So much has been written about Lincoln, yet he remains a deeply mysterious man. We know he loved to tell scatological tales; his worn jokes probably kept him sane as he battled to preserve a nation that was splitting apart. We can feel his sad cadences and the rapture of language in the Gettysburg Address. But we aren’t willing to allow him any rapture in his own life. No historian, biographer, or myth-maker such as Carl Sandberg has ever written about his sensuality. Lincoln may have visited bordellos in New Orleans and Beardstown when he was a young bachelor, may even have contracted syphilis, or at least feared he did, according to his law partner, William Herndon. Herndon believed that Lincoln never loved his wife, that he went out on the circuit to get away from Mary, and that more than once she chased this most “unparlorable” husband of hers out of the house.
Lincoln’s relationship with Mary did have a troubled start. He was a lowly country lawyer and she a Kentucky aristocrat who had come to visit her older sister in Illinois. She was also a buxom beauty, a kind of nineteenth century bombshell who loved to flirt. We can feel her sensuality and willfulness in the first daguerreotype we have of Mary, taken in 1846, when she was twenty-seven. She was a woman with a wicked tongue, and had a far superior education than most of the men around her. Mary had many suitors, rebuffed them all, and grew bored. And here was Lincoln, who climbed up Springfield’s Quality Hill during the latter part of 1840, took one look at Mary’s robust figure and fiercely intelligent blue eyes, and said, “Miss Todd, I want to dance with you in the worst way.”
That’s how their romance began, against the advice of her older sister and the other patricians of Quality Hill, who felt she was tossing her life away on a lawyer with dust on his coat. Lincoln and Mary danced, met in secret, and were soon engaged to be married. But Lincoln broke off the engagement on “that fatal first of January .” He’d convinced himself that he didn’t belong to her “Coterie” of patricians and never could. He fell into a profound depression after the break-up, nearly slit his throat, and wandered about like a man inhabiting his own haunted house. And what about Mary? She must have felt a deep humiliation, the belle of Springfield jilted by a bumpkin whose pantaloons barely reached his shins. Yet Mary never once looked for another beau.
Meanwhile, Lincoln recovered, continued his law practice, and served out his last term in the Illinois legislature. He met Mary again almost eighteen months after that “fatal first of January.” The courtship resumed. And on November 4, 1842, he married Mary Todd. They spent their “honeymoon” at the Globe Tavern in Springfield. And yet there’s not a note about the wedding night in David Herbert Donald’s revered biography of Lincoln, as if it were some invisible, ghostly event that couldn’t be recorded. Would it have revealed a sensual side to Lincoln that has become a taboo subject, and that is much too difficult to document? We have one clue, a letter Lincoln wrote to an acquaintance a week after the wedding night. “Nothing new here, except my marrying, which to me, is a matter of profound wonder.” At least some of that wonder must have crept right off their marriage bower at the Globe.
Lincoln’s sexuality, I believe, was a crucial part of his life. We ought to celebrate his desire for Mary and his devotion to her, and Mary’s stubborn desire for him. It’s a remarkable Valentine tale.