Abraham Lincoln’s marriage to Mary Todd remains an unsolved puzzle to biographers. William Herndon, Lincoln’s junior law partner, claimed that Mary Todd made Lincoln’s domestic life "a burning scorching hell," as "terrible as death and as gloomy as the grave." And while a number of recent studies have sought to shift the fault for the Lincolns’ domestic discords away from Mary Todd’s idiosyncrasies and onto Lincoln’s own foibles, few historians on either side of the question would claim that the Lincolns had a happy marriage. Part of the reason for the wide range of interpretation is the lack of primary documentary sources for the union; certainly no letters from their courtship survive (they may have been destroyed, with other sensitive family papers, by Robert Todd Lincoln, the only child of the couple to survive them both). But although "Lincoln’s courtship of Mary Todd is poorly documented," as Michael Burlingame observed in his recent indispensable Abraham Lincoln: A Life, "indirect light is shed on it by his earlier, well-recorded romance with Mary S. Owen." The Mary Owens letters, particularly the present one, the first in the brief series, also illuminate the feelings of despair and depression that would plague Lincoln for the remainder of his life.
Mary Owens seems to be the true claimant to the title of Lincoln’s first love. (The tradition that Ann Rutledge, the daughter of one of Lincoln’s New Salem landlords, was the true love of Lincoln’s life has been persistent, but has never gained scholarly acceptance. The Rutledge story seems to have originated only after Ann’s early death, at the time of which she was actually engaged to one John McNamar.) Lincoln first met Mary Owens in the autumn of 1833 when she was visiting her sister, Mrs. Bennett (Betsey) Abell, an acquaintance of Lincoln’s, in New Salem. Over the course of her month’s stay the two young people—both were twenty-four, Owens a few months the older—found that they were, as Owens later recalled, "congenial spirits" who saw "eye to eye" on politics. Three years later, evidently at the behest of her match-making sister, Mary Owens returned to New Salem for an extended stay. Parthena Hill, a New Salem friend, claimed that Mrs. Abell "was a great talker, and sometimes said more than she ought," while Owens herself later acknowledged that her sister "was very anxious for us to be married." (Mary Owens’s reminiscences, and subsequent quotations from her and Lincoln’s contemporaries, are from Herndon’s Informants, a compilation of the original documents and statements gathered by William Herndon in the course of researching his pioneering biography of Lincoln.)
Mary Owens was a self-confident and somewhat unconventional woman. She was, like Lincoln, a native of Kentucky, but the similarities of their upbringings ended there. Her father was a wealthy planter and she had received a fine, formal education. Those who knew her during the period of Lincoln’s courtship thought well of her. Caleb Carman told Herndon that Owens was frequently at his house and that she was "Sharp—Shrewd and intellectual." Others described her as "quick & strong minded"; "jovial"; "social"; "good natured"; "gay and lively"; "light hearted and cheery"; and having an "Excellent disposition." A cousin of Owens, Johnson Gaines Greene, called her "the most intellectual woman I ever saw." His brother William G. Greene agreed with that assessment, writing to Herndon that "she was a verry Talented Lady as much or more so than any Lady I ever knew." Greene may also have touched on the reason that the Lincoln-Owens engagement did not result in marriage when he revealed to Herndon that whenever the two had a disagreement, "neither would yield a hairs breadth."
Apart from her personality, Owens’s appearance was most frequently remarked upon by Herndon’s interviewees and correspondents. She dressed elegantly, well above the standard of fashion for New Salem, but even her friends had difficulty describing her as attractive. She provided an unadorned description of herself in a letter to Herndon: "fair skin, deep blue eyes, with dark curling hair; height, five feet, five inches, weighing about one hundred and fifty pounds." Caleb Carman did call her "a handsome woman—a fine looking woman," but when her cousin Esther Summer Bale employed the same adjective to Herndon, she seemed to founder in her attempts to improve on it; Owens, she said, was "handsome—not pretty—is rather large & tall—is handsome—truly handsome—matron looking—over ordinary height and weight of a standard woman … Miss Owens was handsome—that is to say noble looking—matronly seeming."
Keenly aware of his own ungainly appearance, Lincoln seemed to take no notice of Owens’s deficiencies in beauty—at least not until after the courtship was dissolved. To the contrary, he found her bright and her company highly agreeable. Indeed, he later wrote to his friend Eliza Browning that Mrs. Abell had taken him into her confidence regarding her sister’s return to New Salem and he "was most confoundedly well pleased with the project … and saw no good objection to plodding life through hand in hand with her." The present letter, written during his first absence after Owens had returned to New Salem, confirms this state of affairs.
Although he was later to minimize the seriousness of his relationship with Mary Owens, Lincoln’s first letter to her reveals a man in love. Lincoln had gone to Vandalia, then the capital of Illinois, for the opening session of the new state legislature, in which he served as a Whig in the House of Representatives. From there he writes in teasing despair of his not having received a recent letter, as well as the intolerability of being separated from her for more than two months:
"I have been sick ever since my arrival here, or I should have written sooner. It is but little difference, however, as I have very little even yet to write. And more, the longer I can avoid the mortification of looking in the Post Office for your letter and not finding it, the better. You see I am mad about that old letter yet. I dont like very well to risk you again. I’ll try you once more any how.
"The new State House is not yet finished, and consequently the legislature is doing little or nothing. The Governor delivered an inflamitory political Message, and it is expected there will be some sparring between the parties about [it as] soon as the two Houses get to business. Taylor delivered up his petitions for the New County to one of [our] members this morning. I am told that he dispairs [of its] success on account of all the members from Morgan County opposing it. There are names enough on the petition, I think, to justify the members from our county in going for it; but if the members from Morgan oppose it, which they [say] they will, the chance will be bad.
"Our chance to take the seat of Government to Springfield is better than I expected. An Internal Improvement Convention was held here since we met, which recommended a loan of several millions of dollars on the faith of the State to construct Rail Roads. Some of the legislature are for it and some against it: which has the majority I can not tell. There is great strife and struggling for the office of U. S. Senator here at this time. It is probable we shall ease their pains in a few days. The opposition men have no candidate of their own, and consequently they smile as complacently at the angry snarls of the contending Van Buren candidates and their respective friends, as the Christian does at Satan’s rage. You recollect that in the outset of this letter that I had been unwell. That is the fact, though I believe I am about well now; but that, with other things I can not account for, have conspired and have gotten my spirits so low, that I feel that I would rather be any place in the world than here. I really can not endure the thought of staying here ten weeks. Write back as soon as you get this, and if possible say something that will please me for really I have not [been] pleased since I left you. This letter is so dry and [stupid] that I am ashamed to send it, but with my present feelings I can not do any better. Give my respects to Mr. and Mrs. Abell and family."
While the letter focuses, not surprisingly, on politics—including Governor Joseph Duncan’s controversial denunciation of the policies of President Andrew Jackson and Representative John Taylor’s efforts to create a new county, ultimately named Menard—its personal undercurrent clearly shows that Lincoln, despite later protestations, was far from indifferent about Mary Owens. And when the romance ended, it was because Owens turned down his proposal.
Despite their initial appreciation of each other’s company and conversation, the couple ultimately proved to be incompatible—and for many of the same reasons that would blight Lincoln’s marriage to Mary Todd. Mary Owen, like Mary Todd, too often found Lincoln provincial and gauche. For his part, Lincoln was painfully self-conscious of his social and educational shortcomings and may have hidden his feelings of inferiority in aloofness. The difference between the two women may have been that Mary Todd thought she could "improve" Lincoln, while Mary Owens recognized that an insurmountable gulf stood between them.
Owens later confided to Herndon that she "thought Mr. Lincoln was deficient in those little links that make up the great chain of womans happiness, at least it was so in my case; not that I believed it proceeded from a lack of goodness of heart, but his training had been different from mine, hence there was not that congeniality which would have otherwise existed. From his own showing you perceive that his heart and hand were at my disposal, and I suppose my feelings were not sufficiently enlisted to have the matter consummated."
In another letter to Herndon, Owens cited an example of Lincoln’s "lacking in smaller attentions. One circumstance presents itself just now to my mind’s eye. There was a company of us going to Uncle Billy Green’s, Mr. L. was riding with me, and we had a very bad branch to cross, the other gentlemen were very officious in seeing that their partners got over safely; we were behind, he riding in never looking back to see how I got along; when I rode up beside him, I remarked, you are a nice fellow; I suppose you did not care whether my neck was broken or not. He laughingly replied, (I suppose by way of compliment) that he knew I was plenty smart to take care of myself."
In a humorous account of the courtship that contained more truth than perhaps Lincoln was aware (and written, it should be noted, on April 1, 1838), he told Mrs. Browning that after Owens turned down his suit—evidently more than once—"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 no body else would 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 really was a little in love with her. … I have now come to the conclusion never again to think of marrying; and for this reason; I can never be satisfied with any one who would be block-head enough to have me."
Like Lincoln, Mary Owens was married within a few years of their abortive romance. She wed Jesse Vineyard of St. Joseph, Missouri, with whom she had five children. She remembered Lincoln affectionately (she did, after all, retain his three letters for two decades prior to his becoming a national figure) and said that if either of her sons who fought with the Confederacy during the Civil War had been taken prisoner, she would not have hesitated to ask President Lincoln to intervene. As for Lincoln, after Owens had left New Salem for good, he is said to have sent her a message via Mrs. Abell: "Tell your sister that I think she was a great fool, because she did not stay here and marry me."
Lincoln letters with any significant personal content are very scarce and are particularly rare in the market. Consequential letters from his twenties are even less common. The present letter is the only courting or romantic letter that is obtainable. Lincoln evidently never wrote to Ann Rutledge, and no pre-marriage letters of his to Mary Todd are known.
Lincoln did write two subsequent letters to Mary Owens. The first of these was written from Springfield on May 7, 1837, and circumspectly touches on the subject of marriage. This letter remained in the family of Mary Owens Vineyard’s descendants until 1987 when it was sold at Sotheby’s in October 1987 for $77,000 to the collector Malcolm Forbes. The letter was resold in the auction of Forbes’s collection at Christie’s in October 2002 for $779,500; it was purchased by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, located at the New-York Historical Society. The other letter, the final of three, Lincoln wrote from Springfield on August 16, 1837, very shortly after she had rejected his proposal. This letter, too, descended among Mary Owens Vineyard’s heirs and was given by some portion of them to the Library of Congress.
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