Abraham Lincoln and His Father-in-Law

Abraham Lincoln never had a chance to spend serious time with Robert Smith Todd, his father-in-law, but there was a solid bond nevertheless.

Miss Mary Todd, Bride

When Abraham Lincoln married Miss Mary Todd, he was nearly thirty-three. She was just shy of twenty-four.

young mary lincoln

Considered the first photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln, taken shortly after her marriage.

Mary had been living in Springfield, IL with her married sister Elizabeth Todd Edwards for nearly five years. During those years, her contact with her father was limited to affectionate letters. Mary had become “superfluous” in the Todd house. Once her education was complete, there was little to keep her occupied and socially happy in Lexington, KY, particularly since her father, Robert S. Todd and his second wife had eight more small Todds vying for attention. The six Todd siblings from her father’s first marriage were never comfortable with their stepmother. Thus the invitation for Mary to come to Springfield and live with the Edwards’ was more than welcome – by all involved.


Betsy Humphreys Todd, Mary Lincoln’s step-mother. It had always been a strained relationship.

Ninian Edwards, Jr., Mary’s brother-in-law, was not only a lawyer, he was the son of Illinois’ first Governor, and thus one of the leading citizens of the town. His wife (Mary’s sister) came with a Lexington pedigree, as a daughter of one of Kentucky’s upper-crust.

Elizabeth’s intention from the start, was to bring her three younger full-sisters to Springfield, launch them socially, have them marry prominent men, and create a Todd-filled society in the new state capital. She would accomplish this goal, although Abraham Lincoln did not fit into Mrs. Edwards’ plans for her sister: neither pedigree nor money.

The courtship between Mary and Abraham Lincoln was not a smooth one, and even with 150 years of historical lock-picking, the details of the on-again, off-again romance still remain murky. But in November, 1842, Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd married – in the living room of Ninian and Elizabeth Edwards.

Neither set of parents attended.

Abraham Lincoln, Groom


The earliest photograph known of Abraham Lincoln, taken shortly after his marriage.

At thirty two, Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer, trying to make a go of his modest practice.

An early venture in New Salem, a small village not far from Springfield, left Lincoln with debts that would take him years to repay. Part of the opposition of his marriage to Miss Todd by her Edwards’ family was Lincoln’s obvious poverty. Mary was accustomed to having nice things; Lincoln could not afford to give them to her.

lincoln house 4

The Lincoln house at 8th and Jackson Sts., Springfield, IL. The second story was added by the Lincolns several years after their marriage.

Shortly after new Mrs. Lincoln had their first child, who Mary insisted on naming Robert Todd Lincoln, the struggling attorney managed to purchase a small house, the only one they would ever own.

Robert Todd visits the Newlyweds


Robert Smith Todd, Mary Lincoln’s father.

Robert Smith Todd of Lexington, KY was a prosperous lawyer, state legislator and businessman, with varied financial interests.

Mary had been devoted to her father, always seeking his attention and affection, but the older “paterfamilias,” while dutiful to his parental responsibilities, never appears to have been a particularly affectionate father figure to any of his numerous offspring. Mary may have been the exception.

When Mary married, Robert Todd did an extraordinary thing – for him. He came to visit the newlyweds and his grandson-namesake. He had not come to visit his three other Springfield-based daughters when they married. All indications are that he liked and respected Abraham Lincoln, and would even remark that he believed Lincoln would be a better husband than Mary would be a wife.

He asked Lincoln to represent him in collecting a small debt owed to him in Illinois. The amount was trifling, and Todd indicated that if Lincoln were successful, he could keep the amount as his “fee.” Perhaps he instinctively knew that his son-in-law was proud, and the older man had tactfully found a way to provide some “paternal” assistance.  Todd also purchased several acres in Springfield and gave it to the young couple, along with a promise of $200 per year, as long as he lived – which was only six years. By that time, Lincoln’s law practice was becoming more successful.

Todd also put his daughter on a private “allowance” and arranged for her to receive $120 a year “for herself.” $10 a month in the 1840s was a considerable amount of “pin money,” considering that the rental on their house was $100 per year.

The Lexington Visit

TODD House

The town house of Robert S. Todd in Lexington, KY. The Lincolns and their two sons, Robert and Eddie visited there en route to Congressman Lincoln’s term in Washington.

In 1847, Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress, and decided to take Mary and their two little boys along to Washington. Robert was four, and little Eddie, still a toddler. En route, they made a prolonged visit the Todds in Lexington. It was the first time Mary had visited her family since she left to live in Springfield.


A portrait of Robert Smith Todd, Abraham Lincoln’s father-in-law.

According to those family members living there, it was a successful visit on all fronts, despite a crowded house with little privacy or room for the lanky new congressman to stretch out. The Todd half-siblings seemed to like their new brother-in-law, which included a few Todds – much closer to Robert’s age than to his parents. Once again, Mary’s father was able to reassess his son-in-law, and found the new “congressman” very much to his liking. While their actual conversations or time spent together has never been documented, it appears that Lincoln warmed to his father-in-law. He seems certainly to have had more in common with the elder Todd than he ever did with his own father.

Mary also made her peace with the stepmother she did not care for. Once Mary was a wife and mother in her own right, her relationship with the Second Mrs. Robert Todd would improve.

Sadly for all involved however, Robert Smith Todd died in 1849. He was only 58.


Berry, Stephen – House of Abraham: Lincoln & The Todds, A Family Divided by War – Houghton Mifflin, 2007

Clinton, Catherine – Mrs. Lincoln: A Life – HarperCollins, 2009

Donald, David H. – Lincoln – Simon & Schuster, 1995

Epstein, Daniel Mark – The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage – Ballantine Books, 2008





About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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1 Response to Abraham Lincoln and His Father-in-Law

  1. energywriter says:

    Great story. Thank you. sd

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