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If there are lights in the hallways of history, Abraham Lincoln is one. And never did he shine more brightly than in his courtship of Mary Owens. The dates and the events are real. Much of the dialogue comes from Lincoln’s own writings and the recollections of others about him. Still, this is historical fiction. I have taken artistic liberties with some statements and I have adjusted some of the circumstances. I did so with two major purposes.
First, I wanted to be true to the character of Lincoln. Someone once said that if a conference were called for all the people in the world who always do what they say they will do, it could be held in a coat closet with room for a refreshment table. Lincoln would be an honored guest at such a gathering.
Second, I wanted to praise the rarest of human qualities: integrity. In April of 1838, Lincoln wrote a letter to Mrs. Orville Browning of Quincy, describing many of the details of this story. A passage of that letter is quoted near the end of this book. The letter unfolds a story of humor, but also of wrenching poignancy—the story of a man who has given his word to marry a woman with whom, when he meets her, he is not at all pleased. Most men would have walked away, but not Lincoln. “I make it a point of honor and conscience in all things to stick to my word,” he wrote. “I have said it, and, be the consequences what they may, it shall not be my fault if I fail to do it.”
LINCOLN AND THE LADY
“I can hardly plead with my pants around my ankles,” Lincoln whispered to the Justice. A suspender button on his trousers had broken lose, and Lincoln with a desperate snatch had grabbed the waist and pulled his pants back into position. “Most people in this room, or in America, for that matter, have never seen as much leg as they will see if I don’t fasten these trousers.”
The New Salem magistrate stifled an urge to laugh. He announced a ten-minute recess while Lincoln used a jackknife from his pocket to whittle a replacement button.
That afternoon when court adjourned, the participants and spectators gathered in the yard, reviewing the events of the day, reliving the drama and pageantry of the day’s cases. Court week was a time of excitement in the small prairie towns of Illinois. Frontier courtrooms took the place of theatre, concert hall, and opera.
As the people conversed, one of the attorneys asked Lincoln about the incident with the button. “I never knew you to carry a knife before.” Lincoln drew the object from his pocket and passed it to his colleague, who examined it. “A blessing to all of us that you had it, I suppose,” he commented, imagining Lincoln’s unveiling, “but where did it come from?”
Lincoln’s eyes twinkled. “A few days ago I was stopped on this very road by a stranger. He stepped directly in my path, scrutinized my feature, and said, ‘Excuse me, sir, but I have an article in my possession which belongs to you.’
“’How is that?’ I asked, considerably astonished, for I was certain that I had never seen the man in my life.
“The stranger took the jackknife from his pocket. ‘This knife,’ said he, ‘was placed in my hands some years ago with the injunction that I was to keep it until I found a man uglier than myself. I have carried it from that time until this. Allow me now to say, sir, that my search is over.’”
Lincoln laughed loudest, his mirth unforced and spontaneous. The others joined with him as he returned the knife to his pocket. This young man, much-respected and well-liked as he was, had become the target of considerable humor due to his appearance. It was a subject in which he often took the lead. He never tired of amusing stories, even those told at his own expense.
“How do you account for your excessive homeliness?” one of the onlookers asked.
“Well, friend, it is a simple matter. When I was two months old, I was the handsomest child in Kentucky, but, my Negro nurse swapped me for another boy just to please a friend who was going down the river and whose child was not at all attractive.”
Steve Douglas, a transplant from Vermont and relatively new to the Illinois bar, spoke to Lincoln with honest concern in his voice. ‘Mr. Lincoln, doesn’t it bother you? This matter of your appearance and the constant talk about it?
“Very much so, indeed!” responded Lincoln, his voice grave with melancholy. “After the incident with the knife, I got into a fit of musing in my room as I stood looking into the glass. It struck me more than ever before what an ugly man I was. The fact grew on me and my depression grew likewise until I made up my mind that I must be the ugliest man in the world. Then I was so maddened that I resolved should I ever see anyone uglier, I would shoot him on sight. Not long after this, Andy”- and here Lincoln gestured with his head toward a lawyer present-”came into town, and the first time I saw him I said to myself: ‘There’s the man.’
“I went to my room, took down my gun, and prowled around the streets waiting for him. He soon came along.
“’Halt, Andy,’ said I, pointing my gun at him, ‘and say your prayers, for I am going to shoot you.’
‘Why, Mr. Lincoln, what’s the matter? What have I done?’
“I made an oath that if I ever saw an uglier man than I am, I’d shoot him on the spot. Make ready to die.”
“’Mr. Lincoln,’ Andy asked, full of apprehension, ‘am I uglier than you? Could anyone believe that could be correct?’
“’Yes, Andy, I think it would be obvious.’
’Then, Mr. Lincoln, fire away!’
The evening grew cooler as the time passed. The men began to say their good-byes and leave the circle for their homes and families. From the schoolhouse where court was held, Bowling Green, who was one of Lincoln’s closest friends in New Salem, ambled across the yard and stood next to Abraham.
“I‘m on my way to the house, Lincoln. Do you want to come by for a while and see the children?”
The tall man considered. It was not often that he was able to spend time with a happy family and small children. He had no family of his own. He was 27 years old, and possessed of strong domestic inclinations, but always, there was the matter of his face and his form. Behind the humor and stories was the distressing realization that the ladies would never be attracted to him.
Mr. Green read something in his eyes. “Are you lonely, friend?” Bowling inquired.
“I have my days,” replied Lincoln, his face falling into long lines of despondency. “A man my age needs a wife and some sons.”
“Then talk to Mrs. Bennett Abell. She has an idea you might admire. Will you come to the house?”
The hour was late, and Abraham decided not to impose. “Thank you, no, Bowling. I’ll go to my lodgings and review my cases. I did not do myself much credit today in court.”
“You did, fine, my friend, except for one thing.”
“What thing?” asked the young attorney.
“Your trousers, Lincoln! Did you know that a group of spectators approached me after court and invited my contribution to a collection for the purpose of providing you with a new pair of pants? A pair that would stay up in public?”
“I hope that in the spirit of our friendship you were generous,” Lincoln said.
“No. I was not,” Green replied “I told them that I did not see how I could make a contribution to the end in sight.”
The next morning as Lincoln left his room, he discovered Mrs. Bennett Abell coming toward the door.
She eyed him once up and down, and spoke in the straightforward manner for which she was renowned. “Mr. Green says you are lonely. Is it true?”
Lincoln feigned surprise. “What? With friends like you and the Justice, how could it be possible?”
“Never mind that, my friend I have a proposition for you. Do you remember my sister Mary?
Lincoln considered. Mary had been in Salem about three years previously. There were not many eligible young women in New Salem, and she had caused a significant ripple in the smooth waters of this quiet prairie town. She had not stayed long, but there was talk of her for weeks after her departure for home.
“I remember her,” Lincoln said “Why do you ask?”
“Because I am her sister and her welfare is my concern. She is a year older than you, Mr. Lincoln, and advancing age may be her enemy. She shows no inclination and makes no effort to enter into matrimony at home in Kentucky. She might, here.”
“Why is that?” asked Lincoln.
“In her last two letters she has mentioned you, Sir, or inquired about you. I think that she would be agreeable to an honest proposal from you.” Mrs. Abell folded her arms and waited.
Lincoln was staggered, his emotions in turmoil. Standing in the brightness of this autumn morning the thought of getting married hit him like a barge pole. He stepped back and searched the face of this friend. He saw with astonishment that this suggestion was being offered in all sincerity.
“Mrs. Abell, is there any possibility that she would have me if I asked her?” he inquired. The conversations of the previous evening were echoing through his mind.
“Abraham, stop hiding behind your face! You are now an attorney, and, in addition, a member of the Legislature of this state. Of course she would have you.”
“I must think,” he said.
“I am leaving in the morning for Kentucky,” said Mrs. Abel. “Say the word and I will bring her back with me. Good day. I will see you here after lunch.” Lincoln stood in the yard and watched Mrs. Bennett Abell walk away. As she paused and turned to wave at him, he shook his head, astonished and amused that the ordered arrangement of his world could have been so abruptly shattered.
By the time Lincoln had eaten his noon meal, he had made a decision. He had examined his feelings, and had found that he was not only willing, but rather well-pleased with the prospect of this marriage. He had reflected again and again on his memories of Mrs. Abell’s sister, and although his recollection of her features was indistinct, he seemed to recall her intelligence and agreeable nature. She had been jovial, popular, and well-educated, with a genuine wit. Actually, the idea of marriage to her seemed quite promising. In addition, he was flattered to think that Mrs. Abell considered him good enough for such a match. He could see no objection to plodding through life hand in hand with Mary Owens.
“Now, Abraham Lincoln,” Mrs. Abell said when he had declared his willingness to accept her recommendation. “I know that affairs of the heart cannot be rushed unduly, but neither of you is likely to improve with age. When we return, I will rely on your honor to become my brother-in-law with all convenient dispatch.”
The young lawyer agreed, and gave his word on the matter, but he still felt some anxiety the next day when Bennett Abell informed him that Mrs. Abell had indeed left that morning to visit her family.
For six weeks, Lincoln was in the midst of his second campaign for the Illinois Legislature. Time to preoccupy himself with events in Kentucky was scarce. In addition, his friend and mentor John Stuart had offered him a full legal partnership in Springfield. Abe was kept busy trying to arrange his own affairs in preparation for the move. But at the most inconvenient times, the journey of Mrs. Abell and the impulsiveness of his promise would lay siege to his thoughts, and he would be paralyzed for a moment by both fear and anticipation.
On Election Day, November 7, 1836, the sisters returned. Had he known of their return, his involvement with the election would no doubt have kept him away, but he did not imagine that they could have returned so far so soon. When Samuel Hill mentioned that evening in his store that Mrs. Bennett Abell was back in New Salem, the news was so unexpected that Lincoln almost did not hear it. Several seconds passed before his head snapped up and he whirled to face the storekeeper.
“Is she alone? Did she bring anyone with her?”
“Her sister Mary is here again. You remember Mary. She was here for a month or so in thirty-three. I’ll tell you, Mr. Lincoln, that lady is quite an eyeful, if you get my meaning.”
Lincoln retained his seat in the Legislature by a comfortable margin. But the victory was overshadowed by the arrival of the sisters.
Perhaps this unmarried sister was a trifle too anxious to marry, he thought as he reflected on the matter that evening in his room. This trip to and from Kentucky had been completed in a very short time. However, it was possible that Mary had been prevailed upon to come without anything concerning him or his commitment having been mentioned to her at all.
But it did not matter. He had promised to marry Mary. Whatever her reasons for coming, she was here, and soon he would see her and begin the process of making her his wife.
As it turned out, two or three days went by before Lincoln and Mary met. But when they did meet, Mary Owens was so different from what Abraham had expected that when he left her to make his way home that evening, he was stunned. That night in his room he told “Slicky Bill” Green all about it with the candor he reserved for his closest friends.
“Yes, Bill,” Lincoln said, “I have seen her before, but either my memory has deserted me, or her trimmings have deserted her. She is not the girl I remember.”
“But you must have known that she was oversized,” Bill responded.
“Oversized! Bill! If you say she is an armful, you miss the truth by at least one arm. But it is more than that.”
“What, then? Her age?”
“I knew before she came that she was called an old maid. Now that I have seen her, I feel no doubt at all of the truth of that assertion.”
“That is it, then. You are distressed because she is not so young as you had expected.”
“Young? Bill, when we were talking I could not for my life avoid thinking of my mother.”
“Ah,” Bill chuckled, “Wrinkles.”
“No,” Lincoln retorted. “There are no wrinkles. Her skin is too full of fat to permit its contracting into wrinkles.” Abraham began to pace. “The problem is her lack of teeth, her weather-beaten appearance in general, and a kind of notion that runs in my head that nothing could have commenced at the size of infancy and reached her present bulk in less than thirty-five or forty years.”
The lawyer now stopped before Bill. “In short, my friend, I am not at all pleased with her.” Lincoln sat down and removed his boots, looking much like a man condemned to the gallows.
“It is an advantage then that you are not bound to her,” Bill observed. “The discovery of your feelings so early on in the matter simplifies the process of ending the arrangement.”
Lincoln swung around in his chair and looked at his friend. “What do you mean, ‘not bound to her’? Of course I am bound to her.”
“No you are not, my friend!” Bill persisted. “You are not required to pursue this matter. No law in Illinois or on earth can compel you to marry this woman. You have changed your mind. Walk away.”
“There might be more than one way through this for some men, Slinky Bill,” Lincoln declared, “but not for me. I gave my word.”
“Abraham, this is not a time to be noble. We are not talking about paying your rent or taking the lady to church, we are talking about marriage! And misery! You have to look at this thing flat on, without that preposterous moral squint of yours.”
“Never mind how I look at things,” Lincoln said. “I was endowed with only this one pair of spectacles—the moral ones, as you say—and it is hard enough to see through them. If I remove them, I may be completely blind.”
An oppressive silence settled over the room. Neither man spoke for several moments. Bill watched his friend openly. Lincoln seemed to be staring through the wall at distant mountains and freedom.
“What will you do?” Bill asked finally, shaking his head.
“What can I do?” Lincoln responded. He moved before the glass and began to remove his black neckerchief and shirt. “I told her sister that I would take her for better or for worse, and I make it a point of honor and conscience in all things to stick to my word.”
“But there must be some way to prevent this thing. Perhaps another man in this community will take an interest in her,” Bill suggested.
“I don’t think so, friend. I have seen her. No other man on earth will have her.” The attorney paced again, his long legs carrying him back and forth across the small room. “Mary and her sister will hold me to the bargain.”
“You know, Abe Lincoln, that there is not another man in Sangamon County that would agree with what you propose to do,” Bill argued.
“No,” Lincoln replied, a trace of a smile on his lips. “However, it is of no consequence.” He sat on the bed and dropped his head into his hands. “I am not any other man in the county. I am Abraham Lincoln. I am not bound to be happy. I am bound to be true.”
No sleep came to Lincoln. He tried his bed for an hour or two, but his mind was racing. Over and over he reviewed his conversation with Mrs. Abell. He discovered a thousand things that could have been said or done with utter simplicity to avoid the circumstance in which he now found himself. He could not comprehend the insanity that had caused him to agree to marry this girl when he knew so little about her.
Knowing his attempt to sleep was futile, Lincoln arose, dressed, and walked in the darkness. His skin was chilled by the late November air, but he did not notice. The sky was crystal clear, the stars brilliant, high, and shining, but he did not notice. When he came to the river and the mill, he sat on the walkway for a while and looked into the dark water below, not seeing the scattered light of the stars reflecting from the night sky. He had never in his life been in any bondage, real or imagined, from which he so much desired to be set free. But he was held in a chain whose links were forged by his own words.
Lincoln walked miles that night, down the river and then south across the fields. His destination was in his heart, and he struggled for mastery—the grit to make himself able to do what he had said he would do.
At last, in the early morning hours, he found a measure of peace. “Well,” he thought, “I have said it, and be the consequences what they may, it shall not be my fault if I fail to do it.” The secret, he decided at last, lay in already considering Mary his wife, and then in searching for attributes which that might be set off against her defects.
He did not have much time to conduct this search. Lincoln was able to visit with Mary only two more times before he left New Salem for Vandalia and the General Assembly of the State Legislature, which was to convene the first day of December. But he had discovered some things about Mary that made a difference. During one of their visits he tried to imagine that she was attractive, and realized that except for her unfortunate corpulency, it was true. By the time they parted, he was convinced that no woman he had ever seen had a finer face. She had fair skin, deep blue eyes, and dark curling hair. Lincoln was somewhat gratified, not so much with her, but with his ability to see such things in her.
He likewise made a determined effort to convince himself that the mind was much more to be valued than the person, and although they did not have a substantial amount of time together, when he left he felt that Mary was not inferior in this concern to anyone with whom he had been acquainted.
While Abraham was at Vandalia, he had letters from her that did not change his opinion of either her intellect or her intention. In fact, her communications to him confirmed his own conviction of both. He enjoyed her first letter enough to write back and lament that a second had not followed quickly enough.
The session of the legislature concluded during the second week of February of 1837, and by March, Lincoln had returned home, still suffering from some of the earlier misgivings about Mary Owens, but still fixed, as he said, “firm as the surge-repelling rock” in his resolution.
His meeting with Mary on March 12 defined the situation. “She was the same,” he told Slicky Bill, “and so was I.”
Wherever they went in the following weeks, Lincoln and Mary were together. They took walks to the dam on the river and watched waterfowl resting during their migrations north. They visited friends and participated in quilting bees, and, when it was warm enough, they went on outings with other people. They talked; they wondered; they planned.
On April 15, 1837, Lincoln moved from New Salem to Springfield. The time had come for him to commence his legal partnership with John T. Stuart. He found the city uninviting and ugly. In fact, the appearance of the unsightly town was the subject of more jest than he was. When a man applied for permission to deliver lectures in Springfield on the subject of the Second Coming of the Lord, he was told that it would be a waste of time. “It is my private opinion,” the citizen said, “that if the Lord has been in Springfield once, he will not come a second time.”
The rapidly growing city was dreary, and Lincoln thought often of Mary. He had discussed this move with her and had suggested at least once that she also consider moving to Springfield. But Lincoln was honest enough to see into himself. He was seriously contemplating marriage, but he was also seriously looking for ways to delay the event for a time. He commenced and discarded two letters to Mary before he finished and posted one on May 7.
He was much less positive about the matter of her move than he had been in New Salem; he was still far from positive about their marriage and he was fearful now that he might make a poor husband. He wrote:
I am often thinking about what you said about your coming to live at Springfield. I am afraid you would not be satisfied. There is a great deal of flourishing about in carriages here, which it would be your doom to see without sharing it. You would have to be poor without the means of hiding your poverty. Do you believe you could bear that patiently? 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 than to fail in the effort. I much wish you would think seriously before you decide. What I have said I will most positively abide by, provided you wish it.
Mary’s response did not allay Lincoln’s anxieties. She neither advanced the matter nor retreated, leaving her suitor disoriented and confused. Abraham therefore decided to bring the matter to a finish without further delay. He mustered his resolution, braced and reinforced his will, and, about the middle of August, took the stagecoach to New Salem, determined at last to propose to her and be done with it.
He wore his legislature suit. He had purchased it with borrowed money for his first session in state government. As he dressed in Springfield before his trip, Lincoln was again reminded of the distracting nature of his shape and appearance. The arms of the coat were too short, as well as the legs of the pants. The trousers bagged in all the wrong places. But the suit was the best he had.
Lincoln paid his respects to Bennett Abell and his family and suggested to Mary that the two of them walk together. They made their way toward the Offutt grocery where Abraham had worked as a clerk six years before. They turned before they arrived at the store and took the path to the bluff above the river. Mary made herself comfortable while Lincoln threw rocks into the water far below. It was afternoon and the shadows were long. The clouds, like cotton cathedrals, hung in the air, waiting.
Lincoln, still procrastinating, talked about his law practice and about cases involving hog-stealers and murderers. He told Mary about the other lawyers with whom he was in competition in Springfield, and about the sixty-six cases he and his partner had tried during the July term of Sangamon Circuit court.
Abraham was aware of Mary’s eyes on his back, and knew that she was listening. But he was also aware that he was rambling, and he thought Mary must know why he was. He knew that there could be no more escapes and that there were no more reasons for delays. The time had come.
He breathed deeply and told Mary how lonesome he was in Springfield. “I am more lonely than I have ever been in my life,” he announced, “and I am ready for that to end.” He turned from the river finally, and looked to where she sat, leaning against a tree, her skirts spread around her. In her eyes he saw understanding and affection.
He walked slowly toward her and extended his hand. She took it and stood, facing him. “Mary,” Lincoln began, his heart slamming into his ribs, his throat constricted, “Mary, I think you know my intentions. You know me. I am an unsightly small town lawyer and a mediocre politician. But I am dependable and reliable. I mean what I say, and I intend to do right. I cannot promise you that I will always know what is right, but I can promise you that if I do know, I will do it. That is all I can offer you at this time. Will you marry me?”
Mary regarded him solemnly for only an instant, smiled sadly, and whispered, “No.”
Fall ended and winter passed before Abraham was able to put the experience in perspective. In April of 1838, in a letter to a friend from Quincy, Lincoln reviewed the whole affair, including the proposal and its aftermath. He wrote:
I mustered my resolution, and made the proposal to her direct: but, shocking to relate, she answered “No.” At first I supposed she did it through an affectation of modesty, which I thought but ill-became her, under the peculiar circumstances of her case; but on my renewal of the charge, I found she repealed it with greater firmness than before; I tried it again and again, but with the same success, or rather the same want of success.
I finally was forced to give it up, at which I very unexpectedly found myself mortified almost beyond endurance. 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 nobody 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 was really a little in love with her.
But let it all go, I’ll try and outlive it. Others have been made fools of by the girls; but this can never with truth be said of me. I most emphatically, in this instance, made a fool of myself. 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 block-head enough to have me.
With his honor intact, his word unblemished, his conscience clear, and his ego battered, Lincoln got on with the business of living. In this matter of marriage to Mary Owens, as in every other part of his life, Lincoln was true to himself and to those who trusted him. No one could ever honestly call him two-faced, although someone once tried. “Two-faced?” cried the President of the United States when he heard the accusation. “Two-faced? Do you really believe that if I had two faces I would use this one?