Ninian Wirt Edwards and the courtship of the Lincolns.

July 30, 2012

Ninian W. Edwards, was born into politics. His father, Ninian Edwards Sr., was the third governor of Illinois from 1826 to 1830.

Ninian married Elizabeth Porter Todd, Mary Todd’s older sister, and played a key role in Mary and Abraham Lincoln’s marriage. He was a legislator and lawyer whose mansion on Aristocracy Hill was the social gathering spot for  the promising or already established  Springfield politicians, and lawyers. A fine place for an ambitious man from New Salem to rub elbows with the best of the town’s society.  Lincoln was a frequent guest who was often the life of the party, telling stories and charming the room with his wit.  Lincoln had previously met Ninian Edwards in Vandalia, Illinois, when the two men worked together as a part of the vocal group of Whig legislators named the “Long Nine.” A name deriving from the fact that all nine men were an average of 6 feet tall and around 200 pounds each. The Long Nine’s goal was to move the Illinois state’s capitol from Vandalia to Springfield, and after gaining enough votes, finally achieved the relocation. After the Whig party’s successes, Ninian would invite all of his friends over to the house for oysters and cigars to celebrate.


It is said that Ninian was a vain man. Conceited and bad-tempered. Despite this temperament, he must have seen something promising in Lincoln as he claimed many years later in an interview with William Herndon to have at least attempted to help Lincoln, a “mighty rough man,” upon his arrival in Springfield. In the book Herndon’s informants, Ninian recalls  “that when Lincoln first came to Springfield I assisted Lincoln – offered to buy him a good law library and send him to some law school and these offers he refused – said that he was too poor and did not wish to involve himself.”

Ninian and Mary Todd did not get along very well and as I mentioned in last week’s piece on Mary Todd, Ninian acted as Mary’s guardian, and he and his wife opposed Abraham and Mary’s original engagement. The son of Ninian and Elizabeth later remembered “My mother did what she could to break up the match.” But the two still found a way to commence the unapproved courtship through correspondence, in the summer and fall of 1840, while Lincoln was in southern Illinois campaigning for William Henry Harrison for president. Lincoln, no doubt, found his feelings easier to write down on paper than to muster them up on the spot for this young lady who had caught his attention. And Mary loved his attention. Returning the favor a couple times over by as Joshua Speed put it “Darting after him.” Lincoln’s friend, O.H. Browning recalled that “She had taken a fancy to Mr. Lincoln, and I always thought she did most of the courting until they became engaged.” By the time winter was beginning it was accepted in Springfield that the two were together as an item.

Unfortunately, the  relationship in its first round was troubled. Mary, for one thing, had been spending a  bit of  time in the company of other Springfield suitors, possibly  only to bother Lincoln. Or maybe she was having second thoughts the same as Lincoln had been. Ninian and Elizabeth later revealed “Lincoln and Mary’s engagement and courtship were broken off  by her flirtations with (Stephen) Douglas.”  Lincoln was beset by problems and distress in his political, and financial life and was being dragged down into a deep depression. These “flirtations” could have done little to rid him of his insecurities. Catherine Clinton in her book Mrs. Lincoln writes:

” In this operatic scenario, Lincoln failed to appear on time to escort Mary to a social gathering to which she ventured alone. When Lincoln finally appeared at the party, he found Mary dancing with Douglas, his ‘arch rival,’ provoking him to jealousy and anger.”

Sometime before or after New Year’s Day, 1841, the two were single once again, and Lincoln was gone, suffering a severe mental breakdown, living with another Springfield friend, William Butler and his family.

Below: Joshua Speed drunk with Ninian Edwards from The Hypo

On September 27, 1842, Mary and Abraham both found themselves at the same social event in Jacksonville, Illinois: the wedding of Martinette Hardin to Alexander McKee. The two at last spoke to one another again, beginning their reconciliation. Some have written that it was Mrs. Francis, the wife of Simeon Francis, the editor of the Sangamo Journal, who played matchmaker between the two the second time around. Mrs. Francis allowed the couple to meet privately in her Springfield home to renew  their feelings towards each other after their 18 month split. Mary insisted in later years that she was the only woman Abraham was ever truly attached to, and that they were destined to be together. Their early courtship troubles were caused by his crisis. Lincoln’s uncertainty.  Mary had waited for him, despite a great number of eligible beaux in line to sweep her off of her feet. Time had passed slowly and neither seemed able to move on. And now it was the fall of 1842 and it was time to settle matters.

Another of Mary’s sisters, Mrs. Frances Todd Wallace,who was also living in Springfield at the time, described Lincoln’s 2nd proposal to Mary:

“In his conversation with Mary, he referred to his lack of means, his ambitions, and his love for her. ‘I now suggest and insist upon our marriage at once.'”

Abraham and Mary decided to hastily marry in order, perhaps, to obstruct any further objections. On November 3rd Abraham visited  an Episcopalian minister, Charles Dresser, to ask him if he would perform the wedding service that evening at the reverend’s home. Then, out on the street, Abraham spotted Ninian and revealed his plans with Mary to him. Ninian was past the point of prevention, and insisted that the ceremony be held at his home and that the couple hold off until the following day to exchange vows.

And so, the same mansion that hosted the social gatherings that Lincoln had frequented years before was also the location of a wedding on a very rainy day. November 4th 1842. The Lincoln’s wedding was planned over the course of hours by Elizabeth Edwards. She had only gotten word of their plans that morning, and had hosted a sewing circle in the home the night before. Elizabeth, resentful, complained that she may only have time to send out for gingerbread. Pushing Mary, referencing her sister’s feelings of Lincoln’s poor origins, to sourly reply ” Gingerbread is good enough for plebeians!”

A week later, the Sangamo Journal announced:

MARRIED-in this city on the 4th instant. At the residence of N.W. Edwards, Esq., by Rev. C. Dresser ABRAHAM LINCOLN, Esq., to Miss MARY TODD, daughter of Robert Todd, Esq.

In a letter that Lincoln wrote to a friend he casually mentioned “Nothing new here, except my marrying, which to me, is a matter of profound wonder.”


On a special note, Fantagraphics books is now offering a special mini comic with all orders of The Hypo. This comic features an all new comic adaptation of Abraham Lincoln’s prophetic Assassination dream only weeks before his murder. Please click on the cover for more info!


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