Enslaved Men and Women in the Todd household

At the time of Mary Todd Lincoln’s birth in 1818, over ninety-three percent of Lexington’s black residents were enslaved. The Todd family owned African Americans, who lived and worked in the Todd home, including the three-week period when Abraham Lincoln visited here in the fall of 1847.

The number of men and women enslaved in the Todd household fluctuated over the decades. Census and tax records between 1820 and 1849 show, on average, five slaves in the Lexington household. This included slaves owned by Mary’s father Robert S. Todd, slaves owned by extended family members, and slaves who were rented from other slaveowners.

The Todds benefited from the antebellum slavery economy in several ways. Enslaved men and women cleaned, cooked, drove carriages, and provided childcare in the Todd home. The Todds profited from the labor of men owned by Robert S. Todd’s cotton factory and slaves who farmed the land at the Todd summer home. When the Todds had slaves in excess of their own needs, they received income from hiring slaves out. They also loaned slaves to family members who were establishing farms and businesses.

Todd family stories are often the only information we have about the individuals they enslaved. These stories from white family members often embody a nostalgic view of slavery, combining fond memories and stereotypes. For example, stories about the enslaved nurse “Mammy” Sally describe her as religious but superstitious and strict but loving, reflecting popular “mammy” stereotypes of the early to mid-20th century. While the Todd family stories provide useful information, it is important to keep in mind that they do not reflect the perspectives of the enslaved men and women. 

While Todd family stories suggest that the Todd slaves were like family members, there is evidence that the feeling was not reciprocated by the enslaved men and women. Court records show that at least one man named William tried to “run off” at least once.  Chaney Dickerson was sent to western Kentucky with the youngest Todd son as he established a farm just before Civil War. When he died serving the Confederacy, she was hired out. As a free woman following the war, she chose not to return to the Todds in Lexington.

Chaney and at least one other enslaved woman in the Todd household had families who lived elsewhere. The 1840 census does not list any enslaved male children in the Todd household. Yet Chaney, who is remembered as the cook, had an infant son named Pen by 1840.  Likewise, Jane Wales Sanders, remembered as the housekeeper, had two sons by that time- two year old John and infant Jim.   The separation these two families experienced was forced, a decision controlled by the Todds. 

The experiences of Jane and Chaney are consistent with urban slavery, where enslaved people worked in smaller groups that forced families to live apart. Nevertheless, they fought to forge and sustain family ties. Jane was married to her husband Lewis Sanders for over thirty-five years, the first twenty years of which they lived apart. They married at the Todd home in 1835, but the law did not recognize slave marriages. After the Civil War, the Sanders filed for legal recognition of their union.

Slavery was a dehumanizing and violent institution. Urban slavery in the upper South was no exception. Three blocks away from the Todd home, slaves were whipped and sold on the courthouse square.  Chaney’s ten-year old son Pen was “whipped a good deal” while living with a Todd relative.  Near where the Todds lived until 1832, one of Lexington’s slave jails “kept slaves in cages for punishment, sale and sickness.” In 1849, when Todd slave William tried to escape, he was held in a slave jail. Rather than claim him, Robert S. Todd directed that William be sold.  

William was held in a slave jail like this one on Short Street prior to being sold by the Todds in 1849.

William was held in a slave jail like this one on Short Street prior to being sold by the Todds in 1849.


Todd Family positions on Slavery

Some members of the Todd’s extended family adopted approaches to ending slavery. Mary Todd Lincoln’s step-grandmother Mary Brown Humphreys arranged for the manumission (or emancipation) of her slaves over a period of years.  Jane Sanders was one of these individuals. However, Jane’s children born during her enslavement remained enslaved.

Although her motivations are unknown, Mary Humphreys’ arrangement to free her slaves over a period of years was in keeping with a political movement called gradual emancipation. The emancipationists were opposed to slavery in theory but unwilling to end it all at once, as advocated by the abolitionists.

Another movement among efforts to end slavery that young Mary Todd would have been aware of was colonization. Colonization was the practice of transporting freed slaves to colonies in Africa and other places rather than integrating free blacks into American society. Henry Clay, a Todd family friend, helped to found the American Colonization Society, and Robert S. Todd made a donation to the society in 1846.

In a state senate campaign, an opponent charged that Robert S. Todd was nominated by the emancipationist wing of his party and his record made him “no friend to the institution” of slavery. Robert defended his political positions and stated “I am a slaveholder. Were I an abolitionist or an emancipator in principle, I would not hold a slave.”  Unlike his mother-in-law Mary Brown Humphreys, Robert did not arrange to free any slaves following his death.


Mary Todd Lincoln’s position on slavery

Mary Lincoln's stance on slavery is uncertain. Family stories suggest that she recognized the evils of slavery as a young woman and favored colonization but did not view the races as equal. Elizabeth Keckley noted in her autobiography that Mary was quick to donate to the Contraband Relief Association. The organization provided assistance to people fleeing slavery during the Civil War. However, Keckley’s memoir did not mention that the first lady spoke out against slavery in their many conversations. A letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune written by journalist and abolitionist Jane Grey Swisshelm following Mary’s death described her as “more radically opposed to slavery” than Abraham Lincoln, but Swisshelm does not explain how she came to this conclusion. 

Mary Lincoln’s own writings are ambiguous on the topic of slavery. She wrote sympathetically about the plight of black refugees in Washington and wrote letters on behalf of former slaves seeking government employment, including Elizabeth Keckley. But Mary Lincoln’s first apparent references to the Emancipation Proclamation—one describing it as “a rich and precious legacy for my sons”—was written a year after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in a letter to Charles Sumner.  

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