THR Web Features   /   February 14, 2023

Love and Mr. Lincoln

There was something about Mary…but she wasn’t Ann.

Vincent Ercolano

( A cousin of Ann Rutledge declared that this young lady looked very much like Lincoln’s first sweetheart; THR illustration/Shutterstock/Library of Congress.)

Back before the advent of Ring, when people would actually answer the front door without getting a head-to-toe look at who was on the other side, insurance agents full of resolution—and appreciative of the efficiency of going door to door in a rowhouse neighborhood—would often come calling at my house the first weeks of the new year. If no one was home, an agent might leave a cardboard desk calendar stamped with his name and number, as well as a motto designed to encourage my parents to purchase his product. Invariably a Babbitt-meets-Sartre blend of manic cheer and existential gloom, these slogans rarely fetched my dad, a natural optimist who, I found out years later, took a dim view of life insurance. He did appreciate the free calendars, though. 

You can still buy those cardboard standup desk calendars. Nowadays, the twelve slips of paper stapled to the date pad usually come in black-and-white, though some of the calendars still treat Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays as literal red-letter days. What is almost unfailingly absent from the newer versions is a lavish laying-on of color. Older renditions printed on hot-type letterpresses in vivid four-color, gaily strew gaudy icons throughout the year to signal noteworthy days. New Year’s Day would depict a lusty infant clad in diaper, top hat, and yellow sash. There’d be a red firecracker streaming yellow fire for the Fourth, and a pink-cheeked Santa in red velvet for Christmas. There were also somber moments: a draped wooden cross on Good Friday, a soldier’s tombstone on Memorial Day. There was also a pair of images whose juxtaposition strikes me as particularly poignant—Abraham Lincoln, in penny profile on the square for February 12, staring intently at the red valentine forever out of reach, across the unbridgeable expanse to February 14.

We all know that Abraham Lincoln had little luck in love. In his two-part biography The Prairie Years and The War Years, Carl Sandburg relates that such joy as Lincoln experienced in his twenty-four-year marriage to Mary Todd was liberally leavened with sorrow. A daughter of Kentucky high society, Todd had keen wits—she spoke fluent French and after moving to Springfield wrote a droll, merciless political gossip column for a local newspaper. On one occasion at least, she was also a sound judge of character. Told that the rough-hewn frontier legislator (still single at thirty-three, and with a record of broken engagements in his past, including one to Mary herself) was beneath her socially, she is said to have replied, “I would rather marry a good man, a man of mind, with a hope and bright prospects ahead for position, fame, and power than to marry all the houses, gold, and bones in the world.” 

Yet there was something about Mary. As Sandburg writes, Lincoln “had met a woman and found his heart and mind in storm after storm.” Even in their Springfield days there was strife between them over the honest joy she took in social life—the parties, the dances—and his devotion to his toil in the Illinois General Assembly. During the first of their two engagements, she would sometimes attend a soirée with another man rather than sit at home while Lincoln passed yet another evening in the “smoke-filled rooms and hullabaloo” (in Sandburg’s phrase) in which nineteenth-century pols birthed legislation. Later, in the White House, “storm after storm” would be replaced by a sort of chronic low-pressure system as President Lincoln alternately looked the other way and protested feebly about the first lady’s love of fashionable dresses and fancy carriages, or, even more troubling, her tendency to divert herself by meddling in executive appointments big and small—from postmasterships to cabinet posts. There were also the rumors of Southern sympathies: Mrs. Lincoln’s brother and three half-brothers were Confederate officers. 

Before the pathos and eventual high tragedy that bedeviled Lincoln’s married years came low comedy of a kind not unlike the modern sit-com. In 1837, the ordinarily ambivalent Lincoln found himself agreeing to wed a young Kentucky gentlewoman, whom he had met only once and who impressed him as “intelligent and agreeable.” In a bit of reasoning not exactly designed to warm a young woman’s heart, he averred that he “saw no good objection to plodding through life hand in hand with her.” When the lady from Kentucky arrived in Springfield, Lincoln found to his dismay that the years had not been kind. Indeed, “she now appeared a fair match for Falstaff,” he wrote to a friend. Nonetheless, he resolved to do the right thing and proposed marriage. To his amazement, the lady turned him down. His ego stung, he proposed again. Again, she said no. And two more times. “I was mortified, it seemed to me, in a hundred different ways…. She whom I had taught myself to believe no body else would have, had actually rejected me with all my fancied greatness.”

Lincoln concluded this tale by vowing that he would “never again…think of marrying; and for this reason: I can never be satisfied with any one who would be block-headed enough to have me.” 

But before the high tragedy and low comedy there had actually been…real love. Her name was Ann Rutledge.

Reminiscing a quarter-century after Rutledge’s death from typhoid fever at age twenty-two, Lincoln, by then president-elect, is supposed to have said, “I loved the woman dearly & sacredly: she was a handsome girl—would have made a good loving wife—was natural and quite intellectual, though not highly Educated—I did honestly—& truly—love the girl & think often—often of her now.” Like many statements attributed to Lincoln, this one, recounted by an acquaintance from the early Illinois days, must be considered with caution. Nonetheless, the distinguished historian John Y. Simon, in his 1990 article “Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge,” concluded that “available evidence overwhelmingly indicates that Lincoln so loved Ann that her death plunged him into a severe depression.” 

When Abe Lincoln, twenty-four, met the twenty-year-old Ann Rutledge in 1833 in the town of New Salem, Illinois, she was indeed “handsome”—auburn hair and blue eyes—and in some ways was a woman ahead of her time. She was a wage earner, doing farm work to help support her family but, more importantly, to raise the funds to acquire what often passed for higher education for women in those days—enrollment at a “female academy” in a nearby town. Her determination to control her own earnings and to seek higher education must have been at least as strong a draw to the socially ungraceful and generally nonconforming Lincoln as her comely appearance. Ann Rutledge was also a young woman in an awkward position—the fiancée of a man who had ridden out of New Salem a year earlier, to help his financially straitened parents in New York State, it was said. Very little had been heard from him since. Perhaps Ann’s uncertain status was what inclined the woman-wary Lincoln to pursue a relationship with her. 

Postcard showing a rather romanticized view of Abe Lincoln and Ann Rutledge;

Sandburg calls it “probable” that Ann eventually wrote a letter to her long-absent, long-silent fiancé releasing him from the engagement. Lincoln was finally free to give honorable pursuit—but Ann would soon be dead. Mere days after her passing in August 1835, the erstwhile fiancé, one John McNamar, showed up in New Salem, his parents’ situation supposedly set to rights. Within two years McNamar would marry, and in the process of tidying up his financial affairs would evict a family that had fallen behind on their rent on a house and some arable land he owned. That family was the Rutledges. 

In a 2022 article, “Lincoln’s Grammar Book,” Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collection Division of the Library of Congress, speculated about whether an inscription on a copy of an 1828 grammar that read “Ann M. Rutledge is now learning grammar” was possibly “a sweet double entendre between two young lovers or just a polite inscription between friends.” The grammar, which, Dimunation pointed out, “is the earliest book known to have been in Lincoln’s possession,” bears what may be the only physical evidence of communication between Lincoln and Rutledge, though there are conflicting views on which of the two wrote the inscription. Whoever it was, those few words were no doubt a reminder to the two good friends of a mutual love—if only a love of learning.

What if Ann Rutledge had lived, and she and Lincoln had married? A quarter-century later, president and first lady, would they have been Washington’s first power couple? Or would connubial bliss have taken some of the steam out of what Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon called “the little engine of his ambition”? Perhaps preferring evenings at home to the “smoke-filled rooms and hullabaloo,” Lincoln would have set politics aside to cultivate his private law practice in Springfield. Would he and Ann have watched the Civil War unfold from many miles behind Union lines as they reached late middle age?

“I did honestly—& truly—love the girl & think often—often of her now.” 

For many of us, Valentine’s Day is a day to celebrate present loves. But for some, it’s also an occasion to look across the unbridgeable blankness that separates them from the past and, like Abraham Lincoln, wonder, “What if?”