The Women: Mrs. Eliza Caldwell Browning

In December 1839, Mr. Lincoln cosigned a letter to "the Honorable Mrs. O.H. Browning: "We the undersigned, respectfully represent to your Honoress, that we are in great need of your society in this town of Springfield; and therefore humbly pray that your Honoress will repair, forthwith to the Seat of Government, bringing in your train all ladies in general, who may be at your command; and all Mr. Browning's sisters in particular. And as a faithful and dutiful Petitioners we promise that if you grant this our request, we will render unto your Honoress due attention and faithful obedience to, your orders in general & to Miss Brownings in particular."1

Mr. Lincoln had a clear comfort level with Eliza Browning that dated back to 1836 She played a special place in Mr. Lincoln's early adulthood - as a representative of a higher social class with whom he could converse with ease. Shortly after Browning married his wife, they spent the winter at the legislative session at Vandalia - where they lived in the same boarding house as John J. Hardin, Stephen Douglas and Edwin Baker. They also got to know Mr. Lincoln who "was very awkward, and very much embarrassed in the presence of ladies," Orville Browning later told John G. Nicolay. "Mrs. Browning very soon discovered his great merits, and treated him with a certain frank cordiality which put Lincoln entirely at his ease. On this account he became very much attached to her. He used to come to our room, and spend his evenings with Mrs. Browning."2

Orville H. Browning had known Mr. Lincoln in the Black Hawk War. "He and I had been previously acquainted, but he then first made the acquaintance of Mrs. Browning," Browning later wrote of the legislative session. "We all boarded at the same house. He was very fond of Mrs. Browning's society, and spent many of his evenings, and much of his leisure time, at our rooms. We were all there together, again, in the winter of 1837-8, the same relations subsisting between us as during the preceding winter."3

In April 1838 Mr. Lincoln had written Mrs. Browning a long, saucy letter about his relationship with Mary Owens. Although both Mr. and Mrs. Browning were amused by reading the letter, Browning told John G. Nicolay, "We knew that Mr. Lincoln was fond of his jokes, and we supposed that the whole letter was sheer invention from beginning to end." For years, they "never once thought the letter referred to any real person." Mrs. Browning was approached by a publisher about obtaining a copy of the Owens letter. "A few days after this interview she was at the White House, and mentioned the subject to Mr. Lincoln. He then, very much to her surprise told her that there was much more truth in that letter than she supposed, and told her he would rather she would not for the present give it to any one, as there were persons yet living who might e greatly pained by its publication," said Browning.4

Eliza Caldwell Browning was calm, deliberate but not particularly beautiful. Orville Browning had married her in 1836 - the same year he was elected to the Illinois State Senate. . Browning's diary bore "testimony to the fact that after thirty or forty years of wedded life, the husband was still the ardent lover," wrote the diary's editor, Theodore Calvin Pease, "Mrs. Browning was a woman scarcely less striking than her husband. Those who knew her as children bear testimony to a tall portly lady whose displeasure would have been awful had it not been mitigated by a native kindness of heart." Pease noted that "Her force of mind made her a respected adviser of men who ordinarily despised the brain of women."5

She kept the letter private but sought her own favor from Mr. Lincoln. In early June 1861, after Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas died but before Orville Browning's appointment to replace him, Mrs. Browning wrote President Lincoln: "Amid your many cares, vexations, & responsibilitys; please excuse the intrusion of an old friend for a few moments. I will not weary you with long preliminary remarks; but make my wishes known at once. If it is possible, my dear Sir for you to appoint Mr Browning to the Supreme Judgeship without doing violence, to your feelings, or better judgement; you will Gratify a sincere friend, and a devoted wife.6

Eliza did not want Browning to receive the Illinois Senate post because he apparently had a hernia: "I will now tell you in Confidence, why I feel so anxious for my husband to get the appointment. Two or three years Since whilst he was making laborous political Speeches in the open air; he brought on a rupture of the bowels, that gave him great pain, and was considered eminently dangerous by his Physician. By wearing a supporter all the time, he is able to attend to business; the difficulty must increase with age; and we have no income, except from his profession. He has property enough to make us independent but that will be valuable only, when we are under the Sod. These are a few of the reasons, my dear Sir why I am so anxious you should not allow yourself to be influenced against my noble husband. I could say many things regarding Mr Brownings devotion to you, and your illustrious Administration; but that would be an ignominious argument with you; and unworthy [of] your high position."7

She concluded her letter: "Mr Browning is in Springfield attending Court, I know he would be deeply mortified if he knew I had written you on this Subject, but circumstances are such I cannot forbear. I am told his friends are anxious to have him appointed to fill the vacancy in U S Senate; I care nothing about that Situation, it would not relieve him from the labor of public Speaking. Should he be appointed by Gov Yates I know he would not wish to be in the Senate longer than the "call Session." I know he thinks it very important to have warm adherents to the Administration in that Congress; and he might be induced to accept for the one term. I have occupyed more of your valuable time than I intended: please excuse an anxious wife".8

She did not get her wish, but for the next year, neither did her husband's rivals. Instead, Browning received the Senate appointment from Governor Richard Yates. As a result, during the 1861-1862 session of Congress, the Brownings were regular visitors at the White House. Mrs. Browning was called upon to comfort Mrs. Lincoln when Willie Lincoln died in February 1862. The intimacy of Senator Browning's family with the Lincolns is reflected in this entry from his diary for March 9, 1862 - only two weeks after Willie's death.
"At 10 O'clock A.M. the President sent his carriage down for Mrs Browning, Emma and myself ? We went up. I went directly to the Presidents and found the Secretary of War, with a telegram in his hand from Fortress Monroe giving information the Rebel Iron Clad steamer had come down from Norfolk, and sunk the Cumberland, and captured the Congress ? Mr Seward and Genl. McClelland soon came in. They all seemed a good deal excited, but Mr Seward said nothing. They were apprehensions that the Merimac might come here and destroy the Town, but none of the persons present knew her draft of water. It was also apprehended that she might get out to sea and destroy all our transports now on their way to Annapolis with supplies, and also Annapolis with all our accumulations of store &c.

The President and myself got in his carriage and drove to the Navy yard to see Capt [John] Dahlgren ? took him in the carriage and carried him to the White House with us.

He said there was nothing to prevent the Merimac from coming here as she drew only 21 feet water, and any vessel drawing not more than 22 feet could come here. He also said she could go to New York, lie off the City, and levy contributions at will.

"When we got back to the White House I left the President and Capt Dahlgren, who went to the Presidents office where there were several members of the Cabinet, and various Genl's and Commodores ? I went to Dr Gurley's Church After my return from Church Secretary Stanton met me in the Hall opening into the Presidents Office ? we walked to the end of the Hall, and talked for sometime. He told me that he had telegraphed to New York to have an iron Clad boat, with a powerful Engine, immediately constructed, at whatever cost, to run down and sink the Merimac. That he also had sent a steamer down the Potomac to give notice of the approach of the Merimac if she should attempt to come up, and had 30 canal boats loading with stone to be sunk in the Channel of the River about 40 miles below the City, in the event of the Merimac attempting to ascend the River

He spoke in terms which clearly indicated his want of confidence in McClelland ? said Genl Cass had written to try one after another of the Genls till he found one equal to the emergency, and that he wished to do so Try one, and if we wouldn't do try another &*c At 5 PM Mrs. Browning, Emma and myself returned to our lodgings.9

 

Footnotes

  1. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 146 (Letter to Mrs. Orville H. Browning signed by A. Lincoln, E.B. Webb, J J. Hardin and John Dawson, December 11, 1839).
  2. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 3-4 (Conversation with Orville H. Browning, June 17, 1875).
  3. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 130 (from letters from Orville H. Browning to Isaac Arnold, November 2, 1872).
  4. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 4 (Conversation with Orville H. Browning, June 17, 1867).
  5. Theodore Calvin Pease and James G. Randall, editor, The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, Volume I, 1850-1864, p. xiii.
  6. Letter from Eliza Browning to Abraham Lincoln, June 8 1861, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois.
  7. Theodore Calvin Pease and James G. Randall, editor, The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, p. 532-533.
  8. Letter from Eliza Browning to Abraham Lincoln, June 8 1861, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois.
  9. Letter from Eliza Browning to Abraham Lincoln, June 8 1861, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois.