Close Reading –Lincoln’s Letter to Eliza Browning

By Jesse O’Neill (Understanding Lincoln, Summer 2014)

Honest Abe? Yes—perhaps to a fault.

When the future sixteenth president of the United States stumbled into a relationship with Mary Owens—an “over-size,” “withered” woman who reminded him of nothing so much as his mother—the end result was a letterto his friend, Eliza Browning, that reveals Lincoln’s caustic wit and intolerance of “unfortunate corpulency.”  Still, he saved his most strident criticism for himself:  “Others have been made fools of by the girls….” Lincoln wrote.  “I most emphatically…made a fool of myself.”[1]Through allusion, hyperbole, and imagery, Lincoln depicts Mary Owens as one from whom he seems to physically recoil, and the reader cannot help but laugh.  He calls the 5’ 5”, 150 pound woman[2] “a fair match for Falstaff,” an unhappy comparison to the comic character of Shakespeare’s plays.

A portrayal of Falstaff

Deriding her for “her want of teeth,” “weather-beaten appearance,” and age (“nothing could have commenced at the size of infancy, and reached her present bulk in less than thirtyfive or forty years”), Lincoln suddenly has the reader commiserating through laughter as he reveals his dilemma:  how to escape this relationship with his integrity and Mary’s feelings intact.[3]

As he writes to Eliza, “I made a point of honor and conscience in all things, to stick to my word,”[4] a re-phrasing of the same idea in his final letter to Mary, from August 1837—“I want in all cases to do right, and most particularly so, in all cases with women.”[5]

But what had been, in Lincoln’s letter to Mary, a heart-rending sense of obligation, here transforms into a humorous imagining, “…that no other man on earth would have her, and…[they] were bent on holding me to my bargain.”  Here he regretfully reports to Eliza that he was “‘firm as the surge repelling rock,’”[6] an allusion to the frontispiece of David Ramsey’s The Life of George Washington,[7] which echoes what he had written to Mary in May 1837:  “What I have said I will most positively abide by, provided you wish it.”   Still, he advised Mary, “My opinion is that you had better not do it.”[8]

To Eliza Browning he explains that his sense of obligation to Mary was a form of “bondage” from which he “much desired to be free,”[9] while in his letters to Mary, he resorts to a kind of subterfuge—hinting that she might not be happy marrying Lincoln and moving to Springfield (e.g., “I am afraid you would not be satisfied. There is a great deal of flourishing about in carriages here, which it would be your doom to see without shareing in it.  You would have to be poor without the means of hiding your poverty.”[10])  In his letters to Mary, Lincoln subtly suggests reasons she might want to end it, rather than admitting that hehimself does not want this.

Illustration of Springfield, IL, 1867

Lincoln’s penultimate paragraph to Eliza explains that, having delayed as long as he could, he finally “made the proposal to [Mary] direct,” several times, and to his surprise, was flatly rejected. “I was mortified, it seemed to me, in a hundred different ways.  My vanity was deeply wounded by the reflection, that I had so long been too stupid to discover her intentions, and at the same time never doubting that I understood them perfectly.”[11]

While the story is better for Lincoln’s assertion of certainty, Lincoln’s May and August 1837 letters to Mary reveal that he was actually full of doubt—in both, he seeks to clarify the status of the relationship.  For example, in the context of a discussion of whether Mary would be happy with Lincoln, he wrote, “What you have said to me may have been in jest, or I may have misunderstood it.”[12]  Even in his final, unanswered letter to Mary, Lincoln writes, “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.”[13]

Eliza Browning

Eliza Browning and her husband, Orville, had met Lincoln while living in Vandalia, where both he and Orville were serving in the Illinois state government.  Lincoln’s letter to Eliza, although it concerned the aborted engagement to Mary, was “written in a droll and amusing vein,” and neither Eliza nor her husband imagined that it was autobiographical at all, but rather “one of his funny stories, without any foundation of fact to sustain it.”[14]  The historian Paul M. Zall suggests that the date—April 1, 1838—was a clue to the recipients that the letter was in jest,[15] which is indeed how they took it.  As Eliza learned more than twenty years later, however, there was “more truth in that letter than she supposed.”[16]

Orville Browning

The letter purports to render “a full and intelligible account”[17] of Lincoln’s life since he last saw Eliza, and it does adhere to the skeleton of what is known[18] about Lincoln’s troubled relationship with Mary Owens in 1836 and 1837.  While Lincoln does not reveal Mary’s identity in his letter to Eliza, he leaves some clues to follow.  For example, he mentions “a married lady of my aquaintance,”[19] who turns out to be Elizabeth Abell, a friend of his who encouraged his relationship with her sister, Mary Owens.  Lincoln had first met Mary when she visited New Salem in 1833,[20] but it was not until several years later that Elizabeth suggested the two should marry, and Lincoln agreed.

By this time, Elizabeth was apparently a close observer of Lincoln; by her report, Lincoln was staying with the Abell family around the time of the death of his love interest, Ann Rutledge.[21]  As Catherine Clinton points out, although he was only twenty-nine at the time of the letter, Lincoln had experienced several traumas related to women.  She writes that, “The death of his mother, the death of his sister, and the sad circumstances surrounding the death of Ann Rutledge opened floodgates of grief.   Each of the three women with whom he had become intimate had been taken from him. As he became more and more withdrawn, more emotionally reticent, his relationships with women became even more challenging.”[22]  The “challenging” weigh-station on the road to his ultimate marriage to Mary Todd was Mary Owens.

Lincoln writes that he is initially “confoundedly well pleased with the project.”[23]  His pleasure probably derived from his sense that the marriage was a way to advance himself.  Clinton describes Lincoln as “weighed down by thoughts of both how and with whom he might cast his lot,”[24] and Allen Guelzo asserts that “all of Lincoln’s attempts at marriage were, in more than a few respects, policy matches.”  Ann Rutledge and Mary Owens both would have been “marriages-up,” as was his eventual marriage to Mary Todd.[25]  In his letter, Lincoln is decidedly unromantic in his choice, offering only that he “saw no good objection to plodding life through” with her.[26]

A second factor that may have contributed to his hasty proposal was sheer loneliness.  In the years prior to the letter, Lincoln had been twice elected to the Illinois State Assembly, but seemed to find the life in Vandalia and later Springfield to be unbearable. “Write back as soon as you get this,” he told Mary in December 1836, “and if possible say something that will please me, for really I have not been pleased since I left you.”[27]  In a second letter, this time from Springfield in May 1837, he complains of being “quite as lonesome here as ever was anywhere in my life.  I have been spoken to by but one woman since I’ve been here, and should not have been by her, if she could have avoided it.”[28]

Map of Illinois, annotated detail, 1833

While the unexpected end to his relationship with Mary Owens left him without companionship or upward mobility for the time being, Lincoln was relieved to be out of the difficult situation. And, he felt that he had learned an important lesson: “never again to think of marrying” because he “can never be satisfied with any one who would be block-head enough to have [him].”[29]  But as Mary Todd soon found out, never say never.

While the letter is a showcase of Lincoln’s wit and style, it also represents how a relationship that was painful—for different reasons—both in its existence and in its conclusion, could with the passage of time be transformed into a humorous, and deeply self-deprecating, letter to entertain Lincoln’s friend.  He reveals enough of himself to make others laugh, but disguises his story (his betrothed is anonymous, and his use of hyperbole and other humorous strategies leads the reader to think the story could not possibly be true).  With the help of Lincoln’s letters to Mary, his letter to Eliza illustrates his honesty (even as Eliza read it as fiction), his commitment to keeping his word, and his reluctance to disappoint.


Footnotes:
[1]Matthew Pinsker, ed., “Letter to Eliza Browning (April 1, 1838),” Lincoln’s Writings: The Multi-Media Edition, last modified 2014, accessed June 28, 2014,Letter to Eliza Browning (April 1, 1838).
[2]Paul M. Zall, ed., Lincoln on Lincoln(Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2010), 43, accessed June 23, 2014, Lincoln on Lincoln.
[3]Pinsker, “Letter to Eliza Browning,” Lincoln’s Writings: The Multi-Media Edition.
[4]Pinsker, “Letter to Eliza Browning,” Lincoln’s Writings: The Multi-Media Edition.
[5]Abraham Lincoln, “To Mary S. Owens,” in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Digital Library Production Services, 2001), 1:94, originally published as Collected Works (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), accessed June 23, 2014,Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.
[6]Pinsker, “Letter to Eliza Browning,” Lincoln’s Writings: The Multi-Media Edition.
[7]David Ramsey’s The Life of George Washington, revised and enlarged, by Wm. Grimshaw, Baltimore:  Joseph Jewett, and Cushing & Sons, 1832; via Google Books: The Life of George Washington
[8]Abraham Lincoln, “To Mary S. Owens,” in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Digital Library Production Services, 2001), 1:78, originally published as Collected Works (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), accessed June 23, 2014,Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.
[9]Pinsker, “Letter to Eliza Browning,” Lincoln’s Writings: The Multi-Media Edition.
[10]Lincoln, “To Mary S. Owens,” in Collected Works of Abraham, 1:78.
[11]Pinsker, “Letter to Eliza Browning,” Lincoln’s Writings: The Multi-Media Edition.
[12]Lincoln, “To Mary S. Owens,” in Collected Works of Abraham, 1:78.
[13]Lincoln, “To Mary S. Owens,” in Collected Works of Abraham, 1:94.
[14]Orville Hickman Browning, “Browning to Arnold,” in Abraham Lincoln and Mary Owen, by Abraham Lincoln, Orville Hickman Browning, and Isaac Newton Arnold, comp. Harry Ellsworth Barker (Springfield, IL: Barker’s Art Store, 1922), n.p., accessed June 23, 2014, Abraham Lincoln and Mary Owen : three letters, Lincoln to Mrs. O.H. Browning, I.N. Arnold to O.H. Browning, O.H. Browning to I.N. Arnold : Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865 : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive.
[15]Zall, Lincoln on Lincoln, 43.
[16] John George Nicolay, “The Springfield Interviews,” in An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, ed. Michael Burlingame (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University, 1996), 4, accessed June 23, 2014.
[17]Pinsker, “Letter to Eliza Browning,” Lincoln’s Writings: The Multi-Media Edition.
[18]The evidence comes mainly from three extant letters, between December 1836 and August 1837, from Lincoln to Mary Owens, as well as from the recollections of Eliza Browning’s husband, Orville.
[19]Pinsker, “Letter to Eliza Browning,” Lincoln’s Writings: The Multi-Media Edition.
[20]Abraham Lincoln, “To Mary S. Owens,” in Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Digital Library Production Services, 2001), 1:55, originally published as Collected Works (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), accessed June 23, 2014, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.  Footnote 1.
[21]Lewis Gannett, “The Ann Rutledge Story: Case Closed?,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association31, no. 2 (2010): 33, accessed June 20, 2014, The Ann Rutledge Story: Case Closed?.
[22]Catherine Clinton, “Abraham Lincoln: The Family That Made Him, the Family He Made,” in Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World, ed. Eric Foner (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2008), 259.
[23]Pinsker, “Letter to Eliza Browning,” Lincoln’s Writings: The Multi-Media Edition.
[24]Clinton, “Abraham Lincoln: The Family,” in Our Lincoln: New Perspectives, 260.
[25]Allen C. Guelzo, “Come-outers and Community Men: Abraham Lincoln and the Idea of Community in Nineteenth-Century America,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 21, no. 1 (2000): n.p., accessed June 19, 2014,Come-outers and Community Men: Abraham Lincoln and the Idea of Community in Nineteenth-Century America.
[26]Pinsker, “Letter to Eliza Browning,” Lincoln’s Writings: The Multi-Media Edition.
[27]Lincoln, “To Mary S. Owens,” in Collected Works of Abraham, 1:55.
[28]Lincoln, “To Mary S. Owens,” in Collected Works of Abraham, 1:78.
[29]Pinsker, “Letter to Eliza Browning,” Lincoln’s Writings: The Multi-Media Edition.

Image credits, in order of appearance:

Bibliography:

Browning, Orville Hickman. “Browning to Arnold.” In Abraham Lincoln and Mary Owen, by Abraham Lincoln, Orville Hickman Browning, and Isaac Newton Arnold. Compiled by Harry Ellsworth Barker. Springfield, IL: Barker’s Art Store, 1922. Accessed June 23, 2014.Abraham Lincoln and Mary Owen : three letters, Lincoln to Mrs. O.H. Browning, I.N. Arnold to O.H. Browning, O.H. Browning to I.N. Arnold : Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865 : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive.

Clinton, Catherine. “Abraham Lincoln: The Family That Made Him, the Family He Made.” In Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World, edited by Eric Foner, 249-66. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2008.

Gannett, Lewis. “The Ann Rutledge Story: Case Closed?” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 31, no. 2 (2010): 21-60. Accessed June 20, 2014.The Ann Rutledge Story: Case Closed?.

Guelzo, Allen C. “Come-outers and Community Men: Abraham Lincoln and the Idea of Community in Nineteenth-Century America.” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 21, no. 1 (2000): 1-29. Accessed June 19, 2014.Come-outers and Community Men: Abraham Lincoln and the Idea of Community in Nineteenth-Century America.

Lincoln, Abraham. “To Mary S. Owens.” In Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 54-55. Vol. 1. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Digital Library Production Services, 2001. Originally published as Collected Works (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953). Accessed June 23, 2014.Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.

———. “To Mary S. Owens.” In Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 94-95. Vol. 1. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Digital Library Production Services, 2001. Originally published as Collected Works (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953). Accessed June 23, 2014.Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.

———. “To Mary S. Owens.” In Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 78-79. Vol. 1. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Digital Library Production Services, 2001. Originally published as Collected Works (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953). Accessed June 23, 2014.Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.

———. “To Mrs. Orville H. Browning.” InCollected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 117-19. Vol. 1. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Digital Library Production Services, 2001. Originally published as Collected Works (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953). Accessed June 24, 2014. Page on umich.edu.

Nicolay, John George. “The Springfield Interviews.” In An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays. Edited by Michael Burlingame. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University, 1996. Accessed June 23, 2014.

Pinsker, Matthew, ed. “Letter to Eliza Browning (April 1, 1838).” Lincoln’s Writings: The Multi-Media Edition. Last modified 2014. Accessed June 28, 2014.Letter to Eliza Browning (April 1, 1838).

Ramsey, David, and William Grimshaw. “Frontispiece.” In David Ramsey’s The Life of George Washington. Baltimore, MD: Joseph Jewett, and Cushing & Sons, 1832. Accessed June 23, 2014.The Life of George Washington.

Zall, Paul M., ed. Lincoln on Lincoln. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2010. Accessed June 23, 2014.Lincoln on Lincoln.


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