Part two of a two-part essay. Part one appeared on November 10th.
Herndon’s 1866 lecture on Ann Rutledge drew the scorn of many who read the newspaper excerpts. Critics ripped him for going public with Lincoln’s alleged buried-heart comment, a statement certain to anguish the widowed Mary Lincoln.
After watching Ann’s coffin descend into the grave in 1835, Abraham supposedly declared that his “heart, sad and broken, was buried there.” To Herndon, this meant that Lincoln had lived out the rest of his life without truly loving another woman.
In 1866, no one disputed the reliability of the buried-heart remark, supplied to Herndon, he said, by an unnamed “friend.” They just blasted Herndon for disclosing it, and claiming that it set the future course of Lincoln’s love life. As it turns out, they could have challenged the comment’s legitimacy too.
In their edition of Herndon’s Lincoln, his 1889 biography of his partner, Douglas Wilson and Rodney Davis assert (p. 429, n. 6) that Herndon’s lecture silently reveals William Greene, a Lincoln acquaintance since 1831, as his unnamed source. But the quotation is nowhere to be found, they say, in Greene’s communications with Herndon. Nor did any other person pass along the buried-heart comment to Herndon.
So where did Herndon get those words? I suspect that he composed them himself after reading an 1862 newspaper article in the Menard County Axis, a Democratic weekly published in nearby Petersburg. Sent to him by one of his informants, this piece gushed over the president’s phenomenal rise from New Salem dry goods clerk to Commander-in-Chief. “What a model of ambition … for the youths of the land,” the story exclaimed.
The Axis had picked up the oral tradition of Lincoln’s romance with a beautiful young New Salem woman — “the youth had wrapped his heart with hers” — and cited his desolation over her death as one of the many obstacles he’d overcome on his arduous road to national renown.
The article described him standing by her grave, so distraught “as the cold clods fell upon the coffin, he sincerely wished that he too had been enclosed within it.” By this account, the stricken Abraham wished he could leave his entire body with Ann, not just his “heart.” He was saying he wanted to die. He was not saying he couldn’t love another woman. Burying his heart was apparently Herndon’s idea, not Lincoln’s.
As if to admit that he had no informant’s testimony to back up his public withering of Mary Lincoln — a woman who, according to him, had never received her husband’s deepest affection in 23 years of marriage — Herndon made a surprising claim in the 1889 biography.
In Herndon’s Lincoln, he wrote: “speaking of [Ann’s] death and her grave Lincoln once said to me, ‘My heart lies buried there.’” Of course, in the 1866 lecture, Herndon said the remark had come to him from a “friend.” In 1866, he made no claim that Lincoln had ever mentioned Ann to him at all.
In his lecture, Herndon made one final statement about Ann Rutledge, and this time the New York Times decided not to publish it — the only Herndon comment on Ann that the paper didn’t quote. This unused observation may have come from the 1862 Axis story too.
After Ann’s death, the Axis article said, Lincoln recovered from his misery by finding “active exercise” for “both mind and body” in his political career. Herndon attributed that notion to the same “friend” who’d come up with the buried-heart remark. Lincoln had “leaped wildly into the political arena,” according to the alleged friend, “as a refuge from his despair.”
If fate had instead allowed Abraham to settle down with “Ann Rutledge, the sweet, tender and loving girl, he would have gravitated insensibly into a purely domestic man.” Though already a state legislator, Lincoln would supposedly have forsaken electoral ambition for the pleasures of the hearth.
Herndon suspected that, for Lincoln, embracing the storm and stress of politics had depended on Ann’s dying. It took the jolt of her removal to launch Lincoln on his weary pilgrimage toward the supreme sacrifice: surrendering his life for the people.
In this tragic scenario, Ann’s death, like Abraham’s, could be taken as an indirect act of devotion to the Republic. Never publicly joined in love, they could be bound together in public service. The loss of her life in 1835 could be tethered to the loss of his life in 1865. Lincoln’s entire three-decade public career could be seen as framed by two calamitous events, his fiancée’s death and his own martyrdom.
Looking back from the 21st century, we can only wonder what kind of love Ann and Abraham shared. “Love” covers a spectrum of emotions, desires, and promises. There’s no way to be sure how far their bond had progressed along the path from intimate friendship to informal betrothal.
Perhaps they themselves didn’t know. Anyone who has ever been young and in love can imagine that the devastation Abraham felt at her death may have come, in part, from knowing that they hadn’t been given the time to figure out just where they stood.
We do know that Abraham fell in love again. Seven years after Ann’s death, Lincoln married the mercurial and passionate Mary Todd. He let himself feel the promise of a lasting tie with a quick-witted, attentive woman whose extensive education, loyalty to the Whig Party, and endorsement of his ambition would help him rise to whatever heights life had in store for him.
With Mary, Abraham could bring love and politics together in a life of companionship, parenting, service, and, for all their domestic discord, moments of tenderness shielded from public view — maybe a reminder to him of moments he’d shared in his youth with Ann Rutledge.