Mary Todd's Hard Bargains

1/11/2021 cbw

By Dr. Christopher Schnell

One of more engaging primary sources at the ALPLM comes from the Lincoln Family papers, a letter written by Mary Todd to her friend Mercy Levering. Written on July 23, 1840, when she was twenty-one years old, it is the earliest known letter by the future First Lady. It presents the reader with a rare and unusual glimpse into the social and family life of this young person and suggests the wider cultural and political contexts in which she and her peers, Abraham Lincoln among them, operated. 

Mary Lincoln's letter, written in criss-cross style so she could cram more words onto each page

During the summer of 1840 Mary had taken temporary residence with her uncle Judge David Todd in Columbia, Missouri. Looking for a place to live, she had previously left her native Lexington, Ky., to test out Springfield in 1837 and again in 1839-1840, where she plugged herself into the svibrant social world of her sister Elizabeth Edwards’s home. Now she gave central Missouri a look. There she entered the established social network of the former territorial judge and leading Whig politician. David’s daughter Ann became her new confidant.

It was an “agreeable visitation” and the Missouri River region was “certainly most beautiful.” Mary found river towns exciting places and favored nearby Boonville. But ultimately the magnetic pull of social contacts in Springfield had her making plans to return.

Mary wrote to her friend Mercy Levering whom she had gotten to know the previous winter in Springfield. The letter is chock full of confidences and reads like one half of an all-night conversation between two young people very much interested in their new environments and the people inhabiting them. Mary relates the many doings of Todd family members she’d encountered, the hospitality of her uncle’s friends and neighbors, parties, dances, dinners, and suitors. There are many things that stand out here (and many, many more things to speculate about), but here I want to look at the following passage that has always intrigued me:

There is one being here, who cannot brook the mention of my return, an agreeable lawyer & grandson of Patrick Henry — what an honor! Shall never survive it. I wish you could see him, the most perfect original I had ever met, my beaux have always been hard bargains at any rate, Uncle and others think, he surpasses his noble ancestor in talents, yet Merce I love him not, & my hand will never be given, where my heart is not.

James Winston was the eighth child of Dorothea Spotswood Winston, Patrick Henry’s first child by his second wife Dorothea Dandridge Henry. Patrick Henry had many grandchildren. To my knowledge James Winston was the only Henry grandchild to make a lengthy stay in Missouri. He moved there in the 1830s and lived there the rest of his life. He was also in nearby Boonville during the time of Mary’s visit and participated in Whig political meetings during the summer of 1840. Winston and David Todd operated in the same judicial circuit and political circle.

Winston seems to fit right in with the “hard bargains” we know of that were most likely candidates for Mary Todd's affection, including Stephen Douglas, Edwin “Bat” Webb, and Abraham Lincoln. Douglas was the Democratic star of Illinois, engaging but wrong for this daughter of Henry Clay’s Lexington. Webb was an older widower and truly seems an odd fit for her. Although she would later admit to maintaining a flirting relationship with Webb, Mary could never get past his advanced age and “sweet little objections” (children).

While it doesn’t seem like it was going to happen between Mary and James, it is interesting to look at his “type” from her perspective. Born in Virginia or North Carolina around 1815, Winston’s early life appears to track more closely to Lincoln’s. Winston was a self-educated lawyer-politician, a young man trying to rise in the world through work before the bar and through elected or appointed office. Reminiscences, drawn heavily from oral tradition, also fit a type, they describe him as “a rough diamond … unadorned” but with great skill as a “natural orator.” He didn’t care about his dress but was witty and quick on his feet, a famous “punster.” He was also popular, “a sterling Whig” who got along in the Democratic strongholds of Boons Lick Country.

Unlike his Illinois rivals, however, Winston seemed to be ambivalent about political success. He had a long tenure as Cooper County state’s attorney and a single term as state senator but was a failed candidate for Congress and governor. In the latter, in 1852 he ran as a compromise candidate against future Confederate general Sterling Price and lost badly. According to legend, Winston ran an indifferent campaign where he walked everywhere and St. Louis supporters had to buy him a suit.

So on to the speculation. From what we know of Mary’s “type” (admittedly a small sample size) Winston’s Virginia pedigree, precociousness, and sterling Whig credentials stand out as elements that should have given Lincoln some competition. Except for that “I love him not” part. Perhaps in looking at Winston and his charms we may better understand the power of Springfield’s magnetic pull. While Mary clearly missed Springfield with its congenial social circle there is also the distinct possibility that there were those in Springfield who missed her. Elsewhere in the letter she tells Mercy about letters from Springfield that were “unlooked for,” and that surprised her. So while she was enjoying the social environment of Columbia and Boonville’s parlors, dinner tables, and dance floors, in the back of Mary’s mind was the fact that someone was thinking of her in Springfield.

We should also consider Mary’s agency as a young, single woman who had a very powerful family backing her up. Had Mary left Springfield to make a point? According to the Lincoln biographical canon this is the period when Mary and Abraham came together as a couple, bonding over the presidential candidacy of William Henry Harrison. What was she doing in Missouri then? To quote Mary: “of this more anon.”

Christopher Schnell is the ALPLM's manager of manuscripts.

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