If you previously had never heard of Abraham Lincoln but happened to see both of the major motion pictures about him that were released last year, you learned two things about our 16th president: He freed the slaves, and he carried on a secret vendetta against vampires.
But there’s something else you should know about the man on the five-dollar bill: He knew a thing or two about love and marriage, even though he was not all that lucky at it.
As it does every year, today’s celebration of Valentine’s Day follows Lincoln’s birthday by two days. That’s something easily forgotten now that we lump our national observance of the nativities of Honest Abe and George Washington into a single holiday, seemingly for the purpose of drawing attention to department-store sales on mattress sets and bed linens. The juxtaposition was not lost on Richard J. Behn, a senior fellow with the Lerman Institute, who in early 2006 published a delightful essay on Lincoln’s love life titled “Mr. Lincoln and Cupid.”
In his essay, Behn characterizes Lincoln as a “wrestler,” in the sense of one who grappled with things on a philosophical plane. “He wrestled with issues. ... He wrestled with religious faith, he writes. “…But with perhaps no issue did Mr. Lincoln wrestle so strenuously as marriage.”
Abe’s early pursuit of life and love read a bit like a soap opera. Already having lost his mother and his beloved sister to death, his first girlfriend, Ann Rutledge, also died, succumbing to typhoid. Abe’s grief pulled him into a depression so deep that it alarmed his friends, and in days long before Prozac and Cymbalta.
After he had recovered his nerve enough to resume courtship, he became engaged twice and broke it off twice. To a third young lady — whose charms may have motivated Abe in the latter disengagement — he reportedly proposed marriage, but she rejected him outright. Lincoln wrote a letter to a friend after one particularly painful breakup assessing his situation. “I have now come to the conclusion never again to think of marrying, and for this reason: I can never be satisfied with anyone who would be blockhead enough to have me,” Abe mused, channeling his best Groucho Marx.
Abe was down, but not for the count. The second of his ex-fiancées, the strongheaded Mary Todd, insisted that Lincoln had a moral contract to marry her. He tried to dissuade her, but to no avail. In late 1842, they tied the knot in a private ceremony. The ring Abe slipped onto Mary's finger had a simple engraving: “Love is Eternal.”
Why did Lincoln go through with the wedding despite such apparent doubts? Was it love, or simply a matter of honor? Behn cites “considerable evidence” of the latter motive. When it seemed that Lincoln had convinced Mary to release him from his alleged contract, he found himself tormented by the thought that he may have caused Mary untold grief and humiliation — and that kind of guilt would weigh heavily on his conscience.
Abe and Mary were far from the picture of marital bliss. “Marriage is neither heaven nor hell, it is simply purgatory,” Abe once said. Behn describes Mary as possessive and “difficult, but loving,” and notes how Abe had his own insecurities to deal with. Bouts of depression were a problem for both of them. Mary, who would endure the deaths of her young son and her husband during the presidential years, would spend her final years as a patient in a mental asylum.
Although history remembers Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, emancipation from his less-than-happy marriage was not on the table. Here again, Abe waxed philosophical. “My old father used to have a saying that ‘If you made a bad bargain, hug it the tighter,’” he wroted to a friend. For Abe, states Behn, marriage indeed “was a moral contract,” and “having made his bargain, Lincoln hugged it to the day of his death.”
Lincoln understood marriage for what it is — a lifelong and faithful union between a man and a woman, for better or worse. He had made his bed, and knew he must lie in it (perhaps that explains the Presidents’ Day mattress sales). Lincoln once told his critics, “I do the very best I know how, the very best I can, and I mean to keep on doing so until the end.” At the time, he was speaking about politics, but he could just as well have applied these words to his marriage.
“Love is eternal,” said Mary Todd’s ring. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends,” said St. Paul. Abraham Lincoln may not have had the best of success in love or in marriage, but he knew what they were about.
~ Gerald Korson