Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd – a complicated love story

Lincoln and Mary Todd, a love story

Lincoln and Mary Todd have a complicated love story. The pairs could not have more different backgrounds. Lincoln came from a poor, farming family while Mary Todd came from a wealthy, powerful, slave-owning family.

On the surface, these two seemed like an odd match (even physically they were very different). However, they found common ground in the pain and hardships of their life, as well as their interests. Both had an unquenchable desire to learn and to live a great life. This common ground would become the foundation of a relationship that would take the couple to the White House and last through the American Civil War.

While that relationship was far from perfect, it is, nonetheless, a love story for the ages.

The Story of Abraham Lincoln

The story of Abraham Lincoln is an incredible tale. Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, near Hodgenville, KY. His father, Thomas Lincoln, was a farmer who married Nancy Hanks in 1806. Abraham Lincoln believed his mother had been born out of wedlock, which she likely was.

When Abraham was seven, Thomas Lincoln moved his family across the Ohio River to southern Indiana. Not long after arriving in Indiana, Nancy Lincoln drank cow’s milk and came down with the “milk sickness.” His mother died in October 1818, when Abraham was only nine

After this, Thomas married Sarah Bush Johnston. Sarah had a major impact on Lincoln’s life. She was loving and nurturing and Lincoln returned the affection.

Ronald White wrote, “Even as Sarah Bush Lincoln became a binding force between the two stepfamilies, an unbinding was occurring between Abraham and his father Thomas.”

Dennis Hanks, a cousin who lived with the Lincoln family stated, “I have seen his father knock him down.” Hanks also stated, “The old man loved his children.”

Abraham was much different than his father. He preferred to read than work in the field. Lincoln would use his free time to study and read. He eventually received the equivalent of a sixth-grade education. However, Lincoln wanted to learn more.

Dennis Hanks remembers that Lincoln was “hungry for books Reading anything he could get his hands on.” Any opportunityLincoln had, he would read the Bible,  Aesop’s Fables, Pilgrim’s Progress, Parson Weems’ Biography of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, and William Shakespeare.

However, Thomas preferred that his son work in the fields rather than read. When Lincoln was thirteen or fourteen years old, Thomas hired Abraham to work on neighboring farms. Thomas would then take his money from Abraham, which Abe disagreed with. It was around this time that Lincoln began to split rails.

When Lincoln was nineteen, he was hired to take a cargo flatboat down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. He spent several days in New Orleans before heading back to Indiana.

In March 1830, his father again moved, this time to Illinois. Lincoln was twenty but he agreed to help his family move. It was around this time that Lincoln gave his first political speech.

Over time, Lincoln grew apart from his father. Lincoln was full of ambition and saw his dad as the opposite. When Thomas was dying, Lincoln said he could not go see his father because he was too busy. David Herbert Donald said about Lincoln and his father’s relationship, “In all his published writings, and indeed even in reports of hundreds of stories and conversations, Lincoln had not one favorable word to say about his father.”

After going out on his own, Lincoln made another flatboat trip taking cargo down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. During this trip, he stayed in New Orleans for two months. This was Lincoln’s first encounter with slavery.

When he went back to Illinois, Lincoln began working as a clerk in New Salem. However, in the spring of 1832, the store began to fail. In response, friends encouraged Lincoln to enter the race for the state legislature. Lincoln began to campaign but was cut short by the Black Hawk War. Lincoln was then elected captain of the New Salem volunteers.

After this, Lincoln ran again for the Illinois state legislature, however, he failed to win a seat. For the next five years, Lincoln struggled with various jobs, such as a grocery store that failed and also working as a surveyor.

In 1834 following these failures, Lincoln began campaigning for the state legislature as a Whig.  He was successful this time and won a seat. Lincoln was then re-elected in 1836, 1838, 1840, and 1844.

Lincoln became an ardent supporter of the Whig party while he was serving in the legislature. He became a major follower and supporter of Henry Clay. Clay was known as the “Great Compromiser.” He created compromises such as the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850. He also drafted and passed legislation that ended the Nullification Crisis and even attempted to run for president. Clay was the most famous Whig in the nation and was the leader and founder of the party.

Lincoln also decided to study law and become a lawyer. In 1837, Lincoln moved from New Salem to Springfield to pursue and practice law. He saw this as a logical step from writing laws to practicing law. He was encouraged by John Todd Stuart, Mary Todd’s cousin, to begin studying and practicing law (Youngdahl, 2013).

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Elizabeth Todd was born on December 13, 1818, in Lexington, Kentucky. Ronald White wrote, “By the time that Mary was eighteen, she was considered by her friends, female and male, a pretty young woman. Five feet, two inches tall with soft brown hair. She had a broad forehead, a small upturned nose, blue eyes, and a rosy complexion. Mary exhibited strong-minded determination to get her way and the inner circle of her family knew her temper and her tongue. A prominent chin gave the impression of a resolute personality. Her hands darted impulsively in gestures as she spoke.”

Mary’s sister, Elizabeth, also commented on Mary Todd and stated, “Mary was quickly, lively, gay – frivolous it may be” (Winkle, 2011).

The Todd family was a wealthy, leading Kentucky family. This meant that Mary Todd grew up with wealth and privilege that was quite opposite of her future husband Abraham Lincoln. When she was six years old, her mother passed away while giving birth to her seventh child.

Two years later, when Mary Todd was eight years old, her father married a wealthy woman from Frankfurt, KY. Mary’s new mother gave birth to nine more children and gave preferential treatment to her own children rather than to her adopted ones.

This resulted in Mary Todd being quite unhappy as a child. Her father tended to not be around as he would leave frequently for business. Therefore Mary Todd was left with her stepmother who had a rather unfavorable view of Mary and her siblings.

However, while Mary Todd did not have her mother and her father was often gone, Mr. Todd did do something unusual for his daughters. The head of the Todd clan encouraged his children to go to school and receive an education, rather unusual for women at this time. This led to her receiving a classical education and learning the French language.

The Todd family was one of the most prominent families in Kentucky and were also members of the Whig party. Because of this support for the party and their status in the state of Kentucky, the Todd family were friends of Henry Clay.

Since her family was wealthy and well connected to the Whig party, Mary Todd also received a political education. This set her apart furthermore from her female peers in Kentucky at the time.

Since Mary Todd was raised in Lexington, KY, she was also familiar with slavery and saw it on a daily basis. The Todd family owned slaves and Mary Todd passed the slave market of Lexington every day as she went to school.

Visit to Springfield

Mary Todd then decided to visit her older sister Elizabeth, amongst other relatives, in Springfield, Illinois. Elizabeth was married to the son of the governor of Illinois. Her sister Francis and her uncle, Dr. John Todd, also lived there. In addition to these relatives, Mary Todd also visited her cousins, including John Todd Stuart who was Lincoln’s law partner.

When Mary visited Illinois, she gained the attention of several men who were eager to court her. Among these suitors was Stephen Douglas. The two were often seen around the town of Springfield together.

Lincoln met Mary Todd at a dance in Springfield in December 1839 (Youngdahl, 2013). This dance was held at the American House and was a highly anticipated event (Winkle, 2011). However, Lincoln had his eye on her for a while when he stated, “Miss Todd, I want to dance with you in the worst way.” He did so even though he hated dancing and when he danced he looked like “old father Jupiter bending down from the clouds to see what was going on.”

This must have been quite a sight since there was a one-foot height difference between the couple. In addition to this physical difference between Lincoln and Mary Todd, there was also a social difference. The Todd family was both wealthy and well-connected. This was much different than the hardscrabble background of poor farming that Lincoln came from. Lincoln once commented on the wealth and influence of the Todd family, stating, “One ‘d’ was enough for God’s name, but not for the Todd’s” (Youngdahl, 2013).

The Todd family was well aware of this social difference between the couple and were not shy to address it. Elizabeth Edwards, Mary’s sister, said about Lincoln that he, “Could not hold a lengthy Conversation with a lady – was not sufficiently Educated and intelligent in the female line to do so” (Winkle, 2011).

However, while there were many differences between the pair, there were also similarities. Both valued and worked hard toward learning. Both were fans of poetry and both were interested in politics. In addition to this, both Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd lost their mothers at a young age (Youngdahl, 2013). As mentioned, Mary lost her mother at the age of six and Abraham lost her mother at the age of nine. This was another similarity that brought the two together.

In 1840, Lincoln became the main suitor of Ms. Todd.

The Most Miserable Man Alive

However, despite the growing courtship, by the end of 1840, the relationship quickly fell apart. Lincoln became deeply melancholic after this split (Youngdahl, 2013). This split has become a very contentious issue and one that has been subject to much speculation.

After Abraham Lincoln was killed at Ford’s Theater, his former law partner, William Herndon, created a story about why the couple split. While Herndon should have been able to give us an accurate story of what happened, he failed to do so.

Herndon said that Lincoln had left Mary Todd at the altar. However, what is most likely to have truly happened is that Lincoln and Todd were not quite ready to tie the knot and decided that splitting was the best decision.

From 1841 to 1842, Abraham Lincoln and Todd were distant from one another. Mary herself stated that Lincoln “deems me unworthy of notice, as I have not met him in the gay world for months.”

Lincoln himself fell into a melancholic spell during this time. While he lost Todd, he also lost his friend, Joshua Speed, when he moved back to Kentucky.

Abraham Lincoln went so far as to write his former law partner and Mary’s cousin, John Todd Stuart, and state, “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. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not.”

Abraham Lincoln continued by stating, “To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”

Lincoln’s melancholy during this time even began to affect his job. The Kentucky-born man began calling into the state legislature sick and missed an entire week of work and he also failed to accomplish his work duties (Winkle, 2011).


Despite their split, Mary Todd was still passionate about Lincoln. However, it was not until a friend intervened that the couple was reunited. In 1842, the wife of Simon Francis, a local newspaper editor, decided to repair the shattered relationship. The woman invited both Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd to her house. The catch was that the two did not know the other would be there. This plan was ultimately successful as they rekindled their courtship.

A Shotgun Wedding

This courtship continued until November 4, 1842, when they decided they would marry that day. It was that same morning that Lincoln found the reverend Charles Dresser while he was eating breakfast and said, “I want to get hitched tonight.”

Elizabeth Edwards, Mary’s sister, insisted that the wedding take place at their home. A friend stated, “Mr and Mrs Edwards knew nothing of the wedding until the morning of the day.”

Another person who was at the wedding stated, “Only meager preparations could be made on so-short notice & only a few friends were present” (Winkle, 2011). So, at 7 p.m. on November 4, 1842, Lincoln and Todd were married (Youngdahl, 2013).

A week after the wedding, Lincoln told a friend, “Nothing new here, except my marrying, which to me, is a matter of profound wonder.”

The newly married couple then rented a single room at the Globe Tavern. This room was 8 feet by 14 feet. They took their meals with their fellow boarders. Mary Todd Lincoln was not too fond of this situation as she was used to living well and in wealth. However, now she was eating with strangers and living in a small, one-bedroom boarding house.

Mary Todd Lincoln was also pregnant at the time. This has led to much speculation as to the real reason for their marriage.

The Reason for Marriage

(This was included in the article but is not stating that this is the definite reason they were married. Rather this hypothesis is explored for the entertainment and sake of the reader).

Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln were married on November 4, 1842. Their first child, Robert Todd Lincoln, was born on August 1, 1843. This was several days shy of 9 months (Youngdahl, 2013). This was very unusual for this time.

Couples in the 1800s generally waited two years before they had children (Winkle, 2011). On his wedding day, Lincoln had two groomsmen. One of those groomsmen stated that Lincoln told him he was forced into the marriage.

Lincoln also shared a lot with his friend Orville Browning. Browning later said that he believed that Mary Todd had pursued Lincoln quite vigorously and that if he had his druthers he would not have married her.

The most striking evidence that Mary Todd Lincoln had possibly trapped Abraham Lincoln into marriage was that they got married with just one day’s notice. This was a very rushed wedding which was strange for someone of Mary’s social class. Another piece of evidence was that on his wedding day, Lincoln was asked where he was going and he stated, “To hell I suppose.”

Lincoln was also known to pardon soldiers during the American Civil War. A story that supports this hypothesis is a Union army soldier who deserted to go marry his sweetheart. He did so because he heard that his fiance was flirting with another man. When Abraham Lincoln heard of this, he said that he would pardon him, and in a year the soldier would wish he hadn’t.

However, while there is some evidence to support the idea that Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln got married to cover up a premarital baby, there is no way to know for sure. This is a hypothesis that is being investigated but will likely never have a clear answer.

Married Life

The couple then moved and rented a small cottage. After this, in 1844, they purchased a home on 8th and Jackson streets in Springfield, Illinois. This was the same home that Lincoln had burst into declaring that he wanted to get married.

In May 1844, they moved into this new home. They had several remodeling projects done and added to the house. This was the only home that Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln owned and were their home for the next 17 years.

Their second child was born there in March 1846. However, at three years of age, he became sick and died. The cause of death was likely tuberculosis. The Lincolns had two more sons: Willy and Tad.

Willy was born in 1850 and died of typhoid in 1862 while living in the White House during the Civil War.

Thomas Lincoln was born in 1853 and suffered from a speech impediment which resulted in him being spoiled greatly. However, he died at the age of 18.

Robert Lincoln lived to be 82 and passed away in 1926 after dedicating the Lincoln Memorial.

Works Cited

Youngdahl, R. (Host). (2013, March 3). #16 Abraham Lincoln (Part the First) (No. 16) [Audio Podcast] In The Civil War (1861-1865) A History Podcast http://civilwarpodcast.libsyn.com/-16-the-civil-war-1861-1865-a-history-podcast

Youngdahl, R. (Host). (2013, March 17). #17 Abraham Lincoln (Part the Second) (No. 17) [Audio Podcast] In The Civil War (1861-1865) A History Podcast http://civilwarpodcast.libsyn.com/-16-the-civil-war-1861-1865-a-history-podcast

Winkle KJ. Abraham and Mary Lincoln. [Electronic Resource]. Southern Illinois University Press; 2011. Accessed May 31, 2022. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.uakron.edu:2443/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat02173a&AN=akr.b5683607&site=eds-live

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