Lincoln’s First and Final Love?  William Herndon’s Ann Rutledge

© Richard Wightman Fox 2015

If you’re interested in Lincoln’s young adulthood, get your hands on Herndon’s Informants, a book edited by Douglas Wilson and Rodney Davis.  It brings together more than 600 interviews and statements amassed by Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon after the assassination in 1865. 

Many of his sources had known Lincoln before he left New Salem, Illinois, headed for the state capital of Springfield.   Twenty-eight years old, and already a state legislator for two years, he arrived in Springfield as a full-time resident on April 15, 1837, exactly 28 years before his death. 

After Lincoln’s passing, Herndon became nationally known as an authority on the president’s Springfield and New Salem years.   His zeal for collecting all the facts of Lincoln’s personal life, no matter how delicate the subject, was unmatched.  But he found it taxing to organize and interpret the mountain of material he had gathered.  It was especially hard unpack the contradictory evidence he had collected on Lincoln’s relationship in New Salem with Ann Rutledge. 

Herndon described her in an 1866 lecture as the “beautiful, amiable, and lovely girl” with whom Lincoln fell in love in his mid-twenties.  But neither Abraham nor Ann had left any direct evidence of their bond, which ended with her sudden death from an illness in 1835.  They never wrote anything about their love; nor did they speak of it to anyone who recorded their words at the time.  Almost all of Herndon’s evidence was made up of later memories—decades-old memories-- of the early 1830s. 

One of Herndon’s sources-- Isaac Cogdal, an old Lincoln acquaintance from New Salem— did say he’d spoken directly to the president-elect about Ann in late 1860 or early 1861, a quarter century after she died.  Lincoln had invited Cogdal to his office, apparently hoping to pump him for news of families he’d known in New Salem, including the Rutledges.  Cogdal gladly obliged, and he took advantage of Lincoln’s reminiscent mood to ask him about his early love life. 

“Abe is it true that you fell in love with & courted Ann Rutledge?” Cogdal remembered inquiring.  Lincoln supposedly welcomed this query about a touchy, personal topic he’d never discussed before even with his closest friends.  The words Cogdal claimed to have heard that day were guaranteed to consternate-- and in all likelihood enrage-- Mary Lincoln if she managed to get wind of them.    

The president-elect’s words about Ann, reconstructed orally by Cogdal and written down by Herndon, were, “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.”

Cogdal’s reliability has been dismissed by many historians, and affirmed by others.  But even if his memory for Lincoln’s sentiments, half a decade after their alleged interview, was perfectly accurate, they touch only on Abraham’s retrospective feelings about Ann.  They say nothing about her feelings for him. 

Did Ann love him “sacredly” too (and does “sacredly” suggest “eternally,” or just “purely,” “reverentially”)?  How far did she advance toward becoming his “good loving wife,” rather than someone else’s?    

In fact, when Lincoln embarked on his love for her, she was already engaged to someone else.  This man, the merchant John McNamar, had left New Salem and was presumed to have given up on Ann, despite his promise eventually to return to her.  But she was still formally bound to him.  For the moment, Abraham’s “sacred” love—whatever that meant—was requred to remain love from a distance.

In 1865 and 1866, a number of informants told Herndon that Ann and Abraham had sealed some kind of pact, and were planning to marry after she cleared up her murky status with McNamar.  Naturally, they tried to keep their pact secret, making it all the harder for Herndon’s informants, decades later, to agree about the exact nature of their relationship. 

But in August 1835, Ann fell ill.  She lingered only long enough for Lincoln to make one last visit to her bedside.  No informant claimed any knowledge of what he and Ann said to each other that day.  Many of them did claim that two weeks later, when Ann expired, Abraham fell completely apart.  

Lincoln’s emotional collapse convinced some who’d known nothing about his closeness to Ann that he must have been deeply in love with her, and she with him.  Nothing short of professed and reciprocated love, perhaps with a promise to marry, could account for his wildly wretched state. 

Herndon seems to have concurred with this speculation.  Lincoln’s nervous prostration after her death pointed to only one conclusion:  that Abraham “loved Ann Rutledge with all his soul, mind and strength.  She loved him as dearly, tenderly and affectionately.”

Within weeks, the New York Times and other papers in the U. S. and abroad reprinted almost everything Herndon had said in his 1866 lecture about Ann Rutledge.  Many readers regretted his public probing of Lincoln’s private life.  But what infuriated some of them was not the inferences about Lincoln’s love for Ann, but a further Herndon speculation.  He said a friend of his had told him that after Ann was lowered into her grave, Abraham declared-- in the friend’s paraphrase--  “his heart, sad and broken, was buried there.”

That supposed statement by the distraught 26 year-old established to Herndon’s satisfaction that Lincoln had never in the following 30 years loved another woman as fully as he had loved Ann Rutledge.  She had been Abraham’s first and final love.

In 1866, no one disputed the reliability of the buried-heart remark, supplied to Herndon by the unnamed “friend.”  Some just blasted Herndon for disclosing it, and claiming that it set the future course of Lincoln’s love life.  As it turns out, they could have challenged the comment’s legitimacy too. 

According to Douglas Wilson and Rodney Davis, in their edition of Herndon’s Lincoln (his 1889 biography of Lincoln), Herndon’s 1866 lecture indirectly identifies William Greene, a Lincoln acquaintance since 1831, as the unnamed source for the “buried heart” remark.  But Wilson and Davis conclude, after a comprehensive search, that no “buried heart” can be located in Greene’s communications with Herndon.  Nor can they find any other person who might have passed along the buried-heart comment to Herndon.

So where did Herndon get those words?  I suspect he composed them himself after reading an 1862 newspaper article in the Menard (County) Axis, published in nearby Petersburg.  Sent to him by one of his informants, this piece gushed over the president’s phenomenal rise from New Salem dry goods clerk to Commander-in-Chief.  “What a model of ambition … for the youths of the land,” the story exclaimed.

The Axis had picked up the oral tradition of Lincoln’s romance with a beautiful young New Salem woman—“the youth had wrapped his heart with hers”—and cited his desolation over her death as one of the many obstacles he’d overcome on his arduous road to national renown. 

The article described him standing by her grave, so distraught “as the cold clods fell upon the coffin, he sincerely wished that he too had been enclosed within it.”  By this account, the stricken Abraham wished he could leave his entire body with Ann, not just his “heart.”  He was saying he wanted to die.  He was not saying he couldn’t love another woman.  Burying his heart was apparently Herndon’s idea, not his “friend’s,” and certainly not Lincoln’s.

As if to admit he had no informant’s testimony to back up his claim—an assertion that produced a public withering of Mary Lincoln, a woman who, according to Herndon, had never received her husband’s deepest affection in 23 years of marriage— Herndon made a surprising claim in the 1889 biography.  “Speaking of [Ann’s] death and her grave Lincoln once said to me, ‘My heart lies buried there.’”  Now there was apparently no “friend” at all.

In his lecture, Herndon made one final statement about Ann Rutledge, and this time the New York Times decided not to publish it—the only Herndon comment on Ann that the paper didn’t quote.  This unused observation may have come from the 1862 Menard Axis story too. 

After Ann’s death, the Axis article said, Lincoln recovered from his misery by finding “active exercise” for “both mind and body” in his political career.  In his lecture, Herndon attributed that notion to the same imaginary “friend” who’d come up with the buried-heart remark.  Lincoln had “leaped wildly into the political arena,” according to the friend, “as a refuge from his despair.” 

If fate had instead allowed Abraham to settle down with “Ann Rutledge, the sweet, tender and loving girl, he would have gravitated insensibly into a purely domestic man.”  Though already a state legislator, Lincoln would have forsaken electoral ambition for the pleasures of the hearth. 

In Herndon’s estimation, it took the jolt of Ann’s removal to launch Lincoln into the storm and stress of politics, and to set him ultimately on his weary pilgrimage toward the supreme sacrifice:  surrendering his life for the people. 

In this tragic scenario, Ann’s death, like Abraham’s, could be seen as an indirect act of devotion to the Republic.  Never publicly joined in love, they could be bound together in joint public service.  The loss of her life in 1835—the inadvertent cause of Lincoln’s political quest-- could be linked to the loss of his life in 1865.  Lincoln’s entire three-decade public career could be seen as framed by two calamitous events, his fiancée’s death and his own martyrdom.

Looking back from the twenty-first century, we can only wonder what kind of love Ann and Abraham actually did share.  “Love” covers a wide spectrum of emotions, desires and promises.  There’s no way to be sure how far their bond had progressed along the path from playful friendship to informal betrothal. 

Perhaps they themselves didn’t know.  Anyone who’s ever been young and in love can imagine that the devastation Abraham felt at her death may have come, in part, from knowing they hadn’t been given the time to figure out where they stood.  He may have punished himself after her death for missing the opportunity to make his true feelings known. 

We do know that Abraham fell in love again.  Seven years after Ann’s death, Lincoln married the mercurial and passionate Mary Todd.  He let himself feel the promise of a lasting tie with a quick-witted, attentive woman whose extensive education, loyalty to the Whig Party, and endorsement of his ambition would help him rise to whatever heights life had in store for him.

With Mary, Abraham could bring love and politics together in a life of companionship, parenting, service, and, for all their domestic discord, moments of tenderness shielded from public view— maybe a reminder to him of moments he’d shared in his youth with Ann Rutledge.