Lincoln Discussion Symposium

Full Version: Mary Owens, Lincoln's Early Love
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Here's an article I did a couple of years ago on Mary Owens, the often-overlooked romantic interest of Lincoln's New Salem era.

Overshadowed by Legend of Ann Rutledge
By Tom Emery

The legendary romance of Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge has endured the years, though no proof exists of any relationship. In the case of Mary Owens, however, there is little doubt.

Owens was the first proven love interest in Lincoln’s life and is documented in four existing letters, including three he wrote to her. By contrast, there are no existing letters between Lincoln and Rutledge, and scholars debate whether he ever mentioned her name.

Born Sept. 29, 1808 in Green County, Ky., Mary referred to her father, a planter, as a “gentleman of considerable means.” She was, in turn, described by her son as “polished in her manners, pleasing in her address,” and the recipient of “a good education.”

Owens met Lincoln in 1833 while visiting her sister, Mrs. Bennett Abell, in New Salem. Three years later, Mrs. Abell journeyed to Kentucky on a return visit. Before leaving, she playfully told Lincoln that she would bring Mary back to New Salem if he promised to marry her. Lincoln agreed, possibly in jest.

Dr. Wayne Temple, a nationally renowned Lincoln scholar from Springfield, Ill. who recently retired as Deputy Director of the Illinois State Archives, believes that Lincoln was “tricked into the situation.

“Mrs. Abell drew Lincoln into that, and I think he was joking around with her,” said Temple. “He was a man who didn’t really want to get married. He was actually afraid to be married, worried that he could not support a wife, much less himself.”

Mary returned to New Salem in November 1836 and stayed for a year and a half. Some sort of romance ensued between the two, though Lincoln was absent for much of the time. A state representative, he attended the general assembly in Vandalia in December, then moved to Springfield on April 15, 1837.

Lincoln’s letters to Mary indicate an uneasy courtship. From Vandalia on Dec. 13, 1836, he chided her for not writing more, describing his “mortification of looking in the post office for your letter and not finding it.” Much of the rest of the letter discussed politics, an interest which they shared.

Three weeks after moving to Springfield, Lincoln seemed eager to end the affair. He wrote Mary that she “would not be satisfied” with living in Springfield, adding if she “cast her lot” with him, she “would have to be poor without hiding your poverty.” Still, Lincoln urged Mary write back, for any letter “would be a good deal of company to me in this busy wilderness.”

On Aug. 16, 1837, Lincoln was compelled to write Mary on the same day he visited her, admitting that he thought of her “more than usual” and that he could “not see you…with entire indifference.” But, since he “wanted in all cases to do right, and most particularly so…with women,” he gave her another chance to break up.

Lincoln wrote that she could “drop the subject, dismiss your thoughts (if you ever had any) from me forever, and leave this letter unanswered, without calling forth one accusing murmur from me…If it suits you best not to answer this – farewell – a long life and merry one attend you.”

“I don’t think the relationship was that serious on Lincoln’s part,” said Temple. “He always seemed to be trying to get out of it.”

That fall, Lincoln proposed marriage, but Mary declined. He wrote of the failed romance to Mrs. Orville Browning, whose husband served in the U.S. Senate during the Lincoln presidency.

Though photos show Owens as fairly attractive, Lincoln wrote that upon Mary’s return in 1836, she had a “want of teeth, weather-beaten appearance in general…nothing could have commenced at the size of infancy and reached her present bulk in less than thirty-five or forty years.” Mary was 28 at the time.

After much deliberation, he “mustered my resolution and made the proposal (of marriage) to her direct; but shocking to relate, she answered ‘No.’” Lincoln added “I was mortified…in a hundred different ways…I, for the first time, began to suspect I was really a little in love with her.”

Many Lincoln scholars consider this letter, written on April Fools Day, 1838, to be more humorous than factual. “I think Lincoln was half-joking,” remarked Temple. “It was sort of like, ‘here’s why I wanted to get out of it, because Mary was so ugly.’ In reality, she was not that bad-looking.”

Owens eventually left New Salem, married in 1841, had five children, and later lived in Weston, Mo. At least two of her sons fought for the Confederacy. Widowed in 1862, she died on July 4, 1877. Lincoln, meanwhile, met Mary Todd in 1839 and married her three years later.

In 1866, Lincoln’s former law partner, William Herndon, wrote Owens while researching a book and series of lectures on the fallen President. She related a story of riding with Lincoln and a group of friends when they approached “a bad branch” of water, and the “other gentlemen were very officious in seeing that they partners got over safely.” Lincoln, meanwhile, rode on, “never looking back to see how I got along.”

Owens added that his “training had been different” from hers, “hence there was not that congeniality which would otherwise have existed.”

Many scholars credit Herndon with the rise of the Ann Rutledge legend, but his interview with Owens is one of the strongest arguments against any such relationship. Though Herndon claimed Lincoln was madly in love with Rutledge and despondent over her death, the future President was involved with Owens only a year later. Owens said that Lincoln never mentioned Rutledge’s name.

Years later, Owens apparently had no regrets. She told Herndon that “Lincoln was deficient in those little links which make up the chain of a woman’s happiness.”
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