By Dr. Christopher Schnell
There’s a scene in ALPLM’s “Ghosts of the Library” where the historian finds hidden historical treasures in a box. Across the street at the library, life sometimes imitates art, as staff works to process legacy backlog materials and make them available for research and exhibit.
The other day I was working on an uncatalogued collection that was donated several years ago by a descendant of Robert S. Todd, Mary Lincoln’s father. The first thing that caught my eye was a letter I’d never seen before written by Robert Todd to his daughter Frances a few weeks before her May 1839 marriage to Springfield physician William Wallace. The letter is full of approval, advice, and admonishment for the young bride. Unfortunately, the out-of-touch and harried father mistakenly wrote “Dr. Walker” instead of “Dr. Wallace” throughout the letter! (Future fathers-in-law, I think this is on the list of things not to do when giving your wedding speech.)
Despite this gross miscue, Robert happily consented to the match and dutifully (and briefly) attempted to provide fatherly advice for the young bride.
I could if time sufficed, read you a long lecture on the duties of a wife … but I think you have good sense and discretion [enough] to know that your prospect for happiness [in] a married life depends on yourself; by observing towards him all deference & respect a kind & obliging demeanor, & a disposition to accommodate your wants to his circumstances in life …
Robert appears uncomfortable and forced into this role of providing parental advice, since his first wife, Frances’s mother Eliza, died in 1825. Frances’s stepmother, Elizabeth Humphreys Todd, famously ran the first Todd brood out of Robert’s Lexington house through terror and mistreatment. First Elizabeth, then Frances, Mary, and last Ann escaped to Springfield during the 1830s and 1840s. It is unlikely Frances would have received much motherly advice from Elizabeth Humphreys Todd so in this letter Robert tried to fill the role. He gives a healthy dose of white, middle-class male perspective: do what he says, smile a lot, and lower your expectations (at least at the outset).
Robert reflected some of this advice in his own family dynamic when he tells Frances that due to financial pressures he wouldn’t be coming to Springfield for the wedding. “Business presses me and the support and education of a large family admonishes me,” was one way of saying he had to work harder in his Lexington dry goods business to support a growing family. In 1839 Frances had three siblings and as many as six half-siblings that had yet to be “launched” from Robert and Elizabeth Humphrey Todd’s home.
Although it is hard to read since the line was scratched out at some point, Robert indicates in the letter that he enclosed a check for $150.00 to pay for “some necessary articles” for the wedding and to set up housekeeping (“I wish it was more” he added parenthetically). Even in this more traditional fatherly role, Robert was clearly unsettled by circumstances of distance, time, and finances. Robert had “no time to be idle,” to enjoy a family occasion in Springfield nor could he afford to support his daughter as he would have liked. He was caught between his older children from his first marriage and his growing family with Elizabeth (Robert and Elizabeth would eventually have nine children together).
Robert Todd ends the letter by inviting the young married couple to visit him in Lexington, suggesting that by that point he could afford to offer them further support. Frances would later testify in a case involving Robert’s estate that she and William received half the proceeds from the sale of cotton yarn (Robert was a dry goods merchant), “fifty or sixty dollars,” as well as a quantity of tea and table spoons worth “thirty dollars.” Gifts small and large trickled in over the years, including $40.00 cash, forks and knives, and ultimately Frances received a direct gift of 80 acres of undeveloped land in Sangamon County.
Robert Todd's signature
Around the time Frances married William Wallace, Mary Todd moved to Springfield for good, taking Frances’s place in the Edwards’s home. Does this letter convey some of the same self-conscious and patriarchal advice that Mary may have received from Robert when she and Abraham were preparing to take their vows? She certainly had received a dose of “don’t expect too much and happiness will follow” advice from her home life in Lexington (from which she fled). Both Frances and Mary started their married lives under cramped circumstances in Springfield’s Globe Tavern before they moved their expanding families into homes slightly further from the city-center. The Lincoln’s eventually attained comfortable circumstances at 8th and Jackson with Mary’s careful house management and the income from Abraham’s expanding law practice.
The Springfield grave of Frances Todd Wallace
What of financial support from her father? Mary later declared in her father’s estate litigation that she did not receive a monetary wedding gift but remembered receiving periodic financial support not exceeding $200.00 during the years before her marriage to Abraham. A few years after their wedding, Mary also later obtained a direct gift of land and $25.00 in gold.
As usual a new source often raises more questions than provides answers, but then sometimes the best treasures are the ones that revive long-running discussions and inquiry. Next time I’ll focus on the second compelling new item from the same donation, a previously unknown Mary Lincoln note that includes a mystery about a doll and the Baker family.
(All this background knowledge comes from somewhere: two excellent biographies of Mary Lincoln, Jean Baker’s and Stacy Pratt McDermott’s; the wonderfully detailed Richard Lawrence Miller’s Lincoln and his World: Prairie Politician, 1834-1842; and my favorite internet site about Lincoln’s law practice fourteen years and running: www.LawPracticeOfAbrahamLincoln.org.)
Christopher Schnell is the ALPLM manuscripts manager.