Before she would go on to become Abraham Lincoln’s wife and America’s most famous first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln spent her childhood in an affluent household located in Lexington. Her childhood home now serves as a museum where over 14,000 guests come to visit the historic Mary Todd Lincoln House and learn about her biography every year.
Born in Lexington in 1818, Mary was just a young girl when she moved into the house in 1832 with her father Robert Todd, her stepmother and siblings. Her birthplace no longer stands so the Mary Todd Lincoln House is the most significant property that exists associated with the first lady’s childhood.
Abraham Lincoln visited the house when he and Mary had been married for five years. Still to this day, the house is well-preserved and has many original furnishings and family possessions.
“The Mary Todd Lincoln House is unique because we have a lot of different elements of significance. The property is over 200 years old so it’s one of the oldest buildings in Lexington,” said Gwen Thompson, the museum’s executive director. “It’s the childhood home of a First Lady. There are not that many historic sites that have their significance because of a woman so we’re a women’s history site. We’re also an Abraham Lincoln presidential site and a Civil War site and we’re a Kentucky history site as well.”
Mary was well educated and quite the contrast to her husband’s humble beginnings and formal education due to their socioeconomic status. But after moving to Springfield, Illinois where she would meet her husband and go on to have four boys, being a devoted wife and mother became central to her identity and purpose.
The Lincolns were the first presidential couple to take young children into the White House and had to balance their role as president and first lady while also being parents to their small sons. They were devoted to their kids and not known to be big disciplinarians, according to Thompson. Their sons would run and play throughout the White House and had pet goats, played soldier and perform their own circus.
But life wasn’t without drama for Mary. Her family was very divided during the Civil War with some supporting the Confederacy and some supporting the Union. When she grew as a public figure, so did the criticism.
“Mary Todd Lincoln, like most public figures, had competing perspectives on her. There are those who love her today and those who do not love her today. That was the case even in the past,” Thompson said. “She was not a universally beloved figure. She wasn’t a universally reviled figure. Some of the things she was most criticized for were used as ways to criticize Lincoln and his administration. They were public figures and Lincoln wasn’t the universally beloved figure that he is today. One of the things she faced criticism for was the decorating of the White House. She was accused of being extravagant and during the war, she had family members who were Confederates and this was used as a way to question her loyalties.”
Tragedy would become synonymous with Mary’s life. She lost three of her four sons before they turned 18 including one who died while they were living in the White House and she also witnessed her husband’s assassination, which she struggled to overcome.
What would become the most controversial event in Mary’s life was her institutionalization, which her oldest son Robert initiated due to his perception of erratic behavior while the motive is up for debate. Thompson welcomes these fascinating discussions and theories at the museum. Nothing is off limits.
“Her life was full of so much drama. It’s unbelievable that one person experienced so much from her extraordinary privilege kind of Downton Abbey childhood to becoming first lady to all of the losses that she experienced,” Thompson said. “It’s the stuff of fiction. But it’s non-fiction. It was her life. It’s so incredible to get to tell that story and explorer the various perspectives on her at the Mary Todd Lincoln House.”
The Mary Todd Lincoln House will host an all-day event on Feb. 19, 2018 in celebration of Presidents’ Day that’s geared toward children from age 5-10 (all children are welcome) where games and activities will be set up throughout the home. This year’s theme is “Presidential pastime” so children will play games that were popular during the Lincolns’ era and enjoy storytelling as well.
To plan your day around Presidents’ Day closures, click here.
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