Abraham Lincoln’s marriage to Mary Todd has been the subject of debate among historians for decades. Few presidential unions have been so misunderstood.
Saturday marks 181 years since the Lincolns’ wedding, a strikingly simple affair in the home of the bride’s sister. The ceremony was the culmination of a stormy courtship and the beginning of a marriage that, contrary to popular opinion, was stable and caring.
Samuel Wheeler, an acclaimed research historian in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, described the relationship between Abraham and Mary in succinct, positive terms.
“Theirs was a love story,” Wheeler said. “Not a perfect love story, but one nonetheless.”
Wheeler’s assessment is in response to many historians who have inaccurately depicted the Lincoln marriage as one of misery. William Herndon, Lincoln’s former law partner and controversial biographer, famously called the marriage “a domestic hell.”
Many others disagree, particularly those closest to the Lincolns.
The couple met in the fall of 1839 at a Springfield cotillion, when Lincoln approached young Mary and reportedly said, “Miss Todd, I want to dance with you in the worst way.”
At 30 years of age, he was nine years her senior.
Attractive, well-educated and well-mannered, Mary enjoyed many suitors, including Stephen A. Douglas and a grandson of Patrick Henry, of Revolutionary War “give me liberty or give me death” fame. In Springfield, she lived with her sister, Elizabeth Edwards, and brother-in-law Ninian, the son of a former governor.
The Todds were of high society in Lexington, Kentucky, and the thought of Mary with the uncultured Lincoln was not appealing to Elizabeth and other family members. Still, Elizabeth conceded the mutual attraction between the two.
“Elizabeth later said she used to watch Abraham and Mary as they were courting in the Edwards home,” Wheeler said. “Mary did all the talking while Abraham sat quietly gazing at her because, according to Elizabeth, Lincoln’s lack of education and culture hadn’t prepared him for someone like Mary.”
Wheeler said Lincoln was fearful of his prospects as a husband.
“I think Lincoln had some anxiety about being able to provide for a wife and family,” Wheeler said. “By the time he was courting Mary Todd, he was still somewhat of a struggling lawyer, and he knew by marrying her, there would be expectations about a certain level of lifestyle.”
Their dating relationship endured many ups and downs, including an argument on New Year’s Day 1841 that resulted in a breakup. In the weeks that followed, a distraught Lincoln recalled “the fatal first of January” and declared himself “the most miserable man living.”
The couple later resumed their relationship, often in secret. Their sudden announcement of marriage surprised Elizabeth, and the wedding on the rainy night of Friday, Nov. 4, 1842, was hastily arranged.
“The ceremony itself was extremely simple,” Wheeler said. “We’re told it was a spur-of-the-moment affair, and Elizabeth was annoyed that she didn’t have time to prepare a proper celebration.”
Lincoln did not line up his best man, circuit court employee James Matheny, until late in the afternoon of the ceremony. The bride wore a white muslin dress but no veil or flowers.
About 30 relatives and friends were in attendance at the wedding, which went smoothly except for one hitch. Standing behind Lincoln was state Supreme Court Justice Thomas Browne, who listened impatiently as the groom slipped the wedding ring on Mary’s finger and pledged, with legal jargon evident, “With this ring, I thee endow all my goods, chattels, lands and tenements.”
Browne, who was never known for tact, snapped, “The statute fixes that, Lord Jesus Christ, God almighty, Lincoln.”
The ring, however, was more solemn. Engraved inside the golden band were the words “love is eternal.” A celebratory dinner, with a wedding cake that was still warm, was then served before the Lincolns left for their new home, an 8-foot-by-14-foot room at the Globe Tavern, a two-story wooden structure in downtown Springfield. The rent was $4 a week.
On Aug. 1, 1843, the first of the four Lincoln sons, Robert Todd, was born – three days shy of nine months since the Lincolns’ marriage.
The Lincolns remained at the Globe for a year until briefly renting a four-room cottage nearby. The couple then bought their longtime home at Eighth and Jackson from the Rev. Charles Dresser, an Episcopalian who had performed their marriage ceremony, in 1844 for $1,500.
The Lincoln marriage proved a good match, as both shared intellect, ambition and mutual respect. The couple was holding hands in the presidential box at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, when John Wilkes Booth fired the bullet that took Lincoln’s life the next day. Mary, wracked with emotional instabilities, never recovered.
Wheeler discounted many claims that label the Lincoln marriage as unhappy and often blame Mary’s temperamental personality. He asserted that the marriage was mutually fulfilling for both husband and wife.
“Now, those who would argue that the marriage was pure bliss are also not quite honest with the evidence,” Wheeler said. “But Abraham and Mary’s marriage was a real one, complete with challenges and successes. Both were aware of each other’s faults and loved one another despite them.”
• Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Illinois. He can be reached at 217-710-8392 or [email protected].