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A great man is in a way a human document, and whatever concerns his life is of interest, if not all of equal importance; and, since a man's life is a unit, it cannot be properly viewed, or his character correctly estimated, without a knowledge of it all or its most important phases.
Mr. Lincoln was a very human person, all sides of whose nature were developed, though perhaps not equally, and in the matter of love and courtship his experience was very interesting and perhaps unusual. He was not a handsome man, and was deficient in some of those charms of manner which make men attractive to women. His stature and strength, however, his energy and ambition, and a certain frank sincerity, a longing for sympathy and encouragement, rendered him in his youth not only popular with men, but equally attractive to the other sex.
His first love affair of which there is any record was that with Anne Rutledge, a slender, blue-eyed blonde, nineteen years old, a very lovely and universally admired and generally fascinating girl, of South Carolina descent, whose father kept the village tavern at New Salem, Illinois, where Lincoln had moved from the farm. Miss Rutledge had been engaged to another man, who went away and did not return. Lincoln was postmaster and to him she went every day for the letters which came so rarely and finally not at all. He became interested in her sorrow, and sought after a while to comfort her, with the result that she promised to marry him. But she could not banish her love for the other man; memories, doubts and fears, and a tender conscience, lest she might have misjudged her absent lover, preyed upon her mind, and shortly after her betrothal to Lincoln, she was taken ill and died. Her death was a great shock to Lincoln, and it is said that the melancholy which was so conspicuous in his disposition, dates from the time of this bereavement. This is the most touching and romantic of Lincoln's love affairs.
But when one is young, nature abhors an empty heart. In time Mr. Lincoln recovered from his grief sufficiently to look around for some other object upon which to bestow his affections. Some two years before the death of Anne Rutledge, he had made the acquaintance of Miss Mary Owens, of Kentucky, who had come to New Salem to visit her sister, a Mrs. Abell. She remained in New Salem four weeks, after which she returned to her Kentucky home. Some three years later, and about a year after Anne's death, Mrs. Abell went on a visit to Kentucky, and before leaving, laughingly suggested to Lincoln that she would bring her sister back with her if Lincoln would marry her. He replied, in the same strain, that he would. He remembered Miss Owens as a tall, slim, handsome, witty and vivacious girl, liberally educated and considered wealthy.
But alas! the first interview dissipated some illusions on both sides. The lady had grown stout-distressingly stout. Some of her roses had fled; she was now twenty-eight, a year older than Lincoln, and the difference, not so apparent when he had first known her, had become more pronounced with the passing years. Nor is it likely that he was all that her imagination had pictured him. He was a diamond in the rough, and the speech and manners of the Illinois frontier did not compare favorably with the more polished graces of Kentucky society. They both seemed to have taken the promise to Mrs. Abell seriously, and were soon absorbed in a formal courtship-formal in more ways than one, since it seems to have been singularly lacking in warmth. Indeed, Lincoln was never a very ardent wooer. He debated with himself and with his friends whether he should marry Miss Owens, and when he finally made his marriage proposal, it was couched in the form of a letter, and was more like a legal document than the outpouring of a loving heart. He set out very frankly his circumstances and his shortcomings, which he feared might prevent his finding favor in the lady's eyes. The lady, who seems to have been equally practical, accepted his view of himself and declined his proposal. She was known to have stated, in substance, years afterwards, that Mr. Lincoln was not in her social class, and that the marriage would probably have resulted unhappily. Neither of them seems to have suffered from their disagreement. Miss Owens made a presumably happy marriage with another man. And Mr. Lincoln was frank in congratulating himself upon his escape. One of his letters on this subject throws some side lights upon his character-his conscientiousness, his sense of humor, and the homely directness which characterized all his speech and actions. He dwells upon his disappointment upon Miss Owens' changed appearance, and continues:
"But what could I do? I had told her sister that I would take her for better or worse, and I made it a point of honor and conscience to stick to my word, especially if others had been induced to act upon it, which in this case I had no doubt they had; for I was now fairly convinced that no other man on earth would have her, and hence the conclusion that they were bent on holding me to my bargain."
And in another letter he says, speaking of his rejection: "I was mortified, it seemed to me, in a hundred different ways. 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 nobody else would have, had actually rejected me with all my fancied greatness. And to cap the whole, I for the first time began to suspect that I was really a little in love with her."
There was a period of several years following the affair with Miss Owens, during which we know nothing of Lincoln's love affairs. He was now past thirty, and had begun to make a reputation as a writer and speaker, and was gaining a foothold in politics, when he met his fate in the person of Miss Mary Todd, of Springfield, Illinois. She was twenty-one years old, came of a good family, had been well educated and was a social favorite. Her portraits do not show her to have been beautiful, but she possessed many social graces, by the standards of the community, and an imperious disposition which compelled a certain amount of respect and admiration. She was distinctly Mr. Lincoln's superior from a social point of view.
Mr. Lincoln, though he found the society of ladies attractive, and seems to have paid attentions to quite a number of them at this period of his life, seems always to have shrunk from the ultimate step. This was no less true with Miss Todd than it had been in the case of Miss Owens. After a courtship lasting a twelvemonth they became engaged. Shortly after his engagement he fell into a panic, and without any lovers' quarrel or unpleasantness of which there is any record, he told the lady that he did not love her. She did not prove, however, so reasonable as Miss Owens; perhaps she was more in love. She burst into tears; Mr. Lincoln was moved by her distress, caught her in his arms and kissed her. This was accepted by both as a renewal of their engagement, and things continued upon their old footing.
The wedding day was fixed for January 1st, 1841, and the usual preparations were made and the guests invited and the supper spread. But while Lincoln had been susceptible to the shafts of Cupid, he seems to have had a singular disinclination for the noose of Hymen. The lady waited, the guests came, but the bridegroom came not. Messengers were sent out to search for him, but in vain. Finally the guests departed, the lights were put out, and the lady went to bed with broken heart and shattered nerves. Some biographers deny this episode, but none of them ignores it, and the weight of evidence seems in favor of its correctness.
Mr. Lincoln seems to have suffered not less than the lady. A constitutional melancholy, which dated from his unfortunate love affair with Anne Rutledge, laid stronger hands upon him after the fiasco of his wedding with Miss Todd. He very wisely left Springfield and remained away some time. His conduct in connection with this affair has been much criticized. It only bears out the proposition that no man can be uniformly great or wise or strong-even the sun has spots upon it; and, after all, a man's conduct in so intimate a personal matter cannot be rightly judged unless one could put himself exactly in another's place. Mr. Lincoln's friends said that at this time he was indeed scarcely himself; his melancholy was at times so profound as to leave him scarcely responsible for his actions. Indeed, Miss Todd's friends put his failure to appear upon this ground.
But both his affections and those of Miss Todd had been too deeply engaged to be lightly broken. Through the mediation of a friend they were brought together, and about two years later they were quietly married. Those who care to look up in the libraries the biographies of Lincoln, will find that some interesting social events took place in the society where they moved, at about that time, which assisted in their reconciliation. But not even yet had Mr. Lincoln recovered from his gloom, and he is said to have acted very singularly on the evening of the ceremony-that from his manner he might have been attending a funeral rather than a wedding. There is no doubt that the lady was ambitious and took, more or less, she and her friends, the initiative in the affair. But she made him a faithful and affectionate wife, and he was never known to express any subsequent regrets. They lived together happily enough, and her ambition and energy undoubtedly contributed to his advancement.
During the twelve years which followed his marriage, Mr. Lincoln lived at Springfield, practiced the profession, and was active in politics, serving one term in Congress. Upon his election to the presidency, his wife and he were suddenly transferred from the simple social life of the still undeveloped West to a city where society had long been dominated by Southern aristocracy tempered by New England culture. Mr. Lincoln was absorbed in affairs of tremendous import, and had little time to cultivate social amenities. Mrs. Lincoln, in spite of her many amiable qualities, was at a disadvantage compared with other ladies in Washington society and was not always popular. But the married life of Mr. Lincoln and the story of his family is not within the scope of the subject upon which I have been asked to write, and I shall therefore leave it to some other pen.
One might see, in Mr. Lincoln's mental attitude toward the important question of marriage, a forecast of his position with regard to most of the great questions which came to him for solution during the Civil War. A full appreciation of all the difficulties involved, and yet a strong sense of what was right and what duty demanded-both elements were present in every instance.
Chesnutt, Charles W. "Lincoln's Courtships," Southwestern Christian Advocate, 43 (Feb. 4, 1909): 8.