Mary Todd Lincoln House and Lincoln Memory

The Lincoln Marriage

            Mary Todd Lincoln was Abraham Lincoln’s wife from 1842 to his assassination in 1865. Their marriage is well known for its volatility from the start. Mary was educated, intensely ambitious, loyal, and partisan. She frequently voiced her opinion in Abraham’s political affairs, so much in fact, that Abraham called off their engagement in January 1841, likely due to Mary’s criticisms.[1] He remained loyal to her, though, and they wed in November 1842. Although it almost ended their marriage, Mary’s political input and loyalty was instrumental in the events leading up to and after Abraham’s election in 1860. In fact, the term “first lady” first came into use during her tenure in the White House because of her political aptitude.[2] Because memory is processual and allows for retrospective reinterpretation of sites, her house is reinterpreted in terms of her later political accreditation, even though her political life really started when she left.

Historians agree that the pressure of war weighed heavily on the Lincoln’s, and caused their marriage to dissolve. Amidst the national and political strife Abraham dealt with, Mary faced public criticism for her questionable White House expenditures, connections to the Confederacy—or Union depending on who’s criticizing—and struggle to maintain total partisan loyalty to her husband’s policies. She lived for seventeen years after Abraham’s assassination, and in that time lost two more sons, began practicing spiritualism and became mentally ill. Her depression and erratic behavior were cited when she was institutionalized for one year in 1875. After her release, Mary faced declining mental and physical health that effected her well being until her death in 1882. [3]

The Mary Todd Lincoln House in Lexington, Kentucky

MaryToddLincolnHouse_000            Affluent businessman and politician Robert Todd moved his family to the downtown Lexington brick house in 1832. Mary Todd Lincoln, then simply Mary Todd, spent her formative years in this home, from 1832 to 1839, when she moved to Springfield, Illinois and met Abraham Lincoln. These DiningRoomattheMaryToddLincolnHousemodern images of the Mary Todd Lincoln House help illustrate the type of upper-class, urban lifestyle that Mary Todd enjoyed in in this house and community. As a teenager, she attended parties with prominent Kentucky politicians such as family friend Henry Clay, and advanced her interest in Whig politics. She also studied French and literature under her private teacher Charlotte Mentelle while at the house.[4] Along with their astute political and financial education, the Todd’s possessed financial capital that solidified their place in the Lexington gentry. The 1830 and 1840 US censuses show that the Todd family owned between five and ten household slaves varying in age and gender during that time.[5] In fact, following the outbreak of Civil War, eight Todd’s joined the Confederacy, while six others, including Mary remained loyal the Union. Abraham too had relatives that sympathized with the confederacy and owned slaves. Although Mary had already left in 1839, the Todd household, much like the Lincoln’s and the Union, was a house divided. The connection between Mary’s house divided and Abraham’s house divided is one way the Mary Todd Lincoln House functions as a site of Abraham Lincoln memory. This connection will be analyzed later on.


“Death, Mourning, and Mrs. Lincoln”

            To commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the assassination of President Lincoln, the Mary Todd Lincoln House organization will be hosting evening tours on April 14th and 15th to remember both the date of his shooting and his death. According to the organization, the guided tours feature artifacts and other primary sources from Mary that shed light on 19th century American mourning and funerary practices.[6] This event challenges the collective memory of the highly publicized national events of mourning for the assassinated president as his Funeral Train travelled to Illinois. University of Pennsylvania Journalism Professor Barbie Zelizer would argue that this event shows the partiality of memory. According to Zelizer, all collective memory is partial. There is no objective truth, and memories of events are always biased. Everyone attributes what Zelizer calls their own particular meaning to events, and together, communities create universal meaning from memories.[7] This event challenges the universal memory of Lincoln’s assassination by asserting the particular memory of it by his most intimate and loyal partner.

Lincoln’s Funeral Train carried the deceased president’s casket from Washington DC to his final resting place outside of Springfield, Illinois. The funeral events hosted along the way were highly aestheticized. Organizers relied on extensive embalming work to keep Lincoln respectable, although it was not always successful. Green patches appeared his face as his corpse withered, and would be embalmed before his next opening.[8] The Funeral Train also called for military and police escorts and the distribution of black bunting over prominent buildings to honor Lincoln’s death. Because Lincoln’s assassination was and is duly linked to his ultimate success in preserving the Union, his funeral needed to stand for his success as well. So, to portray him as the envisioned ideal that he stood for, the Funeral Train functioned more as a celebration of Lincoln’s success. Manipulation of aesthetics allowed the Funeral Train organizers to control the meaning and memory of mourning President Lincoln. Contrastingly, “Death, Mourning, and Mrs. Lincoln” represents Mary’s particular account of mourning Abraham’s death. It challenges the notion that the mourning of President Lincoln was uniform and celebratory, focusing on Mary’s mental collapse and reactionary practice of spiritualism.


The Lincolns’ House Divided

          Aside from the event to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the presence of the Mary Todd Lincoln House as it stands today casts light on the issue of making and manipulating meaning in Lincoln’s memory. While it stands as a testament to the proximity and scope of Lincoln’s “house divided” threat in that it represents the Lincoln’s marital and national struggles, it also facilitates the image of Lincoln as a blue-collar, rural man. The urban, slave owning Lexington household that Mary Todd grew up in is diametrically opposed to the rural, self-reliant log cabin home that is so prevalent in Lincoln memory.

It is thus questionable that the museum, which opened in 1977, appropriates the Lincoln name in the first place, given its confederate background. Columbia University Journalism Professor Michael Schudson calls the process of naming sites or events of the past based on modern information, retrospective nominalization.[9] Any physical evidence of slave ownership at the Mary Todd Lincoln House has been effaced from the area.[10] This can be linked to Abraham’s ability to conquer the divided union over the issue of slavery. Evidence of slave ownership linked to the Lincoln family challenges the collective memory of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator. So, the inclusion of the Lincoln name at the southern site could be an example of retrospective nominalization to the extent that it represents his triumph over the confederate cause of slavery and its expansion.

Given that the mTodd_House_Lexington_kentucky_markerIMG_0625useum focuses on the Lincolns’ marriage from Mary and her family’s perspective, the naming of the site can be viewed as retrospective nominalization in that it also represents Abraham Lincoln’s ability to conquer his marital ‘house divided.’ The memory site has been named the Mary Todd Lincoln House since its opening in 1977. However, until 2008 when it was corrected, a historical marker outside the museum read “Todd House.” The inclusion of the Mary’s Lincoln family name in the title infers the preservation of their union as well, despite their tumultuous relationship. Along with the name the name, symbolic ownership of the site changes hands from the Todd’s to Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and in doing so, recreates the meaning and message of the site.

Once a symbol of the sectional issues that divided brothers and sisters of the Union, the meaning of the Mary Todd Lincoln House was manipulated and recreated through the appropriation of the Lincoln family name. In the end, the museum challenges collective Lincoln memory to the extent that Mary’s particular memories and experiences of mourning are juxtaposed with the collective memory of mourning for the president. Although, it also facilitates the collective memory of Lincoln to the extent that his name carries symbolic weight as the Great Emancipator and conqueror of his divided marriage and Union.


Works Cited

Caption at the Todd House. 2014. Lexington, KY. Web. 15 Apr. 2015. <>.

Clinton, Catherine. “Wife versus Widow: Clashing Perspectives on Mary Lincoln’s Legacy.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 28.1 (2007): 1-19. JSTOR. Web. 8 Apr. 2015.

Craddock, Sara. Mary Todd Lincoln House. 2010. Lexington, KY. Web. 15 Apr. 2015. <>.

Dining Room. N.d. Mary Todd Lincoln House, Lexington, KY. Web. 15 Apr. 2015. <>.

Marr, Timothy. Davie Hall, Chapel Hill. 15 Apr. 2015. Lecture.

“Mary Todd Lincoln House.” Mary Todd Lincoln House. Kentucky Mansions Preservation Foundation, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2015. <>.

Mary Todd Lincoln House. N.d.

Schudson, Michael. “Dynamics of Distortion in Collective Memory.” Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past (1995): 346-378. Sakai. Web. 9 Apr. 2015

The Mary Todd Lincoln House Faces Main Street in Downtown Lexington. N.d. Mary Todd Lincoln House, Lexington, KY. Web. 15 Apr. 2015. <>.

Zelizer, Barbie. “Reading the Past Against the Greain: The Shape of Memory Studies.” Critical Studies in Mass Communications (1995): 214-39. Sakai. Web. 8 Apr. 2015.

[1] Catherine Clinton, “Wife versus Widow: Clashing Perspectives on Mary Lincoln’s Legacy,” 4.

[2] Clinton, 5.

[3] Mary Todd Lincoln House, “Biography,”

[4] Mary Todd Lincoln House, “Biography”

[5] Mary Todd Lincoln House, “African Americans in the Todd Household,”

[6] Mary Todd Lincoln House, “Events,”

[7] Barbie Zelizer, “Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies,” 224/230.

[8] Professor Tim Marr, AMST 384 Lecture, April 15, 2015

[9] Michael Schudson, “Dynamics of Distortion in Collective Memory,” 359.

[10] Mary Todd Lincoln House, “African Americans in the Todd Household”

1 thought on “Mary Todd Lincoln House and Lincoln Memory

  1. Kelly Lucas

    This post was very interesting and enlightening. I had no idea that Mary Todd was our first ‘first lady’ nor did I know about the volatility of her and Lincoln’s relationship. When our nation remembers Lincoln’s legacy, there is very little memory about Mary Todd attached. Due to the important role she played in his political career as an advisor, this should not be the case. Thank you for teaching me something new! Great job!

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