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68 douglas l. wilson Abraham Lincoln and “That Fatal First of January” Douglas L. Wilson Abraham Lincoln’s courtship of Mary Todd, while one of the most colorful and dramatic episodes in his early life, is also one of the least understood. What obscures this critical chapter in Lincoln’s maturation and emergence, and in turn hampers our ability to assess its character and importance, is the fragmentary and incoherent form in which the story of the courtship has come down to us. The crux of the problem of what happened to Lincoln over the course of his courtship is the mysterious broken engagement. Lincoln became engaged to Mary Todd in 1840, but by “that fatal first of Jany. ’41” the engagement had been abruptly broken. How it came to be broken, by whom, and under what circumstances have long been subjects of speculation, but much of the mystery remains. What follows is an attempt to shed light on the broken engagement, and thus on Lincoln’s development, byrelating the testimonyof the most knowledgeable witnesses to Lincoln’s own letters and other contemporary evidence. The biographer with the best opportunities for determining what happened in the broken engagement, William H. Herndon, ingloriously failed, for he ultimatelyopted foran accountof the affairthatdoes not stand up.Afterquestioning many witnesses and puzzling over the problem for several years, he decided to accept as true the story of Lincoln’s failure to appear at his own wedding on the 68 E Civil War History, vol. XXXviii no.2, © 1992 by The kent State university Press In order to view this proof accurately, the Overprint Preview Option must be checked in Acrobat Professional or Adobe Reader. Please contact your Customer Service Representative if you have questions about finding the option. Job Name: -- /358884t abraham lincoln and “that fatal first of january” 69 1. Herndon’s earliest theory regarding the broken engagement is detailed in the letter to Ward Hill Lamon, Feb. 25, 1870, Lamon Papers, Huntington Library, and it is printed in emanuel Hertz, ed., The Hidden Lincoln (new York: viking, 1938), 62–69. A later and much-altered version occurs in his manuscript account titled “Lincoln & Mary Todd” in the Herndon-Weik Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (hereafter cited as H-W). His final version appears in the biography on which he collaborated with Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Lincoln, ed. Paul M. Angle (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1949), 166–71. 2. See ida M. Tarbell, The Life of Abraham Lincoln (new York: Lincoln Memorial Association, 1900), 1:176–80. Albert J. Beveridge is the most prominent of later biographers to adopt Herndon’s account of the aborted wedding. 3. See Angle’s appendix in Carl Sandburg and Paul M. Angle, Mary Lincoln: Wife and Widow (newYork:Harcourt, Brace, 1932), 329–50;randall had three tries at it, first in collaboration with her husband in the account given in J. G. randall, Lincoln the President: Spring field to Gettysburg (new York: Dodd, Mead, 1945), 51–62, then in a full-length biography, Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage (Boston: Little, Brown, 1953), 36–51, and finally in a popularized account, The Courtship of Mr. Lincoln (Boston: Little, Brown, 1957), 111–30; elizabeth Todd edwards’s account is given in two interviews with William H. Herndon, H-W;Wallace’s appears in Lincoln’s Marriage: Newspaper interview . . . Spring field, lll., Sept. 2, 1895 (Privately printed, 1917); Albert S. edwards’s is given in Walter B. Stevens, A reporter’s Lincoln (St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society, 1916), 73–79; and katherine Helms’s appears in her biographyof heraunt, TheTrue Storyof Mary, Wife of Lincoln (new York: Harper & Brothers, 1928), 86–91. “fatal first of January” 1841.1 Though some later biographers were still to give it credence, by 1900 ida M. Tarbell had effectively undermined its credibility by showing that of the surviving friends and relatives—some of the very people who were presumably left waiting with Mary at the altar—none had ever heard of such a thing, and all denounced it as false.2 Paul M.Angletackled the brokenengagementincollaboratingwithCarl Sandburg on Mary Lincoln: Wife and Widow (1932), making it the subject of a special appendix, but he lacked full access to the letters and interviews of Herndon’s informants (whom he mistrusted), and tried, with inconclusive results, to clarify the picture through reliance on contemporary letters. The most detailed investigation of Lincoln’s courtship was made by ruth Painter randall. Her rationale of the...


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