In late 1868, Mary Todd Lincoln began seeking a widow’s pension from Congress. She reasoned that her husband had served the nation incomparably during wartime and had paid the ultimate price for his devotion to the Union. So her position was at least as meritorious as that of the ordinary soldier’s widow entitled to a pension under the law.
She enlisted family friend Charles Sumner to push for a pension bill, which he indeed championed in the Senate. She wrote some lawmakers personally and lobbied others by proxy. In January 1869, while living in Frankfurt, Germany, she wrote to House Speaker Schuyler Colfax and formally requested a pension:
“I herewith most respectfully present to the Honorable House of Representatives an application for a pension. I am a widow of a President of the United States whose life was sacrificed in his country’s service. That sad calamity has very greatly impaired my health, and by the advice of my physician I have come over to Germany to try the mineral waters and during the Winter to go to Italy. But my financial means do not permit me to take advantage of the urgent advice given me, nor can I live in a style becoming a widow of a Chief Magistrate of a Nation, although I live as economically as I possible can.
In consideration of the great services my dearly beloved husband has rendered to the United States and of the fearful loss I have sustained by his untimely death—his martyrdom, I may say—I respectfully submit to your honorable body this petition, hoping that a yearly pension may be granted me, so that I may have less pecuniary care.”
A bill was introduced and reported to the House Committee on Pensions. The Committee issued a report recommending denial—existing law simply did not justify Mrs. Lincolns’ request. She finally won the pension battle (on a strict party-line vote) on July 14, 1870:
According to the New York Times, Mary Todd Lincoln’s letter “was discovered in March, 1910, among many valuable historical documents in the attic of the Capitol among the records of the House Committee on Accounts. As soon as the discovery of these letters . . . was announced by Representative Joseph F. O’Connell of Massachusetts, a member of the Accounts Committee, the House of Representatives lost no time in adopting a resolution giving the Library of Congress possession of the letter from Mrs. Lincoln.”
It now abides safely in the Archives’ Legislative Treasures Vault.