ridiculous invention that Lincoln left bride, minister, and wedding party standing at the alter and did not show up. The truth was not known and would not have been understood if it had been. Mary had simply decided that she loved him too much, that she was not good enough for him, that she would not be able to be the woman he needed in his hour of need, and that she would wind up destroying the only man she ever truly loved (historically speaking Mary Todd might have added being clairvoyant to her many other talents). Lincoln, never an arguer or a pleader, simply told her she was wrong. Many of their friends saw the agony they were both going through. Finally Simeon Francis, editor of Springfield’s Whig newspaper, covenanted with his wife to bring these two unhappy and lost souls together where they belonged. They were successful and the happiness and joviality that returned to Mary convinced them that they had been fully justified in interfering.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

On the evening of November 4, 1842, they were married by the Episcopal Minister Dr. Charles Dresser at the Edwards’ home. In a blinding rainstorm, they drove to his little hotel boarding house at the Globe Tavern where they lived until 1843. In the winter of 1843-44, they moved into a house that had more room. Mary had left her family and her fortune behind to go with her husband. She could have gotten money for a home and their needs if she had crawled but those who wonder why she did not never knew Mary Todd. Her life was now with her husband and a happier and more contented couple could not be found. Both she and her husband relished the quietness of home life and the profound joys of just being with one another and the baby. A second son was born in 1846, named Edward Baker after Lincoln’s political ally. They lived simply in a home they had built on a little lot. Mary knew how to pinch pennies when she wanted to, and she did. They had more money now from Lincoln’s practice and his speaking engagements. But in one area of her life Mary was extravagant, even then. She had to have the best and most expensive clothes.

The Bloom Begins to Fade

Both Lincoln and his wife cared deeply for each other. But little problems began to surface about 1848. One of her great burdens was her hatred of Lincoln’s law partner William H. Herndon, a very intelligent, but somewhat eccentric young man. It dated back to a dance with him before their marriage. He had told her that she danced with the ease of a serpent (take heed, young men). She was highly offended by the analogy and had utter contempt for him from that day forward. “Billy” viewed her as mean and cantankerous. He felt that Lincoln had chosen poorly a member of the “Coterie” and that Lincoln was unhappy. Though Billy convinced many people of this it was false; Lincoln was sublimely happy with his home life in those days. Even so, Billy’s view of her succeeded in making her worse. Poor Lincoln was caught in the middle of an ongoing struggle for his affections and loyalty, which so far as he was concerned was a begged issue on both their parts. It was a tension that lasted a lifetime. Herndon in the final analysis struck the cruelest blow with the total fabrication of the Ann Rutledge Romance, which was done just to hurt Mary. It succeeded in doing that and hurting the whole nation as well.

The Beginning of a Fateful and Fatal Political Career

In 1847, Lincoln was elected to Congress with Mary as his staunchest ally and campaigner. She had great desires for both her husband and herself. It is doubtful if Lincoln would ever have become president had it not been for Mary’s belief in him and her drive. In 1850, he was again practicing law while holding his position in the legislature. In 1854, the issue of the Stephan A. Douglas bill repealing the Missouri compromise came up. But the bill, while repealing Henry Clay’s work, also gave each state the right to decide for itself whether to be “slave” or “free.” Lincoln went on the stump opposing Douglas’ bill, but in the process, committed himself to farther-reaching things. He had publicly taken on the institution of the Senate. Now he must resign his seat in the legislature and make a run for the Senate.

A Big Shoe Drops in the Lincoln Domestic Crisis

In mid-December of 1849, Eddy Lincoln fell desperately ill with diphtheria. The Lincolns worked together day and night for fifty-two days trying to save the boy’s life, but could not. It had a profound and sobering effect on Mary’s husband. As a child, he had known Christianity as a sometimes-attendant at backwoods prayer meetings. He had never made any personal confession of faith and had few resolved convictions. He had never been one to attend church but now he sought out Dr. James Smith, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Springfield because Lincoln had been both impressed and challenged by words said at Eddy’s funeral. The thought of seeing his son again at the Resurrection set the hook of hope and interest deep in Lincoln. Because of his great mind, Lincoln bore the stigmatism of the natural skepticism’s and doubt of academia. He found solace in Dr. Smith’s kindness and deep and lucid explanations of the Bible. Dr. Smith had written The Christian Defense to challenge skeptics and fence-setters like Lincoln. Lincoln read the book with interest and professed that it put down many if not all of his doubts. The faith instilled by his readings and conversations with Dr. Smith helped Lincoln through the tragedy. The same was not true with Mary. She suffered with that same instability, lack of confidence, and frustration that had plagued her earlier. The sparkling humor was replaced by fear, self-indulgence, and tantrums sometimes directed at Lincoln and frequently audible to neighbors. The saving grace was that Mary was with child again and with the birth of William Wallace, a beautiful and happy child, much joy returned to Mary and much relief and gratitude to Lincoln.

Lincoln’s strange Political Conscience

In 1855, the Illinois legislature met to elect a second senator. After the first ballot, Lincoln was far ahead but did not have enough votes to get in. He had forty-five and fifty-one were needed. On this seventh ballot, Lincoln despaired of wining. He threw his strength to Trumbull in order to defeat Governor Joel Matteson, a Democrat much disapproved by Lincoln for his support of the Douglas bill among other things. Mary was bitterly disappointed and disapproving of her husband’s generosity. If he had held out, someone would have thrown to him and he would have won. Lincoln consoled her. The Whig party was dying. He was going to ‘unwhig’ himself and join the Republican Party where, he assured her, he would run again. Mary was consoled.

Mary Todd Lincoln’s Fatal Flaw

Mary’s family in Lexington was upset. Lincoln was now a Republican. Was he now an abolitionist as well? Mary defended him and revealed the first of what was to become her and their major problem. In her defense of her husband and her placating of Emilie and the rest, the views she espoused were not Lincoln’s but her own version.

The Best and the Worst of all Possible Worlds

Upon his election to the presidency in 1860, Lincoln had not gotten to Washington for the inauguration when the kinds of demons that were going to try to destroy Mary Lincoln attacked in force. The Pinkertons had uncovered a plot to stop the train and kidnap Lincoln. When it was confirmed, a plan was hatched to take Lincoln off and have him travel though Baltimore at night on an unmarked train. In consideration of his wife, Lincoln insisted that she be told. It was a well meant but serious mistake. Mary was plunged into panic and made such a noise and fuss that the plan was almost betrayed. Nor did it leave her when they got to Washington. The experience was so dramatic for Mary that it planted in her the seeds of conscious dread that continued to grow.
The Lincolns were reunited February 23 at Willard’s Hotel in Washington. Mary had been born into a distinguished family and had always been in or near the center of attention. She waited expectantly for the crowds of women who would flock to her but very few came. One of her old obsessions returned. She had been slighted. She was being discounted as a parvenu. She reacted negatively in public. She was deeply hurt by the social slight but she was more hurt by the cruelty of the press that abused her mercilessly. They attacked her for her southern roots and accused her of being a southern sympathizer. They called her rude and indiscrete. They belittled and questioned her for her unwomanly interest and attempted influence in her husband’s appointments. Usually discrete journalists abandoned decorum and attacked her for her appearance, the way she talked, and her lack of manners. These were brutal and false characterizations. A few commended her for her poise but not many. Lincoln was deeply disturbed at this abuse of his wife but put it down as political baggage. He was preoccupied with the affairs of state and could not spend time worrying about something he could not change.

The inauguration and the inaugural ball were a great success. Mrs. Lincoln entered the ballroom on the arm of Stephen Douglas. Afterward she went about to make the Whitehouse a national monument and a public meeting place. By the end of the month, things began to taper off. Only her cousin Elizabeth Todd Grimsley had remained to help her through the early months of Whitehouse strain.

No Sense of Propriety

Perhaps her biggest problem, and the one that ruined their peace and tranquility as a family, was her penchant for sharing everything she knew with anyone she happened to be talking to. This led to an open gossip line from the Whitehouse to the press. The President was very irritated with her for doing this and insisted that she stop. She agreed to, but she did not (or, perhaps, could not) and it drove an ever-widening wedge between Mary and her husband. Because he would not fuss with her, he simply avoided her, going to his study, or to bed. One of his aides had remarked that the only time he ever saw Lincoln happy was with Mary and his children at home. This began to cease and it was sad because it was the magnet that brought them together and the glue that had held them. Their loyalty to one another and their joy in one another was their whole life. But now he would not tell her things and he would not fuss with her. Probably Lincoln was wrong but it was the only way he could cope with the information leaks. He would go in and brief her on the affairs of state but when she turned to gossip Lincoln would simply excuse himself and leave. The effects that it was having on her were devastating. Her dream world had crashed at her feet. Mary Lincoln, partly of her own doing, partly because of the press, partly because of Lincoln’s enemies, and partly because of her husband’s impatience with her, was an unhappy and disturbed woman. Everything she had spent her youth training for–to be a grand hostess, a ready conversationalist on any subject, and an intelligent, effective and important part of her husband’s public life, was denied her because she was a quick-witted, clever woman in a man’s world. She had been in Washington for more than four years and no one gave her the credit she was due or recognized any of those qualities. It had driven her to the edge of emotional endurance. One press report had been unkind enough to call her family heritage a history of inbreeding by relatives that had resulted in mild insanity in many of the latest generation including Mary Lincoln. Mary wondered; was it true?

The President rubbed his tired eyes, and then looked at her. “Mary, I wanted to let you know that Banks has left town disappointed that he did not get the appointment as Secretary of War, which of course was never being considered. The rumor that Seward and Weed were pushing me for the appointment is without a shred of truth. I have never talked to Seward or Weed about an appointment for General Banks.”

Mary stiffened. “But Abraham, why are you telling me this?”

“Well, I knew you were concerned about it and I thought you would like to know.”

Oh no! Did he know about her letter to Sumner? He must have–but she had asked Sumner to keep it private. “Someone has been falsely accusing me again and there you go siding against me.”

Lincoln looked weary. “No, my dear, not that. I think you asked me about that yourself, did you not.”

Mary was becoming emotional. “I most certainly did not! You are trying to trick me. Since you told me to stay out of the appointment process, I have been very careful not to say anything.”

Lincoln tried to be conciliatory. “Well, then I am wrong, and I have troubled you for nothing. It must have been someone else.”

Mary’s voice was rising. “Abraham, have you been talking to other women about the Cabinet?”

Lincoln shook his head sadly. “No, Pet.”

“Then, I don’t know what you mean. Who has told you I said anything?”

Lincoln drew himself up off the settee. “No one, dear, no one at all. I am sorry to have upset you. I thought I was doing you a service.”

Mary was driving him away again. She tried to change her tone. She wanted him so much to stay and talk to her. “Abraham, I am glad when you tell me things. It is no bother. I just thought you were accusing me again, but of course, you weren’t, were you. Stay a while and I will tell you about Mrs. Stanton.”

Lincoln shook his head negatively. “I have to get ready for a meeting with Stanton and Halleck in the morning and I am about past going.” He left the room.

She hoped that he would come out but she knew he would not. She wondered where it had all gone wrong. It was so frustrating to be one of the worlds most talented and qualified women for her position and yet to have everyone think she was a pitiable maladroit. In the Coterie, she had been much esteemed for her brilliant mind, her quick wit, and her ability to hold her own. In debate, she often bested great minds like Stephen A. Douglas, James C. Conkling, Lyman Trumbull, Edward D. Baker, James Shields, and Abraham Lincoln. They all now held prominent and important positions in the country and three of whom had been open about the fact that they wanted her hand. But while they now basked in the rich rewards of that preppy, elite circle of intellectual giants, Mary was worse than ignored; she was regarded as a person with a poor mind, no graces, an embarrassment as a hostess, a know-nothing meddler in politics, and a burden to her husband. Washington’s high society women whom Mary expected would flock around her and whom she would charm with her eruditeness, her social finish obtained at Mantels and her broad knowledge and insights into human nature and men in particular for which she was once renowned, avoided her like the plague. The crime that had sentenced her to this isolation had been her unwillingness to suffer fools gladly and to stand by in helpless embarrassment while a gaggle of press people of mediocre intelligence and armed with little more than undisciplined imaginations and rumors, almost all of which were wrong, belittled her and her husband.

Well, she thought she could change that and she tried, but it was not to be and now she saw that it never would be. She hoped she would be able to live with it and not let it send her into one of her infamous temper tantrums. As much as she resented having to do it, she would strive to get a grip on herself. She purposed, in the coming four years, to find the way to change it, and above all, to renew her relationship with her husband and get back the fulfillment they once found in each other. If it meant no more talking in public, more letters to Congressmen and Senators, no more parties–just staying home and being a wife and a mother–so be it. After all, that was where all the happiness she had ever known had been found.

Haunting specters lurked in the dark and solitary sitting room. In her reverie, Mary was surrounded by nostalgic and melancholy images of her childhood in Lexington. She saw the darling little red haired, green eyed Catherine Morgan and the dashing, handsome Henry Clay. She was again at the Lexington Bank in the big chair, surrounded by the grand and sumptuous smell of rich leather, mahogany, and pipe smoke. Out the window a train of manacled slaves slowly passed, tragedy and hopelessness etched on their stony faces and the dolorous tones of their minor chanting falling like a plague of Egypt on the indifferent town, as they were dragged down the long road south to fate little better than death because of their ethnic descent. It all seemed to come together in this moment: the brilliant and beautiful promise of youth, the rich heritage of her ancestry, the great political ambitions that had been instilled in her, the ardent and committed years of preparation in what she believed to be that land of opportunity, and the pathos of the long, sad, cruel, depressing, desperate road to nowhere, held by bonds into which an ambitious woman was born and from which she, unlike even the slave, had not the slightest hope of escaping alive.

To her surprise, her husband did come back out. He sat down in a chair near her and took her hand. Some of the weariness seemed to have vanished. He looked at her with more softness in his face than she had seen for while. “Pet…” he said, and then was silent. Finally, he spoke again. “There is not much in this life one can count on, but we’ve got each other, haven’t we?” Overcome with the emotion of her thoughts and afraid of breaking down, she said nothing, nodding her head and squeezing his hand. Then he said, as an after thought: “Until death separates us. Anyway, I’m not quite dead yet, so tell me about Mrs. Stanton. What’s she up to now?”

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