Letter to John Stuart (January 23, 1841)

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#101 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents

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“I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”

On This Date

HD Daily Report, January 23, 1841

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How Historians Interpret

“In fact, Lincoln went ‘crazy for a week or so’ and was nursed back to health at the Butlers’ home, where his friend Orville H. Browning was staying. Browning said his friend ‘was so much affected as to talk incoherently, and to be delirious to the extent of not knowing what he was doing.’ This ‘aberration of mind resulted entirely from the situation he . . . got himself into – he was engaged to Miss Todd, and in love with Miss Edwards, and his conscience troubled him dreadfully for the supposed injustice he had done, and the supposed violation of his word which he had committed.’ Many friends, including James H. Matheny, ‘thought L[incoln] would commit suicide.’ They ‘had to remove razors from his room – take away all Knives and other such dangerous things – &c – it was terrible.’ Joshua Speed wrote that ‘a gloom came over him till his friends were alarmed for his life.’ According to Speed, Lincoln wrote a poem about suicide and declared that he ‘would be more than willing’ to die, but, he said, ‘I have an irrepressible desire to live till I can be assured that the world is a little better for my having lived in it.’”

Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2 volumes, originally published by Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) Unedited Manuscript By Chapters, Lincoln Studies Center, Volume 1, Chapter 6 (PDF), pp. 547-548

“Though he had earlier longed to end his commitment to Mary Todd, he now began to suspect. . .that he loved her more than he had thought.  Even more important, he was haunted by ‘the never-absent idea’ that he had made Mary unhappy. . . Losing both his only intimate friend and his fiancée within a matter of days was more than Lincoln could bear, and he collapsed.  Taking to his bed for about a week, he was unwilling to see anyone except his doctor and Speed, who had not yet left for Kentucky.  Years later, Speed said he thought Lincoln might commit suicide. . . Just what specific advice Speed offered his friend is unknown, but my guess is that he told Lincoln that he should either end his relationship with Mary Todd or marry her.  Lincoln acknowledged the correctness of the advice but could not act on it.  Unable to make a choice, he was, as he wrote his law partner, John T. Stuart, ‘the most miserable man living. . .’ More than a year later, he still could not decide.  ‘Before I resolve to do the one thing or the other,’ he confessed to Speed, ‘I must regain my confidence in my own ability to keep my resolves when they are made.’”

David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 44-45

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Jany. 23rd. 1841- Springfield, Ills.
 
Dear Stuart: 
Yours of the 3rd. Inst. is recd. & I proceed to answer it as well as I can, tho’ from the deplorable state of my mind at this time,  I fear I shall give you but little satisfaction. About the matter of the congressional election, I can only tell you, that there is a bill now before the Senate adopting the General Ticket system; but whether the party have fully determined on it’s adoption is yet uncertain. There is no sign of opposition to you among our friends, and none that I can learn among our enemies; tho’, of course, there will be, if the Genl. Ticket be adopted. The Chicago American, Peoria Register, & Sangamo Journal, have already hoisted your flag upon their own responsibility; & the other whig papers of the District are expected to follow immediately. On last evening there was a meeting of our friends at Butler’s; and I submitted the question to them & found them unanamously in favour of having you announced as a candidate. A few of us this morning, however, concluded, that as you were already being announced in the papers, we would delay announcing you, as by your own authority for a week or two. We thought that to appear too keen about it might spur our opponents on about their Genl. Ticket project. Upon the whole, I think I may say with certainty, that your reelection is sure, if it be in the power of the whigs to make it so.
 
For not giving you a general summary of news, you must pardon me; it is not in my power to do so. I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me. The matter you speak of on my account, you may attend to as you say, unless you shall hear of my condition forbidding it. I say this, because I fear I shall be unable to attend to any bussiness here, and a change of scene might help me. If I could be myself, I would rather remain at home with Judge Logan. I can write no more.
 
Your friend, as ever—
A. LINCOLN
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