Table of Contents
Social Life and Marriage
Springfield was largely settled by people born and educated in older and more cultured communities. From the first it developed a social life of its own. In the years on both sides of 1840, it maintained as large an amount of such social activity as was possible in a new frontier city. In this life Lincoln was an important factor. The public interest in the man made this necessary, even apart from considerations of his own personal preferences.
We have seen that he was extremely sociable in his tastes. He was fond of being among men. Wherever men were gathered, there Lincoln went, and wherever Lincoln was, men gathered about him. In the intervals of work, at nooning or in the evening, he was always the center of an interested group, and his unparalleled flow of humor, wit, and good nature was the life of the assemblage. This had always been so from childhood. It had become a second nature with him to entertain the crowd, while the crowd came to look upon him as their predestined entertainer.
But Lincoln had been brought up in the open air, on the very frontier, "far from the madding crowd.” His social experience and his tastes were with men, not ladies. He was not used to the luxuries of civilization, –elegant carpets, fine china, fashionable dress. Though he had great dignity and nobility of soul, he did not have that polish of manners which counts for so much with ladies. His ungainly physique accented this lack. He was not, he never could be, what is known as a ladies’ man. While his friendly nature responded to all sociability, he was not fond of ladies’ society. He was naturally in great demand, and he attended all the social gatherings. But when there, he drifted away from the company of the ladies into that of the men. Nor were the men loath to gather about him.
The ladies liked him, but one of them doubtless spoke the truth, when she declared that their grievance against him was that he monopolized the attention of the men. This was natural to him, it had been confirmed by years of habit, and by the time he was thirty years old it was practically impossible for him to adopt the ways acceptable to ladies.
Into this society in Springfield came a pretty, bright, educated, cultured young lady–Miss Mary Todd. She was of an aristocratic family from Kentucky. It is said that she could trace the family genealogy back many centuries. She may have been haughty–she was said to be so– and she may have been exacting in those little matters which make up so large a measure of what is known as polish of manners. These would be precisely the demands which Lincoln was unable to meet.
It was a foregone conclusion that the two would be thrown much into each other’s society, and that the neighbors would connect them in thought. For Lincoln was the most popular man and Miss Todd was the most popular young lady in Springfield. It was simply another case of the attraction of opposites, for in everything except their popularity they were as unlike as they could be.
It is proverbial that the course of true love never did run smooth. If there were ripples and eddies and counter-currents in the course of this love, it was in nowise exceptional. It is only the prominence of the parties that has brought this into the strong light of publicity.
Much has been written that is both unwarranted and unkind. Even the most confidential friends do not realize the limitations of their knowledge on a matter so intimate. When they say they know all about it, they are grievously mistaken. No love story (outside of novels) is ever told truly. In the first place, the parties themselves do not tell all. They may say they do, but there are some things which neither man nor woman ever tells. In the heart of love there is a Holy of Holies into which the most intimate friend is not allowed to look.
And in the second place, even the lovers do not see things alike. If both really understood, there could be no misunderstanding. It is, then, presumptive for even the confidants, and much more for the general public, to claim to know too much of a lovers’ quarrel.
We would gladly pass over this event were it not that certain salient facts are a matter of public record. It is certain that Lincoln became engaged to Miss Todd in the year 1840. It is certain that he broke the engagement on January 1, 1841. It is certain that about that time he had a horrible attack of melancholy. And we have seen that he never outgrew his attachment to his early love, Ann Rutledge. Whether this melancholy was the cause of his breaking the engagement, or was caused by it, we cannot say. Whether the memory of Ann Rutledge had any influence in the matter, we do not know.
Whatever the mental cause of this melancholy, there is no doubt that it had also a physical cause. This was his most violent attack, but by no means his only one. It recurred, with greater or less severity, all through his life. He had been born and had grown up in a climate noted for its malaria. Excepting for the facts that he spent much time in the open air, had abundant exercise, and ate plain food, the laws of sanitation were not thought of. It would be strange if his system were not full of malaria, or, what is only slightly less abominable, of the medicines used to counteract it. In either case he would be subject to depression. An unfortunate occurrence in a love affair, coming at the time of an attack of melancholy, would doubtless bear abundant and bitter fruit.
Certain it is that the engagement was broken, not a little to the chagrin of both parties. But a kind neighbor, Mrs. Francis, whose husband was editor of the Springfield Journal, interposed with her friendly offices. She invited the two lovers to her house, and they went, each without the knowledge that the other was to be there. Their social converse was thus renewed, and, in the company of a third person, Miss Jayne, they continued to meet at frequent intervals. Among the admirers of Miss Todd were two young men who came to be widely known. These were Douglas and Shields. With the latter only we are concerned now. He was a red-headed little Irishman, with a peppery temper, the whole being set off with an inordinate vanity. He must have had genuine ability in some directions, or else he was wonderfully lucky, for he was an officeholder of some kind or other, in different states of the Union, nearly all his life. It is doubtful if another person can be named who held as many different offices as he; certainly no other man has ever represented so many different states in the senate.
At this particular time, Shields was auditor of the state of Illinois. The finances of the state were in a shocking condition. The state banks were not a success, and the currency was nearly worthless. At the same time, it was the only money current, and it was the money of the state. These being the circumstances, the governor, auditor, and treasurer, issued a circular forbidding the payment of state taxes in this paper currency of the state. This was clearly an outrage upon the taxpayers.
Against this Lincoln protested. Not by serious argument, but by the merciless satire which he knew so well how to use upon occasion. Under the pseudonym of Aunt Rebecca, he wrote a letter to the Springfield Journal. The letter was written in the style of Josh Billings, and purported to come from a widow residing in the “Lost Townships.” It was an attempt to laugh down the unjust measure, and in pursuance of this the writer plied Shields with ridicule. The town was convulsed with laughter, and Shields with fury. The wrath of the little Irishman was funnier than the letter, and the joy of the neighbors increased.
Miss Todd and Miss Jayne entered into the spirit of the fun. Then they wrote a letter in which Aunt Rebecca proposed to soothe his injured feelings by accepting Shields as her husband. This was followed by a doggerel rhyme celebrating the event.
Shields’ fury knew no bounds. He went to Francis, the editor of the Journal, and demanded the name of the author of the letters. Francis consulted with Lincoln. The latter was unwilling to permit any odium to fall on the ladies, and sent word to Shields that he would hold himself responsible for those letters.
If Shields had not been precisely the kind of a man he was, the matter might have been explained and settled amicably. But no, he must have blood. He sent an insulting and peremptory challenge. When Lincoln became convinced that a duel was necessary, he exercised his right, as the challenged party, of choosing the weapons. He selected “broadswords of the largest size.” This was another triumph of humor. The midget of an Irishman was to be pitted against the giant of six feet four inches, who possessed the strength of a Hercules, and the weapons were– "broadswords of the largest size.”
The bloody party repaired to Alton, and thence to an island or sand-bar on the Missouri side of the river. There a reconciliation was effected, honor was satisfied all around, and they returned home in good spirits. For some reason Lincoln was always ashamed of this farce. Why, we do not know. It may have been because he was drawn into a situation in which there was a possibility of his shedding human blood. And he who was too tender-hearted to shoot wild game could not make light of that situation.
The engagement between Lincoln and Miss Todd was renewed, and they were quietly married at the home of the bride’s sister, Mrs. Edwards, November 4th, 1842. Lincoln made a loyal, true, indulgent husband. Mrs. Lincoln made a home that was hospitable, cultured, unostentatious. They lived together until the death of the husband, more than twenty-two years later.
They had four children, all boys. Only the eldest, Robert Todd Lincoln, grew to manhood. He has had a career which is, to say the least, creditable to the name he bears. For a few months at the close of the war he was on the staff of General Grant. He was Secretary of War under Garfield and retained the office through the administration of Arthur. Under President Harrison, from 1889 to 1893, he was minister to England. He is a lawyer by profession, residing in Chicago–the city that loved his father–and at the present writing is president of the Pullman Company. In every position he has occupied he has exercised a notably wide influence.