Mary Todd's 'Unladylike Profession'

4/6/2021 nlc

By Dr. Christopher Schnell

We last left Mary Todd dealing with some hard bargains: weighing life decisions about partners, politics, and where she wanted to live (see Mary Todd's Hard Bargains). Under discussion was the earliest known letter of the future FLOTUS, written while she visited the home of her uncle David Todd in Columbia, Mo., during the summer of 1840.

ALPLM also has the second-earliest known letter by Mary, written to her friend Mercy Levering in mid-December 1840. It is a letter frustratingly plucked by fate from the context of a longer conversation between these two young women of the white middle-class antebellum Midwest. Like the letter from Columbia, this one includes incidents of Mary’s social life, but this time, writing from Springfield, Mary updates Mercy about their circle of mutual friends. Alongside brief references to Joshua Speed, Abraham Lincoln, Edwin Webb, James Conkling, and newcomer Matilda Edwards, Mary notes the recent end to a very exciting political season:

"I suppose like the rest of us Whigs — though you seem rather to doubt my faith — you have been rejoicing in the recent election of Gen Harrison, a cause that has excited such deep interest in the nation and one of such vital importance to our prosperity. This fall I became quite a politician, rather an unladylike profession, yet at such a crisis, whose heart could remain untouched while the energies of all were called in question?"


A section of the second-oldest known letter by Mary Todd, written to her friend Mercy Levering. The text quoted above is highlighted. (ALPLM)

The political campaign that elected Whig candidate William Henry Harrison over Democrat Martin Van Buren is often regarded as one of the most exciting in history. In 1840, a struggling economy, expanded white male suffrage, a galvanized electorate of reform-minded Whigs, and the powerful Democratic party organization all combined to result in high voter turnout. However, in 1840 only white men were allowed to vote while white women, people of color, and unnaturalized immigrants could not.

In recent years historians have also singled out this election as a first in terms of the involvement of women in campaign activities. Women who supported Harrison actively entered the political landscape typically reserved for men. While Whig party delegates marched to the Illinois state convention, a small town contingent of Whig women adorned their route with a flowered arch bearing a Harrison banner. In Springfield, during the state Whig convention in June 1840, women watched the parade of an estimated 10,000 county delegates and attendees. The all-male delegations waved flags and banners sewed by women from across the state. Along the route women cheered, sang campaign songs, and waved white handkerchiefs.

At the convention’s concluding barbecue dinner, typically a male-dominated cultural scene with drinking and stump-speaking, a nearby house with its parlor and shaded porch was reserved for women. At the barbeque Mary’s uncle John Todd introduced his aged mother-in-law who knew William Henry Harrison as a young man. She told the crowd (including newspaper reporters) that General Harrison was raised in a virtuous manner, lending his candidacy further support.

Detail from a Whig campaign newspaper. Whig candidate William Henry Harrison's nickname was "the Old Soldier." Abraham Lincoln helped publish the newspaper. (ALPLM)

Their role was supportive, but instead of being limited to home-bound means like family education and moral uplift, Whig women, many of them young and unmarried, made statements with their very presence in the performative aspects of the 1840 “Log Cabin and hard cider” political campaign.

Mary Todd grabbed this opportunity with zeal and leveraged her family connections to further her involvement in the campaign. The previous winter her uncle, David Todd, had attended the Whig national convention in Harrisburg, Pa., and according to Todd family lore he was on the committee that presented Harrison with the nomination. In June 1840, Todd addressed the Illinois state convention (and joined his brother John at the barbecue). He then left Springfield to go home to Missouri to preside over the Missouri state convention in July. Mary accompanied her uncle, a veteran of the War of 1812 who served under Harrison’s command, on a mission to drum up support for Harrison in Missouri. With him, Mary attended many of the social functions that led up to the three-day Missouri convention in Rochefort. Back in Springfield that fall, Mary attended impromptu Whig rallies at the local newspaper office which served as a campaign headquarters for the local Whigs.

Whigs were able to rally around their candidate, but Democrats held the line in Illinois and Missouri. While the results may have been mixed, Mary and certain other local Whigs like Abraham Lincoln, were energized. In the coming years, as they grew closer, Mary and Abraham bonded over partisan politics. This seamless mixture of family, social circle, and party politics was perhaps a regular feature for men but only nascent and transitional for white middle-class women. This spelled trouble for Mary Lincoln in the coming years where she was often seen as overstepping her assigned social roles as mother, wife, and hostess.

Enthusiasm for women’s direct involvement in politics waned after 1840 but Mary never stopped delving into the “unladylike profession.”

(This essay draws heavily from the work of Kenneth J. Winkle, “’An Unladylike Profession,’ Mary Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness,” in eds. Frank J. Williams and Michael Burkhimer, The Mary Lincoln Enigma: Historians on America’s Most Controversial First Lady (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012), 82-111.)

Schnell is the ALPLM's manuscripts manager.

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