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Mr. Lincoln and Cupid

Abraham Lincoln was a wrestler. He wrestled with issues. He wrestled with contemporaries — both physically and politically. He wrestled with his character. He wrestled with religious faith. In middle age, he even wrestled with geometry. But with perhaps no issue did Mr. Lincoln wrestle so strenuously as marriage.

"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 more unhappy to fail in that effort," Abraham Lincoln wrote Mary Owens in May 1837. At the time, he and Mary Owens were engaged and Mr. Lincoln was trying to disengage.

When a New Salem woman had challenged Mr. Lincoln to promise to marry her sister if she came back to Illinois from Kentucky, Mr. Lincoln had agreed. He had previously met Mary Owens and been impressed by her inner and outer characteristics. But first impressions were deceiving. When she came back to Illinois, Mr. Lincoln had trouble conceiving of her as his wife. She was, he later wrote, "a fair match for Falstaff."

Mr. Lincoln went to considerable trouble to discourage her — all the while affirming that he would marry her if that were her wish. His dissuasion, while painful, was successful. Mary Owens herself decided that Abraham Lincoln was not marriage material. As she later said, he lacked "those little links which make up the great chain of womans happiness." When the relationship was finally terminated, Mr. Lincoln wrote a friend, "I have now come to the conclusion never again to think of marrying, and for this reason; I can never be satisfied with anyone who would be blockhead enough to have me."

The Owens' relationship was not the first time that love had caused him grief. Several years earlier, a far younger and prettier Ann Rutledge had died suddenly at a farm near New Salem. Lincoln had visited her regularly — apparently with expectation that she would break a long-standing engagement to a more affluent man and instead marry him. After Ann Rutledge's death, Mr. Lincoln had undergone such an emotional depression that friends worried about his physical and mental well-being.

Clearly, Mr. Lincoln took love seriously, very seriously. But he did not give up on finding a wife.

He had moved to Springfield, Illinois in 1837 to practice his new profession of law. Though unproven as a lawyer, he already had a reputation as a member of the Illinois House of Representatives. He hung around the home of fellow Whig legislator Ninian Edwards, a prominent Springfield lawyer whose home was the center of upper crust society. By 1840, Lincoln was also courting one of Springfield's most eligible young women, Kentuckian Mary Todd, who lived with her sister and brother-in-law, Ninian Edwards.

The courtship apparently took place primarily by mail because Mr. Lincoln and Mary Todd were seldom in Springfield at the same time during that summer and fall. In addition to his law practice, Lincoln was campaigning around the state for the victory of Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison. Mr. Lincoln himself was narrowly reelected to the Illinois House of Representatives while Harrison narrowly lost Illinois on the way to a national victory.

But as Douglas L. Wilson made clear in Honor's Voice, a perceptive book on Lincoln's life during this period, Mr. Lincoln was struggling with many issues simultaneously —- issues that were to lead by the end of 1842 to a near breakdown, a near duel, a new law partner, a new wife, and retirement from the legislature.

When Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln finally got together after the elections in November 1840, the evidence suggests that Mr. Lincoln had a change of heart. He was not really in love with Mary Todd. He was really in love with Matilda Edwards, who was the cousin of Ninian Edwards and staying at the same Springfield house.

For a man of Mr. Lincoln's emotional simplicity and sensitivity, that would be problem enough. But someone else was also in love with 16-year-old Matilda Edwards — Mr. Lincoln's best friend, Joshua Speed. Speed was as experienced in matters of love and women as Mr. Lincoln was inexperienced. Speed's Kentucky background was as privileged as Mr. Lincoln's was impoverished. Although the documentation is sketchy, Wilson constructs a chronology that had Speed proposing first and getting rejected before selling his business and returning to Kentucky. Somewhat later according to Matilda's account, Mr. Lincoln proposed to her and she rejected him as well — largely because he was twice her age.

Wilson assembled the documentary evidence and concluded that Mr. Lincoln tried to back out of the engagement with Mary Todd near the beginning of December 1840 — first by undelivered letter and then in person. Mary Todd's tears unnerved him and led to a kiss, not of good-bye but of reconciliation. Speed called it a "bad lick."

Meanwhile, Mr. Lincoln took the plunge in another area. The Illinois Legislature held a special session in early December. The Whig minority sought to disrupt the session by boycotting it, leaving just Lincoln and two other legislators to guard their interests. When a quorum was finally found and the vote taken, Mr. Lincoln and his Whig colleagues jumped out of the second story windows of the Presbyterian church where the legislature was meeting. This awkward moment was to cause him much grief and humiliation.

But Lincoln had a greater cause for grief and humiliation. Mary Todd apparently made it clear that he had a moral "contract" with her. Although she eventually released him from that contract, the thought that he had caused grief and humiliation to Mary Todd was intolerable to Mr. Lincoln. He was a physical and emotional wreck for the next month — causing enormous concern to his friends during January 1841.

Questions of love and marriage were difficult for Lincoln and his friend Speed. Much of 1841 and 1842 was spent reassuring Speed in Kentucky that he was doing the right thing by marrying the beautiful Fanny Henning.

Once Speed married, Mr. Lincoln needed Speed's reassurance that he was happy in marriage as Lincoln contemplated his own nuptials. Mr. Lincoln and Molly — as they called each other — formalized their relationship in a religious ceremony on November 4, 1842 at the Edwards home.

An old friend who witnessed the event interrupted the religious ritual after Lincoln promised to endow Mary "with all my goods and chattles, lands and tenements." Judge Brown blurted out: "Lord Jesus Christ, God Almighty, Lincoln, the Statute fixes all that." Lincoln himself was more impressed by the event. He wrote a friend a few days later: "Nothing new here, except my marrying, which to me is a matter of profound wonder."

Historian Wilson demonstrates that there is considerable evidence that Lincoln's sudden marriage — neither relatives nor friends knew of it until hours before it took place — was a matter more of honor than love. In January 1842, he had written Speed that he was tormented by the "never-absent idea, that there is one still unhappy who I have contributed to make so. That still kills my soul."

Lincoln had written Speed in early July that "before I resolve to do the one thing or the other, I must regain my confidence in my own ability to keep my resolves when they are made. In that ability, you know, I once prided myself as the only, or least the chief, gem of my character; that gem I lost — how, and when, you too well know. I have not yet regained it; and until I do, I can not trust myself in any matter of much importance."

This ability to stick to his resolutions was one problem which Mr. Lincoln was struggling to resolve. The other, according to Wilson, was "the recurring thought of Mary's unhappiness triggered uncontrollable feelings of guilt. These irrepressible feelings had the power to deprive him of all satisfaction..."

Having married Mary Todd and moved her into a boarding house room at the Globe Tavern in Springfield, Mr. Lincoln kept his marriage vows. Mary had no tolerance for even conversation with another woman. He was her "Mr. Lincoln," as she continued to refer to him even in private conversation. She even ruled most women off-limits to the President at White House social events — until he complained that there would be no one left with whom to converse.

Mary Todd was a difficult, if loving, wife. Her temper and complaints would have driven a lesser man to distraction if not divorce. Lincoln's own private secretaries referred to her as the "hellcat." But marriage was a matter of principle for Mr. Lincoln. He wrote Speed in 1842: "My old father used to have a saying that "If you made a bad bargain, hug it the tighter."

Marriage was a such a bargain. It was a moral contract. Speaking years later in Peoria, he said, "God did not place good and evil before man, telling him to make his choice. On the contrary, he did tell him there was one tree of the fruit of which he should not eat upon pain of certain death."

Having made his bargain, Lincoln hugged it to the day of his death. As the engraving on the wedding band he gave Mary Todd declared, "Love is eternal.'

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