Did Abraham Lincoln love his wife? Or was he instead forever emotionally faithful to the memory of his first true love, a woman by the name of Ann Rutledge? Is this another American legend, like that of Paul Bunyan?
The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle, but the way that this story has developed over the years is a fascinating tale in its own right.
What really happened between Lincoln and Ann Rutledge must be teased out from the messy array of personal resentments, finger-pointing, and condemnations to be understood in its entirety.
Who Was Anne Rutledge?
Ann was a young woman with whom Abraham Lincoln was rumoured to have been in love with, years before his marriage to Mary Todd Lincoln.
She was born in 1813 near Henderson, Kentucky, as the third of ten children, and raised in the pioneer spirit. In 1829, her father, James Rutledge, co-founded the hamlet of New Salem, Illinois, and Ann moved there with the rest of her family.
Shortly thereafter, she was engaged to be married. And then a young Abraham — the soon to be senator and one day president of the United States — moved to New Salem, where he and Ann became good friends.
Ann’s engagement then ended — possibly because of her friendship with Lincoln; no one knows for sure — and at the young age of 22 she quite tragically contracted typhoid fever and died.
Lincoln was stricken with grief after Anne Rutledge’s death, and this reaction has been taken as evidence that the two had engaged in a love affair, although this has never been proven.
Nevertheless, this supposed romance between the two has helped to make an otherwise ordinary country girl born on the American frontier in the early 19th century the focus of heated rumors and speculation about her impact on the life of one of America’s most famous and beloved presidents.
What Actually Happened Between Lincoln and Ann Rutledge?
When people speak of Abraham Lincoln’s younger years, they tend to gloss over his time as a manual laborer and shop-keeper in the pioneer outpost of New Salem, during the tail-end of American Westward Expansion.
Two years after the town’s founding, Lincoln floated through on a flatboat bound for New Orleans. The vessel foundered on the shore, and he was forced to spend time fixing it before continuing his journey.
His approach to this problem impressed the inhabitants of New Salem, and they apparently impressed Lincoln in return, as — after the completion of his voyage — he returned to New Salem and lived there for six years before moving on to Springfield, Illinois .
As a resident of the town, Lincoln worked as a surveyor, postal clerk, and counterperson at the general store. He also took part in the local debating society, run by New Salem’s co-founder, James Rutledge.
The two soon formed a friendship, and Lincoln had the opportunity to socialize with the entire Rutledge family, including Rutledge’s daughter, Ann, who worked in her father’s boarding house.
Ann managed the town tavern , and was an intelligent and conscientious woman — one who worked hard as a seamstress to help provide for her family. Lincoln met her while he lived at the boarding house, and there the two had ample opportunity to chat.
Sharing more than a couple intellectual interests, they soon found themselves spending a great deal of time together. Whether the two ever spoke of love is unknown, but the residents of New Salem recognized that the two became, at the very least, as close friends as was possible during an era of rigid social expectations for relationships between men and women.
It is documented that Ann became engaged to a man by the name of James McNamar in 1832, who, as history also recounts, left town after promising to return and marry her. But, for whatever reason, he never did, and Ann was left single at the time of her friendship with Abraham.
Anne Rutledge’s Untimely Death
The frontier provided a new beginning for many, but often at a heavy cost.
Health care — relatively primitive even in the established cities of the time — was even less effective away from civilization. And, in addition to that, the lack of plumbing, combined with a lack of knowledge regarding bacterial infections, led to many repeated mini-epidemics of communicable diseases.
In 1835, a typhoid fever outbreak swept through New Salem, and Ann was caught in the crossfire, contracting the disease . As her condition worsened, she asked for a visit from Lincoln.
The words that passed between them during their last meeting were never recorded, but Ann’s sister, Nancy, noted that Lincoln appeared “sad and broken-hearted” when he left Ann’s room shortly before she died .
This claim only further proved itself to be true: Lincoln was devastated by Ann’s passing. After losing his cousins and mother to communicable disease at the age of nine and his sister at the age of nineteen, he was no stranger to death. But those losses seemed to do little in way of preparing him for the death of Ann.
On top of this tragedy, his life in New Salem — however invigorating — was difficult both physically and economically, and during the epidemic he found himself working closely with many families who lost loved ones.
It is Ann’s death that appears to be the catalyst for his first episode of serious depression; a condition that would plague him for his entire life.
Ann’s funeral took place on a cold, rainy day — a situation that bothered Lincoln deeply. In the weeks after the event, he took to wandering alone in the woods, often with a rifle. His friends worried about the possibility of suicide, especially when unpleasant weather reminded him of the loss of Ann.
Several months passed before his spirits started to improve, but it was said he never fully recovered from this first bout of deep sadness.
Another would take place in 1841, forcing Lincoln to either succumb to his malady or to work through his feelings (5). Rather remarkably, history notes that he took the latter course, using his intellect as a way to control his emotions.
It’s obvious that Lincoln, although not unfamiliar with death, experienced it in a new way after losing Ann Rutledge. This was an experience that would set the tone for the rest of his life, making her an important piece in one of America’s most famous president’s stories.
The Making of a Legend
After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the nation was consumed with horror.
While not the first executive to die in office, he was the first to be killed in the line of duty. His many personal sacrifices during the Civil War, in addition to his connection to the Emancipation Proclamation, brought him a great deal of glory as the war was finally brought to an end.
The assassination thus had the effect of turning Lincoln, a popular president, into a martyr for the cause.
As a result, he was mourned internationally — with countries as powerful as the British Empire and as small as Haiti joining in the grief. An entire book was printed out of the condolence letters received by the United States government only months after his death.
But Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, was troubled at the public’s near deification of the late president. As someone who had worked with Lincoln closely, Herndon felt the need to bring balance to a despondent world.
Accordingly, he started on a lecture tour to share his memories, giving one in 1866 entitled “A. Lincoln—Miss Ann Rutledge, New Salem—Pioneering and the Poem called Immortality—or Oh! Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Be Proud” .
In this lecture, Herndon re-imagined the events of 1835 in a different light. He asserted that Ann and Abraham had fallen in love and that Ann considered breaking off her engagement to another man because of Lincoln’s charms.
In Herndon’s tale, Ann was conflicted over which man to marry, moving from one to the other in her mind and essentially carrying on a double engagement before succumbing to her illness.
According to him, Lincoln’s last meeting with Ann was not only as she was ill — but on her actual deathbed. And, on top of this dramatization of events, Herndon also proclaimed that Lincoln’s melancholy was, in fact, caused specifically by her loss.
Why did this Legend Start?
Three disparate parts in Lincoln’s life came together to support the legend of him and Ann Rutledge.
The first was the connection between Lincoln’s friendship with the Rutledge family and his bumpy emotional health during the latter part of his life.
Correlation is not necessarily causation, but to those witnessing Lincoln’s anguish, it certainly seemed as if the two events were related.
Lincoln’s unusual relationship with his law partner, William Herndon, was the second catalyst. History records that Lincoln moved to Springfield in 1836 to pursue his career as a politician, and, after successively working for two other men, Lincoln was ready to start his own business.
There, he brought Herndon on as a junior partner. This arrangement allowed Lincoln to focus on his increasing fame beyond Springfield; during the winter of 1844–1845, he argued almost three dozen cases before the United States Supreme Court .
Many people regarded Herndon’s rise to partnership as a kindness provided by Lincoln; the latter being much better educated, Herndon was never considered Lincoln’s intellectual equal.
Herndon was impulsive and scattered in his approach to the law, and was also an ardent abolitionist — as opposed to Lincoln’s belief that ending slavery was less important than maintaining the United States as one nation.
READ MORE: Slavery in America
Herndon vs. the Lincoln Family
Most importantly, however, William Herndon did not like Lincoln’s family.
He detested the presence of young children in the office and clashed with Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, on numerous occasions. He himself later recalled his first meeting with the woman: after dancing together, he rather tactlessly informed her that she “seemed to glide through the waltz with the ease of a serpent” . In return, Mary left him standing by himself on the dance floor, which was, at that time, considered a cut to one’s public persona.
Academics are conflicted as to the depths of the antagonism between Mary Todd Lincoln and William Herndon, though. Did his strong dislike of her influence his writing? Did his memories of Lincoln’s early relationships take on a different form because of his need to distance Mary from her husband?
For many years, scholars questioned the real extent of the Ann Rutledge myth — however, they didn’t see Herndon’s report as the problem. But in 1948, a biography of Herndon written by David Herbert Donald suggested that he had reason to smear Mary’s reputation.
While conceding that, “During his partner’s lifetime, Herndon managed to avoid hostilities with Mary Lincoln…” he also mentioned that Herndon was never invited over for a meal. In a biography of Lincoln written sometime later, Donald went even further, charging that Herndon had “a dislike, verging on hatred” of Lincoln’s wife .
While present-day attempts to determine whether or not Herndon had reason to imply that Mary was unworthy of her husband continue, the fact remains that our knowledge of Lincoln’s relationship with Ann Rutledge is based at least in part on Herndon’s writing.
The People vs. Mary Todd
The final piece of the trifecta supporting the myth of the Rutledge-Lincoln romance must be credited to the American public and its dislike of Mary Todd Lincoln.
An emotional and dramatic woman, Mary had dealt with her grief over the loss of her son by compulsively spending on mourning clothes during the Civil War — a time when the average American was forced to tighten their belt and live sparingly.
In addition, Mary was from Kentucky — a state that was on the border between the slaveholding South and the free North — and was the daughter of a slaveholder. A fact that helped to spread the rumour during the war that she was a Confederate spy.
Those who loved Lincoln looked for reasons to blame her for her husband’s melancholy and death; no doubt these same people were thrilled to find yet another reason to distance her from her beloved spouse. She became known as the woman who never understood Lincoln, a person who could never step into the large shoes left by the intelligent, rational, and practical Ann Rutledge.
Separating Facts From Fiction
Our knowledge of the truth is complicated by the changing ways in which historians determine facts. The writer Lewis Gannett acknowledged that much of the evidence for a romance between Abraham and Ann is primarily based on the “reminiscences” of the Rutledge family, particularly that of Ann’s younger brother Robert ; only further bringing the validity of the claims into question.
While these memories include assertions of a romance between the two parties, they do not come with specific details of what actually occurred. There are no hard facts of a courtship between the pair — rather, the primary evidence for a relationship existing is actually based on the depths of Lincoln’s grief after Ann’s untimely passing.
It’s also now widely agreed that Abraham Lincoln suffered from clinical depression — there are a plethora of anecdotes about his behavior that back up this assertion, with his first known episode being right after her death . Lincoln’s emotions — though never especially bright — were savaged with gloom to the point where his friends feared him taking his own life.
While there is no doubt that Rutledge’s death triggered this episode, might it instead have been caused by the loss of his friend combined with memento mori and the fact that Lincoln, who had cut himself off from his family, was otherwise socially isolated in New Salem?
This idea is given credence by the fact that, in 1862, Lincoln experienced another episode of depression — this one triggered by the death of his son Willie. After succumbing to what was probably typhoid fever, Willie left both of his parents devastated.
Mary Todd Lincoln’s grief caused her to explode outwardly — she sobbed loudly, shopped furiously for the perfect mourning attire, and attracted a great deal of negative attention — while, in contrast, Lincoln once again turned his pain inward.
Mary’s dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, stated that “Lincoln’s [own] grief unnerved him… I did not think that his rugged nature could be so moved…” .
The world has changed a great deal since Lindoln’s time, when many topics, such as that of mental illness, were not to be mentioned. The rumors about Lincoln’s supposed infatuation with Ann Rutledge have never dwindled, contrary to scholarly evidence.
It appears highly likely that his “doomed love” for another man’s fiancée is an exaggerated story that mixes Lincoln’s ongoing struggle with his despair and the public’s wish for a “better” and less “encumbered” First Lady for the revered President.
As there is no way to know exactly what happened, we should not let a good story get in the way of factual evidence — ultimately, we must let Ann Rutledge, like her supposed paramour, belong “to the ages.”
- “Lincoln’s New Salem, 1830-1037.” Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Illinois, National Park Service, 2015. Accessed on 8 January 2020. https://www.nps.gov/liho/learn/historyculture/newsalem.htm
- ADDITION ONE: “Ann Rutledge.” Abraham Lincoln Historical Site, 1996. Accessed on 14 February, 2020. https://rogerjnorton.com/Lincoln34.html
- ADDITION TWO: Ibid
- ADDITION THREE: Ibid
- “The Women: Ann Rutledge, 1813-1835.” Mr. Lincoln and Friends, the Lehrman Institute Web Site, 2020. Accessed on 8 January, 2020. http://www.mrlincolnandfriends.org/the-women/anne-rutledge/
- ADDITION FOUR: Siegal, Robert. “Exploring Abraham Lincoln’s Melancholy.” National Public Radio transcript, NPR website, 2020. Excerpted from Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Changed a President and Fueled the Nation. Accessed on 14 February 2020. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4976127
- ADDITION FIVE: Aaron W. Marrs, “International Reaction to Lincoln’s Death.” Office of the Historian, December 12, 2011. Accessed on 7 February, 2020. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus-history/research/international-reaction-to-lincoln
- Simon, John Y. “Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 11, Issue 1, 1990. Accessed on 8 January, 2020. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jala/2629860.0011.104/–abraham-lincoln-and-ann-rutledge?rgn=main;view=fulltext
- “A Very Brief Summary of the Legal Career of Abraham Lincoln.” Abraham Lincoln Research Site, R.J. Norton, 1996. Accessed on 8 January 2020. https://rogerjnorton.com/Lincoln91.html
- Wilson, Douglas L. “William H Herndon and Mary Todd Lincoln.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 22, Issue 2, Summer, 2001. Accessed on 8 January, 2020. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jala/2629860.0022.203/–william-h-herndon-and-mary-todd-lincoln?rgn=main;view=fulltext
- Gannett, Lewis. “ ‘Overwhelming Evidence’ of a Lincoln-Ann Rutledge Romance?: Re-examining Rutledge Family Reminisces.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 26, Issue 1, Winter, 2005. Accessed on 8 January, 2020. https://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jala/2629860.0026.104/–overwhelming-evidence-of-a-lincoln-ann-rutledge-romance?rgn=main;view=fulltext
- Shenk, Joshua Wolf. “Lincoln’s Great Depression.” The Atlantic, October 2005. Accessed on 21 January 2020. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2005/10/lincolns-great-depression/304247/
- Brady, Dennis. “Willie Lincoln’s Death: A Private Agony for a President Facing a Nation of Pain.” Washington Post, October 11, 2011. Accessed on 22 January, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/willie-lincolns-death-a-private-agony-for-a-president-facing-a-nation-of-pain/2011/09/29/gIQAv7Z7SL_story.html