Unraveling the Lincoln Courtship Conspiracy

EARLY in the morning of Nov. 4, 1842, a conspiracy was launched in Springfield, Illinois. The conspirator, a 33-year-old bachelor lawyer, interrupted Dr. Charles Dresser and his family at breakfast and announced: ``I want to get hitched tonight.'' This statement may have caught the Episcopal minister a little by surprise. The young lawyer has not been seen courting any women in the town for the better part of two years.

At about the same time the lawyer's co-conspirator, a lively, fun-loving, determined, and over this matter very self-disciplined young woman of 23 years, took action. She detonated a bomb (metaphorically, of course) at the home of her sister Elizabeth. She had been living at the two-story brick mansion and was the ward of her sister's husband, Ninian Edwards, son of a former governor of Illinois and A Man of Means. She announced that she would be marrying the lawyer that night at the Dressers' home.

Meanwhile, the young lawyer encountered Edwards on the street. He informed him that the period of his guardianship was about to end. Edwards cannot have been happy with this news.

We do not know his reaction. But we do know that his wife, Elizabeth, was horrified. The Edwardses occupied An Important Place in Springfield Society (such as Society was in a frontier town whose streets could be turned to mud by heavy rains). The wedding of her younger sister should be An Important Occasion. Except, of course, it could not be if Mary intended to wed Abraham Lincoln.

According to the account of the two women's sister Frances, who was present, Elizabeth ``with an outburst gave Mary a good scolding.'' And she warned vehemently: ``Do not forget that you are a Todd.'' In addition, she seems to have referred to Mary's intended as ``a plebian'' becauselater in the day, when it became clear that, due to haste, refreshments would need to include gingerbread from the town's only bakery, Mary averred that this would be ``good enough for plebians.''

It must have been A Very Difficult Day for Ninian and Elizabeth Edwards.

But it was nothing compared to the day that Abe Lincoln and Mary Todd, whom he called Molly, spent almost two years earlier on New Year's Day, 1841.

The historical record is not clear as to precisely what happened that day. We do know that by the end of 1840 Lincoln and Mary Todd had agreed to marry. In a day when divorce was disgraceful and wrenching, when marriage bound an honorable man to lifelong economic responsibilities to his wife, an agreement to marry involved more far-reaching responsibilities than a wedding engagement does today. An agreement to marry involved entering into a contract.

WE know that Mary Todd came from an aristocratic and politically prominent Kentucky family; her father had been a captain in the War of 1812, was then the president of the Bank of Kentucky. Senator Henry Clay was a family friend. Mary had received an impeccable education for a young woman of her era, a much better one than her largely self-taught fianc'e ever received.

We know that she was flirtatious and witty, one of the belles of Springfield, and included not only Lincoln but his eventual debating rival Senator Stephen A. Douglas among her swains.

We know that she shared literary and political interests with her fianc'e; that they both wrote verses and quoted poetry; and that she was convinced, contrary to members of her family, that Lincoln had ``bright prospects ahead for position.''

We know that Lincoln did not have Background. But by late 1840 he was serving his fourth term in the Illinois legislature. He was the junior partner in the law firm of Stuart and Lincoln (John Todd Stuart was one of Mary's innumerable Todd cousins).

He had stumped the state earlier in the year for the successful Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison, and he had shown adroit political skills six years earlier in leading the successful campaign to get the state capital moved from Vandalia to Springfield.

(Edwards had, in fact, been one of the nine Springfield legislators - they all stood over six feet and were called the ``Long Nine'' - who helped Lincoln bring the capital to Sangamon County.)

And we know that on New Year's Day, 1841, the engagement was broken.

But we don't know why.

Lincoln's later law partner ``Billy'' Herndon wrote that Lincoln jilted Mary Todd at the altar that fateful day. But Herndon was not around at the time. Later scholarship has largely discredited his account.

``The bride or the groom, or both, broke the engagement,'' concludes Carl Sandburg. Then, noting the confusion Herndon had sewn, he adds: ``There was gossip and dispute about whether the wedding had been set for that date at all.''

Mary's biographer Ruth Randall believes that Lincoln suffered a crisis of self-confidence. While the Edwardses had welcomed Lincoln to their home as a friend, she contends, they made it clear to him - once they saw the affection between him and Molly - that he was not fit to marry into the family.

Lincoln had integrity and political savvy. But he also had debts. He did not own a house; he lodged with friends. Although Springfield was only a small frontier city, Lincoln was still - despite his achievements - deeply aware of his limitations: his backwoods youth, his lack of social training, his poverty.

``If the Edwardses had made known to him their disapproval because of those very factors which were already troubling him, it would have cut the introspective and self-doubting young man to the quick,'' argues Mrs. Randall. Bound to Mary by the contract their agreement represented, he was forced, she writes, ``to choose between two lines of conduct, neither of which he considered entirely honorable.''

WELL after the event Lincoln's friend Joshua Speed suggested that on that New Year's Day Lincoln confessed to Molly his doubts about the wisdom of their marrying. According to Speed, she burst into tears and Lincoln reacted by taking her in his arms to comfort her. But he did not renounce his doubts.

Randall believes that the Edwardses muscled in and got Mary to write a letter releasing Lincoln from any obligations to her, thus breaking the engagement. Mrs. Edwards later told Herndon: ``The world had it that Mr. L backed out, and this placed Mary in a peculiar situation & to set herself right and to free Mr. Lincoln's mind she wrote a letter to Mr. L stating that she would release him from the engagement.''

Mary may have ended the engagement, but her love for Lincoln did not end. This lively, gossip-loving, sharp-tongued young woman said nothing rancorous about her former fianc'e. She kept her own counsel and she kept her poise.

Meanwhile, Lincoln went completely off the deep end. People who knew him said he'd gone ``crazy.'' A fellow Whig legislator wrote that he had heard that Lincoln ``had two Cat fits, and a Duck fit.''

LINCOLN himself wrote John Todd Stuart on January 23: ``I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.''

But lovers have friends. A year or so later the wife of the editor of the Sangamo Journal conspired to have Mary and Lincoln meet ``unexpectedly'' in her home. It must have been clear to each that the attachment remained strong. The lovers began to meet secretly at the editor's home.

Close observers of the two people must have suspected that something was afoot. Mary was apparently teased about her ``tall beau,'' but continued to keep her own counsel. Lincoln wrote his newly married friend Speed to inquire: ``Are you now in feeling as well as judgment glad you are married?'' He added: ``Please answer [this question] quickly as I am impatient to know.''

Speed wholeheartedly endorsed his new status.

At their secret meetings, as Sandburg points out, ``Miss Todd made it clear to [Lincoln] that if another date should be fixed for a wedding, it should not be set so far in the future as it was the time before.'' Meaning, presumably, that the Edwardses should not be given a second chance to ruin the match.

Over the years nasty accusations have besmirched Mary Todd Lincoln's reputation. But here we see her winning her way by patience, steadfastness, and discretion; we see her nurturing the confidence of her poor-boy lover, showing that she will stick with him for ``better or worse, richer or poorer.''

When the Nov. 4 conspiracy was launched, it took the town by surprise. The Edwardses insisted that the wedding take place in their home. Mary rounded up three bridesmaids, including her cousin Elizabeth who washed and ironed her best white dress for the occasion. Lincoln roused his friend Jim Matheny out of bed (it was an eventful early morning for him!), announced, ``I am going to be married today,'' and asked him to be his best man.

The wedding took place in front of the Edwards' fireplace. Lincoln gave Molly a ring inscribed ``Love is eternal.'' The wedding cake had been so recently baked, says tradition, that it was still warm.

A carriage took the newlyweds to the Globe Tavern. The couple lodged and boarded there (at the cost of $4.00 per week) until they bought a story-and-a-half frame house shortly after their first son was born at the Globe on Aug. 1, 1843.

If the broken engagement sent Lincoln into a tailspin, he took the marriage easily in stride. Seven days after it took place he wrote a friend discussing two law cases and added: ``Nothing new here, except my marrying, which to me, is a matter of profound wonder.''

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