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Sunday, August 16, 2009

On this day in 1837: A bounden duty

Not the Mary you think.

Friend Mary.
You will, no doubt, think it rather strange, that I should write you a letter on the same day on which we parted; and I can only account for it by supposing, that seeing you lately makes me think of you more than usual, while at our late meeting we had but few expressions of thoughts. You must know that I can not see you, or think of you, with entire indifference; and yet it may be, that you, are mistaken in regard to what my real feelings towards you are. If I knew you were not, I should not trouble you with this letter. Perhaps any other man would know enough without further information; but I consider it my peculiar right to plead ignorance, and your bounden duty to allow the plea. I want in all cases to do right, and most particularly so, in all cases with women. I want, at this particular time, more than any thing else, to do right with you, and if I knew it would be doing right, as I rather suspect it would, to let you alone, I would do it. And for the purpose of making the matter as plain as possible, I now say, that you can now drop the subject, dismiss your thoughts (if you ever had any) from me forever, and leave this letter unanswered, without calling forth one accusing murmer from me. And I will even go further, and say, that if it will add any thing to your comfort, or peace of mind, to do so, it is my sincere wish that you should. Do not understand by this, that I wish to cut your acquaintance. I mean no such thing. What I do wish is, that our further acquaintance shall depend upon yourself. If such further acquaintance would contribute nothing to your happiness, I am sure it would not to mine. If you feel yourself in any degree bound to me, I am now willing to release you, provided you wish it; while, on the other hand, I am willing, and even anxious to bind you faster, if I can be convinced that it will, in any considerable degree, add to your happiness. This, indeed, is the whole question with me. Nothing would make me more miserable than to believe you miserable---nothing more happy, than to know you were so.
In what I have now said, I think I can not be misunderstood; and to make myself understood, is the only object of this letter.
If it suits you best to not answer this---farewell---a long life and a merry one attend you. But if you conclude to write back, speak as plainly as I do. There can be neither harm nor danger, in saying, to me, any thing you think, just in the manner you think it.
My respects to your sister. Your friend LINCOLN. (Link)

That was Abraham Lincoln writing to Mary Owens. What do you think he's saying? What happened at their last meeting?

He wants to be understood. Or, rather, not misunderstood. And he seems to think this letter will make her understand him. I'm sure it's all clear as glass to someone. And maybe it was to her. But even upon reading it more than once, I'm a little cloudy on what's going on. What did Mary Owens understand him to be saying? She never wrote back, by the way.

He was 28. He must have been feeling the pressure -- whether internal or from outside forces or both -- to get hitched. To a woman. To any woman.

Perhaps we can glean some context from a letter he would write the next year to one Mrs. Orville Browning of Quincy, Illinois:

In a few days we had an interview, and although I had seen her before, she did not look as my immagination had pictured her. I knew she was over-size, but she now appeared a fair match for Falstaff; I knew she was called an ``old maid'', and I felt no doubt of the truth of at least half of the appelation; but now, when I beheld her, I could not for my life avoid thinking of my mother; and this, not from withered features, for her skin was too full of fat, to permit its contracting in to wrinkles; but from her want of teeth, weather-beaten appearance in general, and from a kind of notion that ran in my head, that nothing could have commenced at the size of infancy, and reached her present bulk in less than thirtyfive or forty years; and, in short, I was not all pleased with her.... (Link)

Whoa! Was he comparing Mary Owens to that Falstaff? Yes, he was. Was he really so disgusted by her? Or, did he just make all that up because he was hurt?

It would be two more years before he would meet the Mary who would become his wife. In the meantime, he would be left to his own devices and without anyone feeling a bounden duty to him.

Love hurts...................

Posted by Marie at August 16, 2009 12:09 AM


he's obviously written a very wordy version of the grade school "Do you like me? Check yes or no" note.

Posted by: at August 16, 2009 7:58 AM

So the man who wrote "Four score and seven years ago" and "With malice toward none" wrote that, too. I guess they don't always reach the bleachers. :)

Posted by: Rob Author Profile Page at August 16, 2009 7:59 PM

You know, this woman comes up in "Team of Rivals." Goodwin says, "Never at ease talking to women, Lincoln found writing to them equally awkward, 'a business which I do not understand.' The curious thing is that by the time he wrote this letter he had already tried to get out of this entanglement by writing Mary Owens about how little she'd like life with him or in Springfield. She reportedly told her side of the story to Lincoln's associate William Herndon in 1866.

Posted by: Dan at August 17, 2009 12:06 PM

The original version of Herndon's book on Lincoln is on Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=-hGcH1GDMvsC&dq

Go and read the long account of Mary Owens' relationship with Lincoln (including picture of this Falstaffian character). It's wonderful both for the way Herndon spins Lincoln's behavior and for Owens's own account of the "courtship."

Posted by: Dan at August 17, 2009 12:24 PM

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