She first visited New Salem in 1833. She seemed “intelligent and agreeable,” but she left the village before Lincoln had a chance to become acquainted with her. He knew he liked her family. Her cousin, Mentor Graham, was his teacher and friend, while her sister was one of Lincoln’s favorite neighbors.
Three years later, she returned. She stayed longer this time. Lincoln began a relationship with Mary Owens.
She came from a well-to-do family in Kentucky, her father was “a leading and wealthy citizen,” and she had received a fine education. Lincoln was impressed with her, but he doubted whether he could make her happy.
In 1837 Lincoln moved to Springfield and entered into a law partnership with John Todd Stuart. The budding lawyer-politician proposed to Mary Owens sometime early that fall.
She turned him down.
“I thought Mr. Lincoln was deficient in those little links which make up the great chain of womans happiness,” Mary wrote years later. It wasn’t that Lincoln was a cold person. They were just too different. “His training had been different from mine, hence there was not that congeniality which would have otherwise existed,” she explained.
Lincoln saw her again on August 16, 1837. Later that day, he returned to Springfield and wrote her a letter:
You will, no doubt, think it rather strange, that I should write you a letter on the same day on which we parted; and I can only account for it by supposing, that seeing you lately makes me think of you more than usual, while at our late meeting we had but few expressions of thoughts. You must know that I can not see you, or think of you, with entire indifference; and yet 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. I want in all cases to do right, and most particularly so, in all cases with women. I want, at this particular time, more than any thing else, to do right with you, and if I knew it would be doing right, as I rather suspect it would, to let you alone, I would do it. And for the purpose of making the matter as plain as possible, I now say, that you can now drop the subject, dismiss your thoughts (if you ever had any) from me forever, and leave this letter unanswered, without calling forth one accusing murmer from me. And I will even go further, and say, that if it will add any thing to your comfort, or peace of mind, to do so, it is my sincere wish that you should. Do not understand by this, that I wish to cut your acquaintance. I mean no such thing. What I do wish is, that our further acquaintance shall depend upon yourself. If such further acquaintance would contribute nothing to your happiness, I am sure it would not to mine. If you feel yourself in any degree bound to me, I am now willing to release you, provided you wish it; while, on the other hand, I am willing, and even anxious to bind you faster, if I can be convinced that it will, in any considerable degree, add to your happiness. This, indeed, is the whole question with me. Nothing would make me more miserable than to believe you miserable---nothing more happy, than to know you were so.
In what I have now said, I think I can not be misunderstood; and to make myself understood, is the only object of this letter.
If it suits you best to not answer this---farewell---a long life and merry one attend you. But if you conclude to write back, speak as plainly as I do. There can be neither harm nor danger, in saying, to me, any thing you think, just in the manner you think it.
My respects to your sister. Your friend LINCOLN.
Mary Owens rejected Lincoln’s proposal a second time, but now she told him she was moving back to Kentucky to live with her father. There is no evidence that the two ever spoke again.
Most historians dismiss the relationship. They cite Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Orville H. Browning, written on April 1, 1838. Throughout the letter, Lincoln disparages Owens, calling her “over-size” and “a fair match for Falstaff,” “[H]er skin was too full of fat,” Lincoln wrote, she was missing teeth, and generally had a “weather-beaten appearance.” When the relationship ended, Lincoln claimed he was relieved to finally be “out of the ‘scrape.’” Historians have taken him at his word. They say he never cared for Mary Owens.
But the interpretation misses the mark. Primary documents can be misinterpreted when they are not placed into context. Lincoln’s marriage proposal had been turned down—not once, but twice. The relationship was now over and Owens had moved back to Kentucky. She was gone and she wasn't coming back. He had been dumped and he felt awful, so he picked up a pen and picked apart the one who had hurt him.