LINCOLN, Abraham. Autograph letter signed ("Lincoln") to Mary Owens in New Salem; Springfield, Illinois, 7 May 1837. 1½ pages, folio (12 5/8 x 7 1/8 in.), edges lightly browned, partly separated along vertical folds, three small ink blots on recto, minor soiling.
LINCOLN'S TROUBLED COURTSHIP OF THE "OTHER MARY": "WHATEVER WOMAN MAY CAST HER LOT WITH MINE, SHOULD ANY EVER DO SO, IT IS MY INTENTION TO DO ALL IN MY POWER TO MAKE HER HAPPY AND CONTENTED" .
An exceedingly rare memento of Lincoln's only documented romantic attachment between the tragic death of his fiancée Ann Rutledge in 1835 and his courtship and eventual marriage to Mary Todd in 1842. On April 15, only a few weeks before this most unusual personal letter, Lincoln had moved from the frontier settlement of New Salem to the new state capital, Springfield, to become a junior law partner of John T. Stuart. Mary Owens (1808-1877), the woman to whom this remarkable letter is addressed, was the daughter of a prosperous Kentucky farmer. From contemporary accounts, she was taller than the average, stoutly built, with dark hair, blue eyes, and keenly intelligent. Her sister, Elizabeth, had married Bennett Abell of New Salem, and Mary and Lincoln may have met when she visited Betsy in 1833, before Mary returned to Kentucky for about three years. During that period, Betsy, who had become a good friend of the young Lincoln, apparently used the time to tout her sister's charms. In the meantime, the ambitious young Lincoln had qualified as a surveyor, won election to the state legislature, and begun to study for the bar. In the Fall of 1836, when Betsy Owens Abell planned to visit her family in Kentucky, she had evidently persuaded Lincoln that her unmarried sister would be a suitable match for him. Lincoln, it appears, promised Betsy that if Mary came back to Illinois with her, he would marry her. As Lincoln recounted later, in a famous self-deprecating letter to Mrs. Orville Browning: "a married lady of my acquaintance...being about to pay a visit to her relatives residing in Kentucky, proposed to me, that on her return she would bring a sister of hers with her, upon condition that I would engage to become her brother-in-law with all convenient dispatch. I, of course, accepted the proposal...I had seen the said sister some three years before, thought her intelligent and agreeable, and saw no good objection to plodding life through hand in hand with her" (1 April 1838, Basler 1:117).
But Lincoln was a bit startled by Mary's dispatch in returning to New Salem, "for it appeared to me, that her coming so readily showed that she was a trifle too willing." Even more disturbing, when they met again, after three years, Lincoln found that Mary's physical attractions were not as evident as before; in fact, to his dismay, she had become what he termed "a fair match for Falstaff." The dilemma offered no easy solution. "But what could I do? I had told her sister that I would take her for better or for worse," he recalled, and I made a point of honor and conscience in all things, to stick to my word. Shortly after this, without attempting to come to any positive understanding with her, I set out for Vandalia [for the meeting of the state legislature]" (Basler1:118). From Vandalia, where the change of the state capital to Springfield was being debated, Lincoln wrote warmly to Mary. In February, the legislature agreed to move the capital to Springfield, Lincoln was admitted to the bar, and was invited by John Stuart to come to Springfield as a junior partner. In March, he returned to New Salem for a week, at which time he and Mary must have discussed the idea of their marriage in more concrete terms. But, as this, his first letter to Mary from Springfield, makes clear, Lincoln still entertained disquieting reservations about their planned marriage. He may have hoped, this passage suggests, that Mary--who may have entertained her own doubts about the match--might, with his encouragement, take it upon herself to break off their as yet informal engagement.
It is very evident that the young lawyer found it extremely difficult to express himself forthrightly about his ambivalent feelings. He writes: "I have commenced two letters to you before this, both of which displeased me before I got half done, and so I tore them up. The first I thought wasn't serious enough, and the second was on the other extreme." This time, though, he vows, "I shall send this, turn out as it may." Then, in a very revealing passage describing his new home, Springfield, he confesses to feelings of loneliness, isolation and a strong sense of social inadequacy: "This thing of living in Springfield is rather a dull business after all, at least it is so to me. I am quite as lonesome here as ever was anywhere in my life. I have been spoken to by but one woman since I've been here, and should not have been by her, if she could have avoided it. I've never been to church yet, nor probably shall not be soon. I stay away because I am conscious I should not know how to behave myself."
Finally, he gingerly approaches the fraught subject of their relationship, and paints a picture of their future life in Springfield which one commentator has termed "forbidding almost beyond belief" (D.L. Wilson, Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, p.135). "I am quite often thinking about what we said of your coming to live at Springfield. I am afraid you would not be satisfied. There is a great deal of flourishing about in carriages here, which it would be your doom to see without sharing in it. You would have to be poor without the means of hiding your poverty. Do you believe you could bear that patiently? Whatever woman may cast her lot with mine, should any ever do so, it is my intention to do all in my power to make her happy and contented; and there is nothing I can imagine, that would make me now unhappy than to fail in the effort." As Wilson points out, the remainder of the paragraph is "simply dizzying in its reversals." Lincoln writes "I know I should not be much happier with you than the way I am, provided I saw no signs of discontent in you." As to their mutual promises: "What you have said to me may have been in jest, or I may have misunderstood it. If so, then let it be forgotten; if otherwise, I would wish you to think seriously before you decide, For my part I have already decided. What I have said I will most positively abide by, provided you wish it. My opinion is, that you had better not do it. You have not been accustomed to hardship, and it may be more severe than you now imagine. I know you are capable of thinking correctly on any subject, and if you deliberate maturely upon this, before you decide, then I am willing to abide your decision."
Then, having transferred to Mary the entire responsibility for resolving the thorny problem, he adopts a jocular tone: "You must write me a good long letter after you get this. You have nothing else to do, and though it might not seem interesting to you, after you have written it, it would be a good deal of company to me in this 'bushy wilderness.' Tell your sister I don't want to hear any more about selling out and moving. That gives me the hypo [hypochnodria, or depression] whenever I think of it. Yours &c Lincoln."
Lincoln wrote a final letter to Mary, about three months later, reiterating his intention to fully honor his pledge, but only if Mary wished it (see Basler 1:94). And that fall, the matter came to a head. In his confidential account of the affair to Mrs. Browning, Lincoln recalled that "After I had delayed the matter as long as I thought I could in honor do...I concluded I might as well bring it to a consummation without further delay; and so I mustered my resolution, and made the proposal to her direct; but, shocking to relate, she answered 'No.' I tried it again and again, but with the same success, or want of success. I finally was forced to give up, at which I very unexpectedly found myself mortified almost beyond endurance..." (Basler 1:119). Clearly, Mary too had second thoughts about the match.
It is clear, though, that from his intense mortification at being turned down, the 28-year-old Lincoln gained from this awkward and mishandled affair a considerable measure of insight into his own failings and misperceptions. As he ruefully related, about a year later, to Mrs. Browning: "My vanity was deeply wounded by the reflection, that I had so long been too stupid to discover her intentions, and at the same time never doubting that I understood them perfectly; and also that she whom I had taught myself to believe no body else would ever have, had actually rejected me with all my fancied greatness; and to cap the whole, I then, for the first time, began to suspect that I was really a little in love with her..." He summed up the abortive betrothal with the observation that "others have been made fools of by the girls; but this can never be with truth said of me. I most emphatically, in this instance, made a fool of myself" (Basler 1:119).
In early 1838, Mary returned to Kentucky, where she eventually married, and later moved to Missouri. She was interviewed many years later by William Herndon, who was the first to record the story of hers and Lincoln's relationship. For a detailed and incisive analysis of this revealing affair and the three important letters--one of them the present-- which survive to document it, see Douglas L. Wilson, Honor's Voice.