Lincoln Agonizes Over an Engagement

In 1836, Lincoln found himself in a torturous situation. He felt obligated to his friend Elizabeth Abell to fulfill a promise to marry her sister, Mary Owens, if she came to Illinois from Kentucky. He regretted his rash promise and struggled to find an honorable way to get out of it. In this letter, he subtly discourages Mary by painting a bleak image of her future life with him and suggesting she could do better. In the end, when he proposed to Mary, she refused him.

There is a great deal of flourishing about in carriages here; which it would be your doom to see without sharing in it. You would have to be poor without the means of hiding your poverty. Do you believe that you could bear that patiently? . . . What you have said to me may have been in jest, or I may have misunderstood it. If so, then let it be forgotten; if otherwise, I much wish you would think seriously before you decide. . . . My opinion is that you had better not do it. You have not been accustomed to hardship, and it may be more severe than you now imagine.