The romance of Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge inspires both poetry and polemics. Sometimes identified as the crucial event in young Lincoln’s life, spurring him to greatness, the romance has more often recently been dismissed as legend; indeed, references to an Ann Rutledge legend or myth often create public confusion about her actual existence. In his psychological portrait of Lincoln, Charles B. Strozier concludes a brief paragraph, “Ann Rutledge may have been Lincoln’s first love and her death may have prompted a severe depression on his part. But since there is no single thread of good evidence on the subject, the episode must be passed over quickly.” Strozier’s haste, and that of other contemporary Lincoln scholars uneasy in the presence of Ann Rutledge, suggests the propriety of a reexamination of the evidence and its treatment by biographers.
For more than thirty years after her death, Ann Rutledge’s name was unmentioned in any prominent public setting until William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s former law partner, lectured in Springfield, Illinois, on November 16, 1866, on “A. Lincoln—Miss Ann Rutledge, New Salem—Pioneering, and the Poem called Immortality—or ‘Oh! Why Should the Spirit of Mortal be Proud.'” In Herndon’s account, Lincoln first became well acquainted with Ann in 1833, when he boarded at her father’s tavern. She was engaged to John McNamar, a prosperous merchant who had left New Salem and never returned during her lifetime. In McNamar’s absence, Ann fell in love with Lincoln, promised to marry him after McNamar released her, and then, engaged to two men simultaneously, fell ill of fever. Lincoln visited her on her deathbed and “his heart, sad and broken, was buried” in her grave. He neither ate nor slept, and “his mind wandered from its throne.” Nursed back to health by Mr. and Mrs. Bowling Green, Lincoln “never addressed another woman, in my opinion, ‘yours affectionately;’ and generally and characteristically abstained from the use of the word ‘love.'” Herndon concluded by [End Page 13] reciting the lugubrious poem that Lincoln had memorized when Ann died.
Printed immediately as a broadside, Herndon’s lecture attracted newspaper attention, much of it skeptical. Herndon’s rambling and badly organized discourse digressed at length on the character of pioneers and the scenery of New Salem, while the sketchy story of Ann Rutledge rested chiefly on assertion. The facts, said Herndon, were “fragmentary,” and he had not “told the whole story; nay, not the half of it … I am forced to keep something back from necessity, which shall, in due time, assume a more permanent form.” Presumably, would-be Lincoln biographer Herndon resisted giving away free the heart of his projected book, but lawyer Herndon should have recognized the weakness of his case.
Herndon further compromised the case for Ann Rutledge by coupling it with an assault upon Mary Todd Lincoln. In 1837, after Herndon had waltzed with Mary at their first meeting and complimented her as gliding with the “ease of a serpent,” Mary took offense [End Page 14] and never forgave Herndon, excluding him from her home during his seventeen years as Lincoln’s law partner. Uncouth and socially inept, too frequently drunk, and an active abolitionist, Herndon was the sort Mary loathed, and she never dissembled her contempt for her husband’s closest associate. Just how much Mary’s snubs hurt Herndon became clear when he embellished the Ann Rutledge lecture with the conjecture that Lincoln had never loved another woman.
Mary’s oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, who heard of the lecture almost immediately, wrote that Herndon was “making an ass of himself,” and went to Springfield to try to persuade him to desist. Mary called Herndon a “miserable man” taken into Lincoln’s office “out of pity,” where he proved a “hopeless inebriate” and “only a drudge.” That “dirty dog” might well beware the vengeance of Mary’s friends. Since her husband had assured her that “he had cared for no one but myself,” Mary intended to “remain firm in my conviction—that Ann Rutledge, is a myth.” Her statement, if believable, proves only that Lincoln had never dared tell his wife about his unquestionable courtship of Mary Owens. Mary Lincoln’s sputterings show that Herndon’s arrow hit the target but prove nothing about Ann Rutledge.
Herndon had grossly mishandled a major incident in the Lincoln story. He had used Ann Rutledge for an irrelevant and baseless attack on Mary Lincoln which provoked counterattacks by her defenders; he had mingled the evidence with speculation; he had insulted Lincoln’s memory by exaggerating his grief to the point of madness and had even fabricated a soliloquy in which Lincoln ranted in Shakespearian tones. By insisting that Ann died of emotional conflict rather than typhoid, Herndon substituted melodrama for medicine. Neither Herndon’s reputation nor that of Ann Rutledge ever recovered from this series of blunders.
Opposition from the Lincoln family strengthened Herndon’s resolve to portray the real Lincoln; yet somehow he could not organize his thoughts into a biography. Abandoning futile efforts, he finally sold his notes and papers in 1869 to Ward Hill Lamon, another former legal associate of Lincoln, who in turn hired a ghostwriter. The result, credited to Lamon, combined the research of Herndon [End Page 15] and the writing of Chauncey F. Black, son of a member of President James Buchanan’s cabinet. Within it appeared the Ann Rutledge story, based upon material gathered by Herndon before he lectured, supplemented by further information elicited by the lecture.
For the first time, the account appeared buttressed by evidence. Many residents of New Salem recalled Ann’s attractive appearance and traits; fewer offered substantial testimony concerning her involvement with Lincoln. As a ghostwriter narrating a story already challenged, Black quoted extensively from testimony gathered by Herndon. Black concluded that “The story of Ann Rutledge … is as well proved as the fact of Mr. Lincoln’s election to the Presidency,” a defensive statement unlikely to provide reassurance. When Herndon himself narrated the story in his 1889 biography of Lincoln, he also relied on witnesses.
In his biography and correspondence, Herndon treated the romance as a Rosetta stone to interpret Lincoln: (1) Ann’s death turned Lincoln away from religion, inspiring some agnostic writing at the time and a lifelong aversion to organized religion; (2) Ann’s death turned Lincoln away from love, and his eventual marriage proved one of convenience only; (3) Ann’s death turned Lincoln into a melancholy man who never could enjoy true happiness or contentment; and (4) Ann’s death turned Lincoln away from domesticity and toward greatness by shifting his ambitions from private to public matters. Herndon’s mythic and controversial Lincoln, rising from crude origins to greatness by strength as well as virtue, never achieved the popularity of a Lincoln possessing innate moral grandeur; yet Herndon’s passion for truth was undeniable. He had given Ann Rutledge a permanent place in the Lincoln saga and had added romance to the vanished village of New Salem.
William Randolph Hearst bought the barren acreage of New Salem in 1906 and gave it to the Old Salem Chautauqua Association of Petersburg, which began the work of erecting cabins on the original sites before conveying the property to the state of Illinois, which continued reconstruction in the 1930s. The crude cabins of New Salem State Park contrasted with the Victorian parlors of the Lincoln house in Springfield as did the women whose spirits dominated the two sites. In Oakland Cemetery, a few miles from New Salem, lie the remains of Ann Rutledge, exhumed in 1890 from the Old Con- [End Page 16] cord Burial Ground by an avaricious undertaker financially interested in the cemetery. In 1921, the undertaker’s cheap stone was supplemented by a granite monument engraved with the lyric of Edgar Lee Masters:
I am Ann Rutledge who sleep beneath these weeds,
Beloved of Abraham Lincoln,
Wedded to him, not through union,
But through separation.
Bloom forever, O Republic,
From the dust of my bosom!
The rebuilding of New Salem forced historians to confront Ann Rutledge again. Biographers wary of placing too much emphasis on Ann’s lasting impact challenged historical novelists who embellished Lincoln’s tragic romance. In the 1920s, William E. Barton, whose tireless research had even led him to the bedside of ninety-three-year-old Sarah Rutledge Saunders, eighty-seven years after her sister Ann’s death, wrote that “Abraham Lincoln and Ann truly loved each other,” even though he deplored the “mushy lies” told about them. Paul M. Angle, however, dismissed the romance as merely “traditional,” lacking contemporary records, based upon testimony by interested parties assembled by Herndon, no “impartial investigator.” Carl Sandburg, of course, portrayed a Lincoln so helplessly in love that “a trembling took his body and dark waves ran through [End Page 17] him sometimes when she spoke so simple a thing as, ‘The corn is getting high, isn’t it?'” “The corn is getting high, indeed!” snorted Edmund Wilson. In 1928, the Atlantic Monthly began publishing a series of articles based upon sensational discoveries that included purported letters from Lincoln to Ann, and the exposure by Angle of all the documents as forgeries worked against scholarly belief in the authenticity of the romance. Because attractive female characters enhanced motion pictures, no version of young Lincoln neglected Ann. Both Young Mr. Lincoln, a 1939 film starring Henry Fonda, and Abe Lincoln in Illinois, a 1940 film starring Raymond Massey, dramatized the romance as pivotal in Lincoln’s life.
The Ann Rutledge canon was augmented in 1944 by the rediscovery of an 1862 article by John Hill, a Democrat contemptuous of Lincoln, in the Menard Axis, a county newspaper so obscure that the article had previously gone unremarked. The son of New Salem merchant Samuel Hill, partner of McNamar, and rival for Ann’s affections, Hill wrote scornfully of young Lincoln as a “love-sick swain.”
He chanced to meet with a lady, who to him seemed lovely, angelic, and the height of perfection. Forgetful of all things else, he could think or dream of naught but her. His feelings he soon made her acquainted with, and was delighted with a reciprocation. This to him was perfect happiness; and with uneasy anxiety he awaited the arrival of the day when the twain should be made one flesh.—But that day was doomed never to arrive. Disease came upon this lovely beauty, and she sickened and died. The youth had wrapped his heart with her’s, and this was more than he could bear. He saw her to her grave, and as the cold clods fell upon the coffin, he sincerely wished that he too [End Page 18] had been enclosed within it. Melancholy came upon him; he was changed and sad. His friends detected strange conduct and a flighty immagination.—They placed him under guard for fear of his commiting suicide.—New circumstances changed his thoughts, and at length he partially forgot that which had for a time consumed his mind. Sent to Herndon in 1865, the article encouraged him to establish the girl’s identity, to ruminate on the lasting effect of Lincoln’s bereavement, and proved that Herndon had not invented the romance. In the New York Times, Lloyd Lewis wrote that the Hill account established that the Ann Rutledge “‘Myth’ was a fact after all,” that Herndon’s account was true, an article provoking Louis A. Warren to an indignant reply under the headline: “The Rutledge Ghost Stalks Again.” “The Lincoln fraternity,” thundered Warren, “for years have known the story to be pure fiction.”
Exaggeration of the romance provoked scholarly exasperation in 1945, when J. G. Randall attached an appendix chapter, “Sifting the Ann Rutledge Evidence,” to the first volume of his magisterial Lincoln the President. The availability of the surviving Herndon source materials at the Library of Congress had induced Randall to encourage his wife, Ruth, to undertake research on both Mary Lincoln and Ann Rutledge, and his prize graduate student, David Donald, to study Herndon. An early chapter, “The House on Eighth Street,” discussed the Lincoln marriage primarily by refuting Herndon’s account, and the appendix maintained the attack by challenging every aspect of the Ann Rutledge story.
Virtually all details of the romance depended upon statements and letters collected by Herndon, and the Randalls demonstrated that these were often contradictory. When Herndon persuaded for- [End Page 19] mer residents of New Salem to talk about Ann Rutledge, he transcribed their statements, and the Randalls questioned both the leading nature of his inquiries and his accuracy in recording testimony.
What the Randalls call “the Rutledge tradition” began with a document prepared by Ann’s brother Robert before Herndon lectured. Robert responded to eight questions from Herndon in a lengthy and careful statement that fills nearly seven printed pages. Only two questions related to Ann, and her story occupied merely 15 percent of Robert’s account of Lincoln’s life in New Salem.
In 1830 my sister being then but 17 years of age a stranger calling himself John McNeil came to New-Salem…. A friendship grew up between McNeil and Ann which ripened apace and resulted in an engagement to marry—McNeil’s real name was McNamar. It seems that his father had failed in business and his son, a very young man had determined to make a fortune, pay off his father’s debts and restore him to his former social and financial standing. With this view he left his home clandestinely, and in order to avoid pursuit by his parents changed his name. His conduct was strictly hightoned, honest and moral and his object, whatever any may think of the deception which he practiced in changing his name, entirely praiseworthy
He prospered in business and pending his engagement with Ann, he revealed his true name, returned to Ohio to relieve his parents from their embarrassments, and to bring the family with him to Illinois. On his return to Ohio, several years having elapsed, he found his father in declining health or dead, and perhaps the circumstances of the family prevented his immediate return to NewSalem. At all events he was absent two or three years.
In the mean time Mr Lincoln paid his addresses to Ann, continued his visits and attentions regularly and those resulted in an engagement to marry, conditional to an honorable release from the contract with McNamar. There is no kind of doubt as to the existence of this engagement David Rutledge urged Ann to consummate it, but she refused until such time as she could see McNamar—inform him of the change in her feelings, and seek an honorable release.
Mr Lincoln lived in the village, McNamar did not return and in August 1835 Ann sickened and died. The effect upon Mr Lincoln’s mind was terrible; he became plunged in despair, and many of his friends feared that reason would desert her throne. [End Page 20] His extraordinary emotions were regarded as strong evidence of the existence of the tenderest relations between himself and the deceased. McNamar however, returned to Illinois in the fall after Ann’s death. Robert believed “That any authentic statements connected with the history of the beloved Abraham Lincoln should belong to the great American people,” and trusted Herndon to eliminate anything that might “injuriously affect” living persons. Herndon’s misuse of the romance to settle scores with Mary Lincoln and to explore Lincoln’s psychology did not invalidate Robert’s account. The Rutledge family had the best reasons to know and to remember the details of the romance, and Robert wrote with careful precision.
His only clearly erroneous assertion was that McNamar’s family lived in Ohio instead of New York. After proclaiming that Ann was engaged to two men at once and that the conflict caused her death, Herndon pressed for confirmation, and, while politely denying both, Robert fell into the semantic trap of calling Ann’s engagement to Lincoln both conditional and unconditional. At best, the Randalls caught him in a technical error. He never, however, altered his basic account, which, unlike Herndon’s melodramatic account of Ann’s death, received support from surviving witnesses.
Criticized by the Randalls for consulting other family members in addition to providing his personal recollections, Robert had prepared an account that incorporated the testimony of his mother and older brother John, important witnesses otherwise unavailable. John Rutledge’s letters reflect unfamiliarity with the pen, and when Mary Ann Rutledge learned in 1860 of campaign charges that Lincoln had not paid his board bill at the Rutledge tavern, she “caused a letter to be written to Mr. Lincoln” answering the accusation. Whether lack of literacy or the blindness she suffered in old age (she died in 1878, aged ninety-one) prevented her from offering direct testimony, Ann’s mother, the most valuable living witness of the romance, stood behind Robert’s statement.
The Randalls’ assertion that Ann was engaged to McNamar at the [End Page 21] time of her death also hinged on technicality. McNamar left New Salem in 1832 on what he called “a long business trip to the East” and returned some three years later. He left “for the purpose of assisting my fathers family, my coming west being principally to obtain means.” He had, indeed, prospered, yet “at that time I think neither Mr. Lincoln nor myself were in a situation to enter into what Mr. Seward would call ‘entangling alliances'” What the Randalls called “the strangely neglected subject of McNamar’s love for Ann” requires reappraisal before their engagement provides evidence against Lincoln’s courtship. Others asserted that Ann was already engaged, but McNamar never did.
The Randall study of conflicting evidence omitted the salient point that no knowledgeable witness denied Lincoln’s affection for Ann. James Short, a close friend of Lincoln who had employed Ann’s mother as housekeeper, wrote that he “did not know of any en- [End Page 23] gagement or tender passages between Mr L and Miss R at the time. But after her death … he seemed to be so much affected and grieved so hardly that I then supposed there must have been … something of the kind.” McNamar, in New York when Ann died, had never heard “that Mr Lincon addressed Miss Ann Rutledge in terms of courtship,” and Ann’s aunt believed that she would have married McNamar had she lived. Although cited by the Randalls as evidence against the romance, none of the three refuted Lincoln’s courtship. Publication of Herndon’s lecture and widespread newspaper coverage virtually invited additional testimony. Witnesses had emerged who denied Lincoln’s insanity, not his grief, without challenging the romance. After surveying the manuscripts, the Randalls emphasized three witnesses—Herndon consulted a “score or more”—who doubted. Of the exceptions, McNamar held a personal interest in minimizing the romance and Short had become his brother-in-law.
Dismissing the romance depends upon beginning with Herndon’s original account and discrediting his informants as contradictory. Beginning instead with Robert Rutledge’s testimony and comparing it with surviving witnesses puts the romance in different perspective. Herndon’s stubborn insistence on dual engagements causing Ann’s death cannot be sustained; she died of “brain fever,” later called typhoid, as did James Rutledge, her father, later in the year. At the time of Ann’s death, the Rutledges lived on land owned by McNamar, an indication of their declining fortunes as New Salem declined, and the death of James administered the final blow. Family need might have forced Ann to marry McNamar had she lived—if he would have her—but this issue is irrelevant to her involvement with Lincoln.
Herndon relied upon the recollections of old settlers of the New Salem area, their children, and the Rutledge family because Lincoln apparently never mentioned Ann in Springfield—with one remarkable exception. Isaac Cogdal, a former resident of New Salem, later a lawyer, visited Lincoln in his office during the winter of 1860–61 and many years later repeated his conversation to Herndon.
Abe is it true that you fell in love with & courted Ann Rutledge [End Page 24] said Cogdall. Lincoln said, “it is true—true indeed I did. I have loved the name of Rutlege to this day. I have kept my mind on their movements ever since & love them dearly” … Ab—Is it true—said Cogdall, that you ran a little wild about the matter: I did really—I ran off the track: it was my first. I loved the woman dearly & sacredly: she was a handsome girl—would have made a good loving wife—was natural & quite intellectual, though not highly Educated—I did honestly—& truly love the girl & think often—often of her now.
The Randalls challenged the statement because Herndon transcribed it years after the conversation, Cogdal addressed Lincoln as “Abe,” another informant stated that Lincoln had told Cogdal that Ann was then living in Iowa, and Lincoln, who had a deserved reputation for reticence about his private life, had not mentioned Ann to close friends in Springfield. To the Randalls, “the Cogdal record seems artificial and made to order. It was given out after [End Page 25] Lincoln’s death; it presents him in an unlikely role; it puts in his mouth uncharacteristic sayings.”
What should be taken into account is that while Springfield friends called him “Lincoln,” old friends from New Salem days called him “Abe.” Ann’s mother and brothers were living in Iowa in 1860, perhaps giving rise to a misunderstanding by someone repeating Cogdal’s account. Lincoln spoke of Ann because Cogdal asked, something few would have had the knowledge, opportunity, or temerity to do. Lincoln might not have answered before his last winter in Illinois, a time when he visited his father’s grave, neglected for a decade, and left Springfield saying “[a]ll the strange, chequered past seems to crowd now upon my mind.” Cogdal, who may well have misrecollected Lincoln’s words some half dozen years after the conversation, had no known reason to misrepresent what Lincoln said.
The Randalls’ case against Lincoln’s grief began with a letter from Mathew S. Marsh of New Salem, written three weeks after Ann’s death, mentioning Lincoln as “a very clever fellow and a particular friend of mine,” likely to frank the letter, something Lincoln eventually did although contrary to regulations. Marsh mentioned no recent sorrow in Lincoln’s life, only that he was “very careless about leaving his office open and unlocked during the day.” In addition, Lincoln dated a survey for Marsh one month after Ann’s death.
Even more decisive, in the Randalls’ view, was the beginning of Lincoln’s courtship of Mary Owens one year after Ann’s death. Mary Owens takes her place in the Lincoln story through Herndon’s in- [End Page 26] satiable quest for information. Tracked down in Missouri, Mary Owens Vineyard ignored several letters from Herndon before transmitting three letters from Lincoln and information about the courtship. Without what some condemned as Herndon’s unseemly curiosity and pestiferous persistence, Mary Owens might also be regarded as a myth or legend. After the affair ended, Lincoln wrote that he had seen Mary Owens in 1833, “thought her inteligent and agreeable, and saw no good objection to plodding life through hand in hand with her.” Mary Owens, however, wrote, “as regards Miss Rutledge, I cannot tell you any thing, she having died previous to my acquaintance with Mr. Lincoln, and I do not now recollect of ever hearing him mention her name.” As the Randalls correctly point out, Lincoln’s courtship of Mary Owens beginning one year after Ann’s death “fails to harmonize with the popular concept that Lincoln’s whole life was influenced by his love for Ann.” Nonetheless, the point is irrelevant to Lincoln’s relationship with Ann or his emotions when she died.
The Randalls concluded that the romance was “unproved” and “does not belong to a recital of those Lincoln episodes which one presents as unquestioned reality.” They chose these words carefully, aware that their investigation cast doubt on Ann as Lincoln’s first, great, and only love, not on her existence. Any account of Lincoln’s early life dependent solely on the proved and unquestioned must be nearly impossible. The Randalls reclassified the romance as an accusation requiring proof, something of which Lincoln would be held innocent until proved guilty, rather than a biographical incident about which a preponderance of reliable evidence would prevail.
Reversing Herndon’s assumption that because Lincoln loved Ann he could not love Mary, the Randalls sought to rehabilitate the Lincoln marriage by discrediting Lincoln’s earlier romance. Both cases rested on the shaky assumption that Lincoln could not have loved different women at different times. Herndon had used Ann as a weapon against Mary; now champions of Mary used Ann as a weapon against Herndon.
David Donald’s biography of Herndon published in 1948 further damaged belief in the romance by illuminating Herndon’s faults and [End Page 27] obsessions. After her husband’s death, Ruth Randall completed a Mary Lincoln biography notable for its defensive tone about her and scorn of Herndon. Through Ann Rutledge, Herndon “perpetrated a vast hoax,” which “takes away Lincoln’s real love and substitutes a bogus love.” The romance “makes Ann a usurper who robs Lincoln’s wife of the thought and consideration normally directed toward the woman who has shared a great man’s life.” The chapter concluded with Mrs. Randall’s unpleasant parody of Masters’s poem. In a biographical sketch of Ann for a major reference book, Mrs. Randall used the word “legend” or “legendary” in every paragraph. Essentially, her case against the romance rested on an indictment of Herndon, the prime investigator and disseminator of the story, who was prejudiced against Mary Lincoln and credulous about information that supported his theories.
Indignant about the misuse of the romance in film and fiction, the Randalls and Donald skillfully exposed the shaky underpinnings of any detailed account of the relationship. This commendable correction of the historical record, once valuable, now requires reappraisal, especially as it provoked an overreaction. So thorough was the demolition work that Mary reigned on Eighth Street as a paragon of domesticity, with Herndon barred from the scholar’s study as firmly as he was once barred from the Lincoln dinner table. Ann Rutledge was viewed as the creation of Herndon, Lincoln’s Parson Weems.
Following the Randall attack, Lincoln scholars distanced themselves from the romance. The editors of Lincoln’s Collected Works mentioned Ann Rutledge only twice in their notes, identifying John McNamar as “the fiancé of Ann Rutledge, for whom Lincoln’s attachment has become legend,” and identifying John Hill as one who “rather than Herndon deserves recognition for primary irresponsibility in first publishing stories which have been perpetuated in popular belief.” Benjamin P. Thomas concluded that “In the face of affirmative reminiscences, Lincoln students can scarcely declare with certainty that no such romance took place. But most of them regard it as improbable, and reject utterly its supposed enduring [End Page 28] influence upon Lincoln.” Thomas’s argument from consensus is echoed in Mark Neely’s Lincoln Encyclopedia, where “the romance is now regarded as unproved and its profound effect on Lincoln’s later life as completely disproved.” Scholarly authority has made the romance somewhat disreputable. Biographer Stephen Oates daintily sidesteps the romance.
In later years, some of Lincoln’s associates spawned legends about him and Ann, contending that they were romantically involved and that Ann was the only woman he ever loved. In actual fact, Ann was engaged to another man. And though the man left New Salem and eventually broke off the engagement, there is no evidence that Ann and Lincoln ever had anything more than a platonic relationship. And when in time the Rutledges moved to a farm over on Sand Creek, seven miles from New Salem, Lincoln often visited them because he cherished Ann’s friendship and respected her father…. In August, 1835, news came of a tragedy that gave him a severe case of the “hypo.” Ann Rutledge was dead—dead of the “brain fever”, at the age of twenty-two. Her coffin resting in the Rutledge farmhouse was reminiscent of the coffins of his sister and the mother he would never talk about. His friend Ann was gone, proof of how transient were human dreams of happiness and lasting life. For all are fated to die in the end. All are fated to die. There is no evidence whatsoever of a platonic relationship. Ann was young and attractive; McNamar shamefully neglected his fiancée, as everyone around seemed to know. If Lincoln was overwhelmed with grief by a reminder of the finality of death, the problem of finding why Ann’s death touched him so deeply remains.
Denying the reality of Lincoln’s attachment to Ann while admitting his desperate grief when she died creates an image of Lincoln as subject to unpredictable periods of debilitating depression. Only one comparable depression is known. Descriptions of Lincoln’s grief over Ann’s death parallel his reaction to the “fatal first of Jany. ’41,” when his engagement to Mary Todd terminated under circumstances [End Page 29] still obscure. Two letters written by Lincoln in January reveal his emotions.
What I wish now is to speak of our Post-Office. You know I desired Dr. Henry to have that place when you left; I now desire it more than ever. I have, within the last few days, been making a most discreditable exhibition of myself in the way of hypochondriaism and thereby got an impression that Dr. Henry is necessary to my existence. Unless he gets that place he leaves Springfield. You therefore see how much I am interested in the matter…. Pardon me for not writing more; I have not sufficient composure to write a long letter.
For not giving you a general summary of news, you must pardon me; it is not in my power to do so. 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. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me. The matter you speak of on my account, you may attend to as you say, unless you shall hear of my condition forbidding it. I say this, because I fear I shall be unable to attend to any bussiness here, and a change of scene might help me. If I could be myself, I would rather remain at home with Judge Logan. I can write no more. Friends in Springfield noted the depression; once again documentary evidence that Lincoln attended to some business casts doubt on the debilitating nature of his emotions.
Does Lincoln’s grief when Ann died mean that he loved her? Oates and others have suggested that her death evoked the loss of the two most important women in his early life: his mother, who died when he was nine, and his sister, Sarah, who died in childbirth at the age of twenty. Arguing so implies that Ann was also an important woman in his life without addressing the central question of their relationship. Similarly, to suggest that the death of a beautiful and unmarried twenty-two-year-old girl conveys enough tragedy to cause grief in the absence of romance evades the issue of Lincoln’s depression, so intense that memories lingered for thirty years.
To write that Lincoln “was of course subject to depression through- [End Page 30] out his life” ignores evidence that despite frequent periods of sadness and melancholy, on only two occasions did friends express concern about his behavior or even hint that he might be suicidal: following the death of Ann Rutledge and after the broken engagement to Mary Todd. In the latter case he wrote the word “hypochondriaism” or “hypo” twice, a word that appears elsewhere only in correspondence with Mary Owens. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, hypo, sometimes mistakenly assumed to be a word Lincoln coined, means morbid depression of spirits and appears in literary works of the period, while doctors used hypochondriaism to describe the symptoms of severe depression.
Depression and melancholy differ significantly, the first representing a debilitating and dangerous lack of perspective, the second a rational response to unpleasant thoughts, events, or memories. Throughout Lincoln’s career as lawyer and president, observers noted his melancholy, sadness, or rapid changes of mood, without questioning his mental health. Only twice in adult life did he go “off the track.”
The central and unsolvable mystery is not Lincoln’s affection for Ann but her feelings for him. The Rutledge family believed that the engagement was to remain secret until McNamar released Ann and Lincoln finished studying law. Outside the family, only Mentor Graham, the New Salem schoolteacher who taught both Lincoln and Ann, claimed to have been told of the engagement by Lincoln and Ann. Even Herndon noted that Graham was “at times nearly non co[m]pus mentis—but good & honest.” A stone allegedly discovered at New Salem in 1890, inscribed “A. Lincoln Ann Rutledge were betrothed here July 4 1833,” tricked nobody except the Lincoln collector who bought it. The only object sustaining the romance is a tattered copy of Kirkham’s English Grammar, first mentioned in [End Page 31] a Springfield newspaper the day after Lincoln’s burial, as once having a flyleaf, later lost, identifying it as Lincoln’s property. Robert Rutledge wrote within a few days that the book had been given to his sister Ann.
Young Lincoln, homely and awkward, penniless and badly dressed, ill-at-ease with women, was an umpromising suitor for the village belle, no matter how neglected by her fiancé. Lincoln’s later lack of confidence regarding women argues against his successful courtship of Ann. Successful or not, he could still love her. Uncertainty over the existence of a formal engagement beclouds the importance of the romance in Lincoln’s life. He suffered the devastating blow of the death of the woman he loved.
In 1865, Herndon began to seek every detail of the romance recoverable; unfortunately, he then soared beyond the evidence. Herndon’s enlargement of the romance, however, might better be viewed as cautionary than as prohibitory. Reliable evidence will not sustain any detailed account of the courtship. Further, any interpretation of the formative influence of Ann’s death on Lincoln’s thought and career lacks foundation. On the other hand, placing Ann herself and Lincoln’s grief in the realm of legend represents a denial of evidence perhaps equally detrimental to understanding the man. A century ago, Lincoln’s two former private secretaries, writing what they hoped would become the definitive biography, requiring approval of every word from Robert Lincoln in return for access to his father’s papers, admitted that Lincoln was “much attached” to Ann, “and though there does not seem to have been any engagement between them, he was profoundly affected by her death.” Such grudging concessions exceed those made more recently by biogra- [End Page 32] phers of Lincoln or of Mary Lincoln, and the change of opinion reflects less the influence of new evidence or analysis of existing evidence than the influence of new fashions and concerns.
Although the full story of Lincoln and Ann Rutledge will never be known, the reality of that story appears certain. Historians might wish that Ann’s friends and relatives had not waited thirty years to record their reminiscences. They did so then only because Herndon prodded, believing that nothing about one so important as Lincoln too private for history. This belief, considered unseemly in the years immediately following Lincoln’s death while his widow still lived, has modern adherents. Since 1945, labeled myth, legend, and fiction, Ann has faded into disrepute while defenders of Mary Lincoln have created an alternate legend of Lincoln’s happy marriage. Ann Rutledge, however, simply will not go away. Available evidence overwhelmingly indicates that Lincoln so loved Ann that her death plunged him into severe depression. More than a century and a half after her death, when significant new evidence cannot be expected, she should take her proper place in Lincoln biography. [End Page 33]
1. Charles B. Strozier, Lincoln’s Quest for Union: Public and Private Meanings (New York: Basic Books, 1982), 36.
2. William H. Herndon, Lincoln and Ann Rutledge and the Pioneers of New Salem (Herrin, Ill.: Trovillion Private Press, 1945).
3.Chicago Tribune, 28 Nov. 1866; Boston Daily Advertiser, 7 Feb. 1867; New York Times, 9, 10, 17 March 1867; Chicago Times, 3 April 1867.
4. Herndon, Lincoln and Ann Rutledge, 3–4.
5. R. T. Lincoln to David Davis, 19 Nov. 1866, quoted in David Donald, Lincoln’s Herndon (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1948), 230.
6. Mary Lincoln to David Davis, 4, 6 March 1867, to James Smith, [8 June 1870], in Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), 414–16, 567. See also Jean H. Baker, Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987), 270–71.
7. Ward H. Lamon, The Life of Abraham Lincoln from His Birth to his Inauguration as President (Boston: James R. Osgood, 1872), 171.
8.New Salem: A Memorial to Abraham Lincoln, 5th ed. (Springfield: State of Illinois, Department of Public Works and Buildings, 1940), 2–4.
9. Gary Erickson, “The Graves of Ann Rutledge and the Old Concord Burial Ground,” Lincoln Herald 71 (Fall 1969):90–107.
10. “New Monument over Grave of Ann Rutledge, Lincoln’s Early Sweetheart,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 13 (Jan. 1921):567–68. As biographer, Masters reported “very little to be found to justify” the story of Ann Rutledge, and that Lincoln was never “deeply attached” to any woman. Lincoln the Man (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1931), 45, 76.
11. William E. Barton, The Life of Abraham Lincoln (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1925), 1:214; Barton, The Women Lincoln Loved (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1927), 185; Barton, “The Little Sister of Lincoln’s Sweetheart,” San Diego Sun, 11 Jan. 1922. Other interviews with Sarah Rutledge Saunders late in life are among the clippings in the Rutledge file, Louis A. Warren Lincoln Library and Museum, Fort Wayne, Ind. Another sister, Nancy Rutledge Prewitt, in an interview ca. 1886 also confirmed the romance. Two printings of the same interview, both undated and unidentified, are in the same file.
12. Paul M. Angle, “Lincoln’s First Love?” Lincoln Centennial Association Bulletin 9 (1 Dec. 1927):5. Angle, then executive secretary of the Abraham Lincoln Association, complained that “ninety-five per cent of the thousands who annually visit Springfield and New Salem on Lincoln pilgrimages are firmly convinced that Ann Rutledge was the only woman Lincoln ever loved.” Ibid., 2. Nearly a generation later, Angle took a more temperate view. “Herndon’s account of the Ann Rutledge romance is too highly colored. That there was a romance can hardly be doubted, but there is no good reason for believing that Ann Rutledge was the only woman Lincoln ever loved, as Herndon insisted, and that her death affected him throughout his life.” Angle, A Shelf of Lincoln Books: A Critical, Selective Bibliography of Lincolniana (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1946), 30.
13. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1926), 1:141.
14. Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), 116.
15. Don E. Fehrenbacher, “The Minor Affair: An Adventure in Forgery and Detection,” in Lincoln in Text and Context: Collected Essays (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), 246–69.
16. Jay Monaghan, “New Light on the Lincoln-Rutledge Romance,” The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly 3 (Sept. 1944):138–45.
17. Lloyd Lewis, “New Light on Lincoln’s Only Romance,” New York Times Book Review, 11 Feb. 1945, 3, 27; Louis A. Warren, “The Rutledge Ghost Stalks Again,” Lincoln Lore 830 (5 March 1945). Warren had already argued that Herndon’s informants had confused Lincoln with John McNamar. “The Ann Rutledge Myth,” The Lincoln Kinsman 35 (May 1941):1–8. Warren continued to assert that Lincoln’s romance “took place only in Herndon’s realm of imagination.” “Herndon’s Contribution to Lincoln Mythology,” Indiana Magazine of History 41 (Sept. 1945):223.
18. J. G. Randall, Lincoln the President: Springfield to Gettysburg (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1945), 1:ix; 2:321–42; Ruth Painter Randall, Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage (Boston: Little, Brown, 1953), [vii], 507 (note 21); Ruth Painter Randall, I Ruth: Autobiography of a Marriage (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968), 164–65, 178–79.
19. R. B. Rutledge statement, [Oct. 1866], Herndon-Weik Collection, Library of Congress. Printed in full in The Hidden Lincoln: From the Letters and Papers of William H. Herndon, ed. Emanuel Hertz (New York: Viking Press, 1938), 312–13.
20. R. B. Rutledge statement, [Oct. 1866], Herndon-Weik Collection, Library of Congress. See also Rutledge to Herndon, 12 Aug. 1866, ibid.
21. R. B. Rutledge to Herndon, 5 Aug. 1866, ibid.
22. John M. Rutledge to Herndon, 4, 18 Nov. 1866, ibid.; R. B. Rutledge statement, [Oct. 1866], ibid.
23.Illinois State Journal, 15 Oct. 1874.
24. McNamar to George U. Miles, 5 May 1866, Lamon Collection, Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.
25. McNamar to Herndon, 4 June 1866, ibid.
26. Randall, Lincoln the President, 2:340.
27. At New Salem, McNamar first used the name McNeil. Sangamo Journal, 12 Jan. 1833. He purchased land, however, as McNamar, something Lincoln knew through witnessing a deed. Thomas P. Reep, Lincoln at New Salem (Old Salem Lincoln League, 1927), 105, 107. As for his true name, his father’s grave in Colesville, New York, is marked John McNamarah and the date of death, 10 April 1833, conflicts with accounts that McNamar could not return to New Salem until late 1835 because of the illness and death of his father. Communication from Shirley L. Woodward, 27 April 1988. In writing to Herndon, McNamar was evasive about his relationship with Ann, and “With regard to the crazy spell of Mr Lincoln, I had never heard of it On application to my Brother in Law James Short who was quite intimate with Mr Lincoln in his younger Days and I think in Later years he frequently expressed a friendship for him he informs me that there was such a report though not very publick and at a later period than you supposed and from a different source namely a lovers disappointment with regard to the Lady whom he afterwards married. he was in the Legislature at the time and resided in springfield I am unable to give dates or particulars he thinks John T Stuart told him the circumstances” McNamar to Herndon, 1 Dec. 1866, Herndon-Weik Collection, Library of Congress. McNamar closed this letter: “Note if you have any oil prospectors in springfield send them down I can show them oil floating on a small spring Branch for a quarter of a mile.” Ibid. In his lecture, Herndon offered the opinion that McNamar had purchased the farm where Ann died “because of the sad memories that cluster over and around it.” Herndon, Lincoln and Ann Rutledge, 9. In fact, McNamar had purchased the farm in 1831 and later placed the Rutledges on it as tenants. While answering Herndon’s question about when he bought his farm, McNamar discovered a letter from Lincoln and “a small Braid or tress of Ann Rutleges Hair much worn and aparently Moth eaten” McNamar to Herndon, 26 Jan. 1867, Herndon-Weik Collection, Library of Congress. As for the “Aristocracy and Literary attainments of Miss Ann, undoubtedly she was about as Classic a Schollar as Mr Lincoln at that time I think she attended some Literary institution at Jacksonville a short time or was intending so to do in company with her Brother …” Ibid. These two sentences appear as direct quotation in William H. Herndon and Jesse William Weik, Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life (Chicago: Belford, Clarke, 1889), 1:136, rewritten to eliminate the dismissive tone. Her brother David wrote to Ann shortly before her death that he was “glad to hear that you have a notion of comeing to school, and I earnestly recommend to you that you would spare no time from improving your education and mind.” David H. Rutledge letter, 27 July 1835, photocopy, Illinois State Historical Library, Springfield.
What McNamar remembered and what he forgot, what he revealed and what he concealed, were tied to his own interest, and his testimony is questionable. For a case against McNamar as a grasping man devoid of sentiment who changed his name to hide from his impoverished parents, then jilted Ann when her family’s fortunes declined, turned the bereaved family off the farm, and forgot where Ann and his own mother were buried, see Barton, Women Lincoln Loved, 173–84. Barton’s portrait, however speculative and overdrawn, contains enough substance to counterbalance arguments that McNamar’s engagement to Ann precluded her romantic involvement with Lincoln.
28. Randall, Lincoln the President, 2:330.
29. Ibid. 2:331.
30. Herndon’s ardent disciple, Caroline W. H. Dall, put it most succinctly. “Betrothed to two, both of whom she had loved, she had no choice but to die.” “Pioneering,” Atlantic Monthly 19 (April 1867):410.
31. Randall, Lincoln the President, 2:333.
32. Ibid. 2:334–35.
33. Lincoln was reminded of the Rutledge family and presumably their whereabouts shortly before his election, as shown by a secretarial acknowledgment. “He remembers Robert Rutledge very well indeed and sends him his regards.” John G. Nicolay to R. L. Miller, 24 Sept. 1860, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress. On 8 May 1863 Robert Rutledge received an executive appointment as provost marshal, First District of Iowa. U.S. Representative James F. Wilson of Iowa recommended Rutledge’s appointment, and no evidence exists of Lincoln’s direct involvement. Appointment Papers, Record Group 110, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
34. Farewell Address at Springfield, 11 Feb. 1861 [C. Version] in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, asst. eds., Marion Dolores Pratt and Lloyd A. Dunlap (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953–55), 4:191; hereafter cited as Collected Works.
35. Randall, Lincoln the President, 2:335. Mathew S. Marsh to George M. Marsh, 17 Sept. 1835, printed in William E. Barton, “Abraham Lincoln and New Salem,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 19 (Oct. 1926–Jan. 1927):88–93. The Randalls do not mention the unlocked office.
36. Lincoln to Mrs. Orville H. Browning, 1 April 1838, Collected Works, 1:117.
37. Mary S. [Owens Vineyard] to William H. Herndon, 1 May 1866, printed in Olive Carruthers and R. Gerald McMurtry, Lincoln’s Other Mary (Chicago: Ziff-Davis Publishing, 1946), 201.
38. Randall, Lincoln the President, 2:337.
39. Ibid. 2:341.
40. Donald, Lincoln’s Herndon, 184–241, 352–59; Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), 156.
41. Randall, Mary Lincoln, 405–7.
42. Edward T. James, Janet Wilson James, and Paul S. Boyer, eds., Notable American Women 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), 3:216.
43.Collected Works, 1:60, 4:104.
44. Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952), 51.
45. Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982), 265.
46. Stephen B. Oates, With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 19, 29.
47. Lincoln to John T Stuart, 20 Jan. 1841, Collected Works, 1:228.
48. Lincoln to John T. Stuart, 23 Jan. 1841, Ibid. 1:229–30.
49. Strozier, Lincoln’s Quest for Union, 44.
50.Collected Works, 1:79, 228, 268.
51. Randall, Lincoln the President, 2:326. According to her son, Arminda Rogers learned of the engagement from Ann. Henry B. Rankin, Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1916), 71–72. Rankin’s testimony eighty years after the fact deserves only a footnote; more valuable is his letter of rebuke to Herndon a half-century earlier, asserting, on his mother’s authority, “that Mr. Lincoln’s grief, not ‘insanity,’—was well known.” Rankin to Herndon, 24 Dec. 1866, ibid., 92.
52. Paul M. Angle, “More Light on Lincoln and Ann Rutledge,” Lincoln Centennial Association Bulletin 12 (1 Sept. 1928):6–7; Carl Sandburg, Lincoln Collector: The Story of Oliver R. Barrett’s Great Private Collection (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949), 133–34; Randall, Lincoln the President, 2:338.
53.Illinois State Journal, 5, 9 May 1865. “Ann M. Rutledge is now learning grammar” on the title page, once but no longer believed to be written by Lincoln, may represent Ann’s only surviving signature. Photocopy, Louis A. Warren Lincoln Library and Museum, Fort Wayne, Ind. In the family bible, Ann’s name is given as “Anney Mayes Rutledge” for her birth, “Anna Mayes Rutledge” for her death. Photocopies, Illinois State Historical Library, Springfield. Her brother wrote to her as “Anna.” David H. Rutledge letter, 27 July 1835, photocopy, ibid. Her brother Robert used “Ann.” Rutledge to Herndon, 30 Oct. 1866, Herndon-Weik Collection, Library of Congress. A sister believed that she spelled her name “Anne” and was called “Annie.” J. R. Saunders to Mary Saunders, 14 May 1919, Illinois State Historical Library. Herndon first lectured on “Ann” but used “Anne” in his 1889 biography of Lincoln. “Ann” has become standard, although not necessarily correct.
54. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History (New York: Century, 1890), 1:191–92; Benjamin P. Thomas, Portrait for Posterity: Lincoln and His Biographers (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1947), 98, 110–19; David C. Mearns, The Lincoln Papers (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1948), 1:69–85.
By: JOHN Y. SIMON