Mary Todd Lincoln: From Slaveholder’s Daughter to Antislavery Advocate

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Todd Lincoln

As one of her biographers wrote, “history has not been kind to Mary Lincoln.” In fact, she experienced unpopularity during her years in the White House, partly because of her spending habits, but also because she had relatives fighting for the Confederacy. Though Mary had faults, she was loyal to her husband and the Union, and she became increasingly opposed to slavery.

Mary learned about slavery growing up in Kentucky. Her father’s involvement in state politics meant that his children heard political issues debated at home. One of these issues was slavery. Robert Todd opposed the trading of slaves among whites, which tore them from their relatives. Naively, he hoped that the practice of holding slaves would eventually die out.

His convictions did not, however, keep him from owning a few household slaves. One of these slaves, Aunt Sally, was a mother figure for Mary when her own mother died. When Mary heard a knocking outside one night, Sally explained that she had made a mark on the Todd’s fence to signal to runway slaves that they could stop there for food. Although she knew helping runaway slaves was illegal, Mary was thrilled that Sally shared a secret with her and never told anyone. Her father’s politics and her relationship with Aunt Sally gave Mary an unfavorable view of slavery that became stronger later in her life.

Shortly after she became First Lady and moved to Washington, Mary struck up a friendship with her African American dressmaker and former slave Elizabeth Keckly. When former slaves came flocking to the capital during the Civil War without food or a place to sleep, Elizabeth made it her mission to help them. Mary wrote to her husband, President Abraham Lincoln asking him to support her friend’s charity. She also made contributions herself. In a letter to her husband, she wrote, “She [Elizabeth] says the immense number of contrabands in Washington are suffering intensely, many without bed covering and having to use any bits of carpet to cover themselves—Many dying of want…I have given her the privilege of investing $200 here in bed covering…this sum, I am sure, you will not object to being used in this way—The cause of humanity requires it.”

Unaware of Mary’s growing antislavery feelings, radical abolitionist Jane Swisshelm expected Mary Lincoln to be a Confederate sympathizer. When they met at the White House in 1863, however, Swisshelm believed that Mary was “more radically opposed to slavery” than the President. By listening to her African American friend’s descriptions of suffering, Mary took up the cause of helping former slaves. Through this cause, Mary gained a perspective on slavery that most whites, including the President, did not have.