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One of the enduring myths in American legend is Abraham Lincoln’s first love, a girl from his early Illinois home of New Salem named Ann Rutledge. The subject remains hotly debated among Lincoln scholars today.
The relationship — and its impact on Lincoln’s life — has been depicted as one of the great love stories of all time and made Ann Rutledge into a folk hero. Her father, one of New Salem’s founders, owned a tavern where Lincoln boarded for a time when he arrived in the village in 1832. Nineteen-year-old Ann was engaged to John McNamar, who had returned to his native East, apparently on business.
According to the legend, Lincoln and Ann developed a romantic attraction despite her betrothment, but she fell gravely ill and died in 1835. The loss of his first love plunged Lincoln into despair.
However, the legend often goes further, claiming Lincoln loved Ann so deeply that he threw himself on her grave in hysteric sobbing, and could never love another – including his wife, Mary, whom he married in 1842. Ann’s impact on his life was so sweeping that her memory left him with lifelong melancholy and even drove him to his political greatness, affecting his decisions in the White House.
The story, though, is not supported by definitive proof. No letters between Lincoln and Ann exist, and New Salem settlers, when interviewed decades later, were divided on the possibility of any romance. Some of Ann’s relatives recalled a relationship, though offered no specific details. In a visit decades later, former New Salem friend Isaac Cogdal claimed that Lincoln described a romance, though many scholars question Cogdal’s credibility.
A reference to the affair was made in 1862 in a newspaper in nearby Petersburg, Ill., three miles north of New Salem, that many believed was from a political enemy of Lincoln. Many, though, credit William Herndon, Lincoln’s former law partner, with the origin of the legend.
Herndon came across the story while researching a book on Lincoln in the mid-1860s.
Though Herndon offered descriptions of Lincoln’s everyday life that are invaluable, scholars have discounted many claims made by Herndon, an alcoholic who apparently was motivated by money.
Many scholars believe Herndon championed the Rutledge story to damage Mary Lincoln, the President’s widow, whom Herndon despised. The sentimental tale of the beloved fallen President’s tragic romance with a lovely country girl also appealed to the general public, who were often influenced by the negative perceptions of Mary.
Movies, popular magazines, poets such as Illinoisan Edgar Lee Masters, and folk tales further embellished the story with little regard for existing evidence, solidifying Ann’s place in American lore.
In the late 1920s, Lincoln scholar Paul Angle ruefully said that “ninety-five percent” of visitors to Springfield and New Salem “are firmly convinced that Ann Rutledge was the only woman Lincoln ever loved.” The romance was strongly rebuked in 1945 by James Randall, a foremost Lincoln scholar from the University of Illinois, but still enjoys periodic waves of popularity among historians.
New research in the 1990s, particularly by Knox College professor Douglas Wilson, argued that Herndon’s “informants” from New Salem were credible and that a romance was likely. However, many modern scholars agree that any romance did not have an encompassing effect on Lincoln’s later life.
Critics note that Lincoln was romantically involved with another woman, Mary Owens, mere months after Ann’s death, casting doubt on the idea of Lincoln’s deep mourning. In addition, Ann was no longer living in New Salem when she died, as her family had moved to Sand Ridge, seven miles away. Before her grave was moved to Petersburg, Ann was buried at Sand Ridge, which also throws a different light on the image of Lincoln throwing himself on her grave.
Skeptics also assert that Lincoln would have not become involved with a woman who belonged to another man, and that his well-documented awkwardness around the opposite sex would have hindered a romance. In addition, Lincoln may have had other things on his mind, as he was elected to the Illinois House in 1834.
Today, there are still plenty of believers in the story. Roger Norton, a Florida-based enthusiast who administers several respected online discussion forums on Lincoln, says that “the definite majority of members” think Lincoln was involved with Ann.
Norton himself supports the story, but discounts any lasting influence on Lincoln. “I don’t think there was any extreme impact on the rest of his life,” added Norton. “After a few months of sadness, I think he was back to normal.”