'Lincoln the Lover,' Debunked

Gary Cameron / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

February 2016 brings us an odd-couple of holidays: Sunday is Valentine’s Day, and Monday is Presidents Day. For history buffs and romantics alike, here’s a tale involving a former president and his purported romance.

Beginning in December 1928, The Atlantic published a three-part series titled “Lincoln the Lover,” written by Wilma Francois Minor. It featured a collection of letters, purportedly written between President Lincoln and his rumored first love, Ann Rutledge, as well as other papers corroborating their romance.

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Don E. Fehrenbacher wrote a fascinating account of the incident for American Heritage in 1981:

The collection, if authentic, did more than confirm the betrothal of Lincoln and Ann Rutledge. It also reinforced the larger legend that she was the primary inspiration of his career. Here is Lincoln writing to Calhoun in 1848, some thirteen years after Ann’s death and during the sixth year of his marriage to Mary Todd: “Like a ray of sun-shine and as brief—she flooded my life, and at times like today when I traverse past paths I see this picture before me—fever burning the light from her dear eyes, urging me to fight for the right. … I have kept faith. Sometimes I feel that in Heaven she is pleading for my furtherance.”

The only problem? The documents weren’t real.

“Almost as soon as the December issue was released, critics began denouncing the collection as an obvious fake,” wrote former Atlantic executive editor Katie Bacon, who looked back at the scandal in our November 2005 issue. She continued:

How had The Atlantic let itself be duped by a collection so obviously fake?

Fehrenbacher suggests that [Atlantic owner and editor Ellery] Sedgwick’s rash decision to publish the collection had something to do with his rather loose editing philosophy, one that in other cases probably benefited the magazine. “An editor, Sedgwick declared, should have an open mind, always steering closer to credulity than to skepticism. In any encounter with improbability, he should 'put on the brakes gently but let the motor run.’”

In addition, Sedgwick was both charmed by Minor and tempted by the publicity that the publication of such a sensational group of documents would bring to the magazine. Sedgwick had rushed the articles into publication, leaving little time for their authentication, so that he could use the series as part of a subscription promotion for the holiday season. The magazine had then run an advertising campaign announcing the series to the world:

At last, after nearly a century during which their existence was always suspected and hoped for, appear the priceless documents which lift the veil surrounding the love affair between Abraham Lincoln and young Ann Rutledge... This feature alone, the first printing of these documents, will make an Atlantic subscription for the coming year a life-long keepsake—and incidentally a most appropriate Lincoln remembrance.

The collection did change the way Lincoln was remembered, but undoubtedly not in the way that Sedgwick expected it would. The Minor affair not only consigned the Lincoln-Rutledge romance back to the realm of unsubstantiated legend, but also helped usher in a new era of Lincoln history, one that placed all its value on the work of professional historians.

Today, you can read all three parts of “Lincoln the Lover” on our website—here, here, and here.

For more reading on Lincoln in the pages of The Atlantic, Sage compiled a list of essential pieces stretching back to the 1860s. Furthermore, here’s a June 1865 essay from George Bancroft on “the place of Abraham Lincoln in history,” published just two months after his assassination. Bancroft predicted the Emancipation Proclamation would define Lincoln’s legacy:

The measure by which Abraham Lincoln takes his place, not in American history only, but in universal history, is his Proclamation of January I, 1863, emancipating all slaves within the insurgent States. It was, indeed, a military necessity, and it decided the result of the war. It took from the public enemy one or two millions of bondmen, and placed between one and two hundred thousand brave and gallant troops in arms on the side of the Union.

A great deal has been said in time past of the wonderful results of the toil of the enslaved negro in the creation of wealth by the culture of cotton; and now it is in part to the aid of the negro in freedom that the country owes its success in its movement of regeneration, that the world of mankind owes the continuance of the United States as the example of a Republic. The death of President Lincoln sets the seal to that Proclamation, which must be maintained. It cannot but be maintained. It is the only rod that can safely carry off the thunderbolt.

He came to it perhaps reluctantly; he was brought to adopt it, as it were, against his will, but compelled by inevitable necessity. He disclaimed all praise for the act, saying reverently, after it had succeeded, “The nation’s condition God alone can claim.”