DescriptionA Highly Important Abraham Lincoln Letter to His First Fiancée, Mary Owens. This December 13, 1836 letter is one of our 16th president's earliest surviving missives. It is the first of three written to Owens, and is considered very significant by Lincoln scholars for the insight it gives us into Lincoln the man. Here we see a diffident Lincoln, obviously ill at ease with the opposite sex and given to the sort of deep depression which would often manifest itself during his career in public life. This is the only Mary Owens letter still in private hands. One was given by her descendants to the Library Congress, and the third was purchased in the 2002 auction of the Malcom Forbes Collection, at a cost of $779,000, by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History at the New York Historical Society. Heritage is proud to offer one of the premier Lincoln letters ever to come to market, consigned for auction by a direct descendant of Mary Owens.
Mary S. Owens (1808-1877), a well-educated daughter of a wealthy Kentucky planter, first visited New Salem, Illinois, in 1833 to visit her sister, Mrs. Bennett (Betsey) Abel (circa 1804-?), with whom Lincoln boarded for a time. She and Lincoln first met during this visit and the latter was apparently impressed by his landlady's self-confident, fun-loving, and sophisticated sister. Mrs. Abell agreed to invite Mary back to New Salem if Lincoln agreed to marry her, a proposal that he apparently accepted. What is not clear is whether Lincoln's agreement to the proposal was serious or given in jest. Nevertheless, Mary Owens returned to New Salem in 1836 and lived in the village until 1838, during which time Lincoln moved to Springfield, Illinois. Sometime during her first year in New Salem, she and Lincoln came to some sort of understanding concerning marriage. Yet the relationship showed signs of strain, with Lincoln, awkward and uncomfortable in the presence of women his age (both he and Mary were 24 years of age), unsure of his romantic feelings toward Mary and her intentions toward him. While both Mary and Abraham were natives of Kentucky, they came from different worlds in terms of upbringing and education. Mary, unlike Lincoln, was born into wealth and received a formal education. Mary dressed in the latest fashions and was well-schooled in the protocols of deportment and manners. Not Lincoln. Yet, in this letter, written at the end of Mary's first year living in New Salem, Lincoln, in Vandalia, Illinois, to attend the opening session of the Illinois legislature, shows that he clearly had feelings for Mary and yearned to receive a letter from her. Although Lincoln's letter concentrated on political news from the state capital, including Governor Joseph Duncan's vitriolic speech against President Andrew Jackson, he informed Mary that he is suffering though one of his occasional bouts of depression, which was exacerbated by being separated from her.
"I have been sick ever since my arrival here, or I should have written sooner. It is but little difference, however, as I have verry [sic] little even yet to write. And more, the longer I can avoid the mortification of looking in the Post Office for your letter and not finding it, the better. You see I am mad about that old letter yet. I don't like verry [sic] well to risk you again. I'll try you once more any how.
The new State House is not yet finished, and consequently the legislature is doing little or nothing. The Governor delivered an inflamitory [sic] political Message, and it is expected there will be some sparring between the parties about it as soon as the two Houses get to business. Taylor delivered up his petitions for the New County to one of our members this morning. I am told that he dispairs [sic] of its success on account of all the members from Morgan County opposing it. There are names enough on the petition, I think, to justify the members from our county in going for it; but if the members from Morgan oppose it, which they say they will, the chance will be bad.
Our chance to take the seat of Government to Springfield is better than I expected. An Internal Improvement Convention was held here since we met, which recommended a loan of several millions of dollars on the faith of the State to construct Rail Roads. Some of the legislature are for it and some against it; which has the majority I can not tell. There is great strife and struggling for the office of U.S. Senator here at this time. It is possible we shall ease their pains in a few days. The opposition men have no candidate of their own, and consequently they smile as complacently at the angry snarls of the contending Van Buren candidates and their respective friends, as the Christian does at Satan's rage. You recollect I mentioned in the outset of this letter that I had been unwell. That is the fact, though I believe I am about well now; but that, with other things I can not account for, have conspired and have gotten my spirits so low, that I feel that I would rather be any place in the world than here. I really cannot endure the thought of staying here ten weeks. Write back as soon as you get this, and if possible say something that will please me, for really I have not been pleased since I left you. This letter is so dry and stupid that I am ashamed to send it, but with my present feelings I can not do any better. Give my respects to Mr. and Mrs. Abell and family.
During the nine months between this letter and the last known letter of Lincoln's to Mary Owens, dated August 16, 1837, the relationship had deteriorated. Mary, perhaps frustrated by Lincoln's emotional diffidence towards her, appears to have demanded a commitment on Lincoln's part. In his last surviving letter to Mary, Lincoln, unsure of his true feelings for her, makes an agonizing attempt to seek a resolution concerning marriage, asking Mary to either to release him from a pledge he felt honor bound to keep, or indicate a wish to pursue a more committed relationship. Mary finally rejected Lincoln's half-hearted marriage proposal.
Lincoln subsequently attempted to make light of the failed relationship in an April 1, 1838 letter to Eliza Caldwell Browning, one of his few women friends and the wife of his political friend Orville Hickman Browning (1806-1881). In that letter Lincoln related the history of the ill-fated affair in a jocular, sometimes cruel vein, making fun of Mary as well as himself. Though Mary may not have been considered beautiful by those who knew her, her physical appearance was far from the corpulent, toothless, and weather-beaten woman Lincoln described. One suspects that Lincoln's exaggerated descriptions of Mary were intended not only to be humorous but to rationalize what must have been for him a humiliating experience. He finally admitted to Eliza Browning that he was "really a little in love" with Mary Owens and was mortified when she rejected his proposal of marriage. Lincoln realized he had not only misunderstood his own feelings toward her but also failed completely to comprehend her feelings toward him.
Few Lincoln letters relating to courtship or romance exist. This one is the only one available in today's market. Some of Lincoln's associates and acquaintances from his New Salem days claim he and Ann Rutledge were romantically involved and were engaged. There is no conclusive proof of this, however, and no consensus among historians as to the validity of this relationship. Lincoln never spoke of it or wrote about it. His pre-marriage letters to Mary Todd were probably destroyed by her. Only his letters to Mary Owens exist. One thing we know for certain, based on the letters Lincoln wrote, including the one offered here, is that before Mary Todd Lincoln was in a relationship with Mary Owens, that they had some kind of an agreement concerning marriage, and that as the relationship disintegrated, Lincoln asked Mary to marry him and she turned him down.
The letter measures 9.75 inches x 7.75 inches, and was written from Vandalia, Illinois on December 13, 1836. It is in generally good condition and clearly readable, although a vertical stain on the lower portion of the letter has obscured approximately eight words and partially affected several others (legible under ultra-violet light). Several typical partial separations along original fold lines have been professionally repaired to ensure the letter's stability.
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