Mary Todd Lincoln and Henry Clay

In 1832, Mary Todd was thirteen years old; Henry Clay was about to challenge Andrew Jackson for the Presidency.

Ellerslie and Ashland

Ellerslie: The Todd Family Plantation

Ellerslie Plantation, about three miles from Lexington, KY, was the ancestral home of the Todd family, named for their ancestral home in Scotland. Mary Lincoln’s grandfather Levi Todd (1756-1807) built the house in 1787; His son Robert Smith Todd (Mary’s father) was born there, and eventually owned it.

Said to be the first brick house in Kentucky, the house was originally a small two story building on 30 acres, later expanded to include 20 well furnished rooms. The house and its adjoining acreage was sold some years after Robert Smith Todd’s death, and the house no longer stands.

Henry Clay’s “Ashland” plantation

The plantation abutted another fine plantation, named Ashland, begun around 1807 by Henry Clay (1777-1852), a Virginian-turned-Kentuckian, who named the home and estate after his own Virginia birthplace. It stands there still, and is designated a National Historic Landmark.

Thus, the Todd family and Henry Clay were close neighbors – and good friends.

The Mary Todd-Henry Clay Story

The story goes that thirteen-year-old Mary (1818-1883) had just gotten a new pony, and was eager to show it off to Senator Clay, who by then was the most famous man in Kentucky, about to challenge Andrew Jackson in his re-election campaign for the Presidency.

One of the earliest Mary Todd Lincoln photos – when she was in her mid-20s.

Mary, dressed in her best riding outfit, rode her new pony out to Ashland, and knocked at the door. When the servant answered, Mary said that she wanted to see Mr. Clay. The servant advised “Miss Mary” that Mr. Clay had several important men dining with him, and could not be disturbed.

Not one to give up, Mary told the servant to tell the Senator that Miss Mary Todd needed to see him, and it was important. Senator Clay obviously heard the voices at the door, and went personally to investigate, along with his “important guests.” When he saw Mary, he smiled in recognition.

Mary wanted to show Mr. Clay her new “trained” pony. Her father had purchased it from a traveling circus, and he could do tricks, which she and the pony immediately demonstrated. Then she said, to wit, that her father believed “Henry Clay was the best judge of horseflesh in the county” – and Mary wanted him to examine the new pony and make sure her father had gotten a good deal.

Clay was happy to oblige, and made a great show of examining the animal, and pronounced him one of the finest ponies he ever saw. Then he invited Miss Mary to finish dinner with them.

Dessert and A Marriage Proposal 

Henry Clay, statesman and presidential candidate

Henry Clay had been a Todd guest on various occasions, and Mary had always shown an interest in politics. Her father was a great admirer of the Kentucky lawyer, whose resume included both Houses of Congress, a stint as a diplomat, and Secretary of State. His ambition for the Presidency was well known; Todd, an attorney and long-time state legislator, was an enthusiastic supporter. Mary, by virtue of association, believed Henry Clay was the most superlative man in the entire country. She chatted away at Clay’s dinner table, how her father sincerely desired Mr. Clay to be the next President. She further said that since her father himself did not want to be President (her first choice), she was very happy to support him too. Then she added that she was sorry Mr. Clay was already married, since she would also be happy to marry him and live in the White House.

An amused Henry Clay commiserated on the “thwarted” marriage possibility, but told Mary in all sincerity, that if he became President, Miss Mary Todd would surely be one of the first people he invited to the White House.

Mary Todd Lincoln is said to have had White House ambitions from childhood, with fair likelihood that Henry Clay was her inspiration. Nearly a decade later, when she met Abraham Lincoln, one of their commonalities was their regard for Henry Clay. Her personal connection with “Harry of the West” was undoubtedly a point in her favor.

The Source of the Story

Mary Lincoln’s niece Katherine Helm

The aforementioned story is told in a book called Mary: Wife of Lincoln, and is Mary’s first solo biography, published in 1928, some 45 years after her death. The author is Katherine Helm, Mary’s niece, who at that time, was an elderly woman herself.

Katherine Helm had only slight personal contact with her famous Aunt Mary, who she barely remembered. She was five years old; the Civil War was raging; her Confederate father (who she likely did not remember either) had been killed; her mother was Emilie Todd Helm, Mary’s 18-years-younger half-sister. Emilie had wanted to cross Union lines to claim her husband’s body, but stubbornly refused to take the oath of allegiance. President Lincoln was asked to intervene, and he replied “send her to me.” Thus Emilie and her little daughter Katherine went to the White House where they stayed for a couple of weeks. Neither Emilie nor her daughter ever saw Mary again, although their adult nephew/cousin Robert Lincoln remained in touch with several members of his Todd relations throughout his life.

Emilie Todd Helm

Emilie Todd Helm lived well into her nineties, said to be in good health and faculties. It was she who provided much of the family history and “lore.”

The book, now some 90 years old, does not claim to dot i’s, cross t’s and otherwise document, certify and validate facts. The story is obviously not first-hand to Emilie Todd Helm, who wasn’t even born at the time. It is possible, however, that other family members knew of it – and it is not unlikely that Mary herself may have told the story to Emilie. Family lore, whether absolute or massaged, is always important in understanding the people involved – especially if it is a good story!


Helm, Katherine – MARY: Wife of Lincoln – Harper and Brothers – 1928

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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