Let me introduce you to a woman of the past. She was well-born in a southern state early in the 19th century. She was not entirely happy with her home life after a certain point, and left that home as a teenager. She fell in love with a man and eventually married him, giving over nearly all of her personal life and identity to his work, his efforts, his and her children, as was common in that day. After his death she grieved deeply and thought sadly of him every day. You are thinking of her name now: Is it Mrs. Lincoln? Is it Mary Lincoln? Is it Mary Todd Lincoln? The person ‘Mary Todd’ ceased to exist in a legal sense on Nov. 4, 1842, when she wed Abraham Lincoln. In a personal sense she may have ceased to exist then, too. She became Mary Lincoln.
There are 319 documents at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum in this woman’s hand. That total is roughly 70 percent of all known letters by her. On these 319, she signed herself one dozen distinct ways, involving her full name, initials, with or without ‘Mrs.,’ etc. She never once used the name ‘Todd’ in any of these, and she never once used the initial ‘T.’ She signed her name ‘Mary Lincoln’ or ‘Mrs. Lincoln’ or ‘Mrs. Abraham Lincoln’ or ‘Mrs. A. Lincoln’ and even, 12 times, ‘Mrs. Cuthbert’ or just ‘Cuthbert.’ (This was a maid in the Executive Mansion who helped Mary Lincoln cover up some of her many unpaid bills between November 1864 and May 1865.) She did not ever, let me repeat, ever refer to herself as ‘Mary Todd Lincoln.’
The 1911 campaign to raise a statue for her at Sayre College, in her hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, seems to be the real origin of the name ‘Mary Todd Lincoln.’ Admittedly, when Robert Lincoln’s wife, Mary Harlan Lincoln, was named in the press – this rarely happened – a distinction had to be made between the mother Mary and the daughter-in-law Mary. But our Mary died in 1882. Kentuckians were proud of her illustrious heritage, and using three names for her was their fundraising way, I surmise, to re-unite South and North in that 50th anniversary year of the beginning of the Civil War. The 3-name usage was fairly common for about 20 years, then faded away until it was revived in the women’s rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. It is now firmly, probably irreversibly, in common usage. But its use is unfair to the woman who devoted her life from 1842 till 1865 to her living husband, and to his memory from 1865 to 1882. Let us try to heed her own sense of who she was: Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln. Mrs. President Lincoln. Mrs. A. Lincoln. Sometimes to friends, M.L. Most often, Mary Lincoln. But never, I repeat never, was she Mary Todd Lincoln.