Home of Abraham and Mary Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois. Image c. 1909.

As Lincoln’s political career evolved, so did his private life. Among Lincoln’s papers can be found three letters written to a woman named Mary Owens. Mary was the daughter of Nathanial Owens, a plantation owner from Green County, Kentucky. She had a sister who lived in New Salem, Illinois, and Mary paid a visit there in 1833.

Lincoln had met Mary during that visit, and when her sister planned a trip home to Kentucky in 1836, she posed a question for Lincoln. She asked him if he would marry Mary, if the sisters came back to New Salem together. Lincoln, in jest, said that he would.

He regretted his words when Mary Owens arrived in Springfield as a woman who considered herself engaged to be married. Not only was Lincoln shocked that he had been taken seriously, the Mary Owens of 1836 was not the same woman he recalled from 1833. In a letter to a friend, he described her as ‘over-sized, weather beaten, and in want of teeth’. Lincoln had given his word that he would marry the woman and determined that he would find some good in her. He decided that she was intelligent and had a ‘handsome face, if not pretty’.

Meanwhile, he wrote three letters to her discouraging the marriage. In the second, dated 7 May 1837, he told her that he was unhappy living in Springfield, Illinois, and discouraged her from moving there. He also said that he could not provide the kind of life to which she was accustomed and that the hardship such a life would bring would make her unhappy. In the third letter, 16 August 1837, he concluded by telling her, ‘If it suits you best not to answer this – farewell – a long life and a merry one attend you.’ It was the last of their correspondence.

It is possible that Lincoln’s reluctance to marry was due to another relationship that had ended in heartbreak. William Herndon claimed that Lincoln’s first love was a woman named Ann Rutledge of New Salem, Illinois. Ann was engaged to someone else, but promised to marry Lincoln after her fiancé released her. The fiancé eventually ceased communication with Ann, but in 1835, she succumbed to an outbreak of typhoid that swept through New Salem. Lincoln was so grief-stricken that his friends removed items such as his shaving razor and described him as being ill with melancholy.

Another old friend of Lincoln’s, Isaac Cogdal, asked Lincoln if he really was in love with Ann. His reply was this: ‘It is true – true indeed I did. I loved the woman dearly and soundly: she was a handsome girl – would have made a good loving wife… I did honestly and truly love the girl and think often – often of her now.’

When he did marry, Lincoln would marry above the station to which he had been born. In 1839, a young woman named Mary Ann Todd moved to Springfield. Her father was a slaveholder named Robert S. Todd of Lexington, Kentucky. Mary’s mother, Eliza Parker Todd, had died and Mary did not get along well with her stepmother, Elizabeth Humphreys Todd. Mary had come to live with her sister, Elizabeth Edwards, one of six siblings. Of the young men who vied for her attention, Mary chose Abraham Lincoln, the law partner of her cousin, David Todd Stuart. They were an excellent example of social opposites attracting.


Mary Todd Lincoln, in her role as First Lady of the United States. Photo by Mathew Brady.

Lincoln was a dirt-poor, self-educated farm boy from the frontier wilderness who had worked to pull himself up to a better place in the world. Mary was an accomplished young woman from a wealthy, prominent Kentucky family. Lincoln opposed slavery, while Mary’s father and many of her other family members were slaveholders. He was sombre and quiet. She was outgoing. He was six feet four inches tall, and she five feet two.

Once they were engaged, their wedding day was set for 1 January 1841. For reasons which remain unclear, Lincoln chose that day to break off the engagement. However, one of his closest friends, Joshua Speed, had returned to Kentucky to take over his father’s plantation after he died. Speed had married and seemed happy; this perhaps reassured Lincoln that married life could be content. Lincoln reconciled with Mary and on 4 November 1842 they were married.


Thomas ‘Tad’ Lincoln, c.1860s, wearing uniform given to him by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Image by Mathew Brady

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