THE MOST AMBITIOUS MAN
IN THE WORLD
On a cold winter’s day in February 1843, attorney Richard Thomas went to his post office in Virginia, Illinois, to retrieve the mail. In his pile was a folded-up parchment bearing a Springfield postmark. The message was from his friend Abraham Lincoln. Thomas paid for his mail (the stamp still being one year off, all mail came postage due) and unfolded it.
“Now if you should hear any one say that Lincoln doesn’t want to go to Congress, I wish you as a personal friend of mine, would tell him you have reason to believe he is mistaken. The truth is, I would like to go very much.”1
With that, Abraham Lincoln, a Springfield attorney and a leader in the Illinois Whig Party, began in earnest his first attempt to win a seat in Congress. Thomas, a Cass County attorney, knew Lincoln from their work together on the Eighth Judicial Circuit. On the frontier of Illinois, no lawyer could earn a living in just one county. Throughout the year, the Eighth Circuit traveled from county seat to county seat, from courthouse to courthouse, handling a variety of causes and controversies.
The Illinois General Assembly, now three years removed from the last census, was far behind on drawing new congressional maps. But when it did, surely there would be an opportunity for Lincoln. Westward migration meant Illinois would grow from three to seven seats in the House of Representatives. John T. Stuart, the incumbent congressman and Lincoln’s former law partner, was unlikely to run again, and by this time had probably already signaled this decision to his friends.I
The same day Lincoln penned his letter to Thomas, he also wrote to Alden Hull, a friend from Tazewell County with whom he’d served in the General Assembly. “Your county and ours are almost sure to be placed in the same Congressional district,” he wrote. “I would like to be its Representative.”2
Through his service in the legislature and in Whig Party politics, and his work on the circuit, Lincoln had made a wide network of friends and acquaintances. He would now begin to put the pieces in place, his eyes fixed to the east toward the national seat of power.
Lincoln’s early campaign letters caught few by surprise. Those who knew him attested to Lincoln’s aspirations, going back to his earliest youth. His cousin remembered that “even in his early days he had a strong conviction that he was born for better things than then seemed likely or even possible.”3 A childhood friend recalled, “Abe was just awful hungry to be somebody.”4 Even the nation’s top position did not seem out of reach to Lincoln, who said “he did not recollect the time when he did not believe that he would at some day be President.”5
For a desperately poor young boy on the frontier, who lost his mother at age nine, such a life should well have been unimaginable. But history remembers few who did not take seriously what others found laughable. That Lincoln maintained this belief through backbreaking labor on the farm, long days on a Mississippi flatboat, a failed general store that left him with crippling debt, or a failed first legislative race may have seemed to others like a missed reality check. But refusal to accept the death of a dream would seem a historical imperative in realizing it. And like others who have risen in politics, Lincoln interacted with men who were reputed to be great, only to find that while they might be exceptional, they were still humans, in no material way different from him.6 The year before he ran for Congress, Lincoln had his first chance to meet someone with a truly national reputation. Martin Van Buren, who had just left the presidency, stopped for the night in Rochester, Illinois, six miles from Springfield.7 Despite the fact that he was a prominent Whig, the local Democrats invited Lincoln to dinner. It was a testament to Lincoln’s good company and sense of humor, for the Democrats wanted their exalted guest to enjoy himself. Lincoln did not disappoint, filling the evening with “a constant supply” of entertaining stories, “each more irresistible than its predecessor,”8 while the former president insisted “his sides were sore from laughing.”9 Lincoln listened carefully to Van Buren’s stories of old New York politics, of the days of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, and no doubt believed with increasing confidence that he, too, could make a name for himself. Perhaps he would not have been surprised to know that one day, this tiny town of Rochester would build a memorial to commemorate not just Van Buren’s visit, but his presence at the dinner as well. William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner from 1844 until the end of his life, remembered him as “the most ambitious man in the world.”10
Two days removed from his thirty-fourth birthday when he wrote to Thomas and Hull, Lincoln was already an experienced politician. After losing his first attempt for the legislature in 1832, he had come back to win the next four elections. The time spanning Lincoln’s first bid for office and his retirement from the legislature saw a breakdown in the national consensus, division, and the rise and crystallization of new political parties. For his part, Lincoln was a Whig.
Although we remember Lincoln as a Republican, or as someone who was “above” party politics, he was a member of the Whig Party for most of his political life. The Whigs, little understood and largely forgotten, were for a time one of two major American political parties. They elected two presidents, and due to their untimely deaths produced two more, and at times controlled the Senate and House of Representatives.
The Whig coalition came together in response to the policies of President Andrew Jackson. Like all movements born in opposition, they were a disparate bunch. The Whigs included everyone from genteel former Federalists, who traced their most recent lineage to James Madison, to members of the populist Anti-Masonic Party, sworn enemies of secret societies. The latter was formed after William Morgan, a Mason from upstate New York, let it be known that he was publishing a book revealing the secrets of Freemasonry.11 When Morgan was arrested on a petty charge, four men bailed him out, paid his debt, and took him off in a carriage, never to be seen again.12
The essence of Whig Party policy was Henry Clay’s “American System.” It called for a high protective tariff to shield infant American industries from foreign competition; a system of internal improvements such as ports, canals, roads, bridges, and railroads to create a truly national marketplace; and a national bank for stable currency and a source of financing for commerce.
In 1832, Jackson vetoed the reauthorization of the national bank. The mercantile class of the United States, who relied on the credit to fund their operations, was driven to the Whig Party. Then Jackson went further, removing deposits from the national bank and violating federal law.13 Two Treasury secretaries were fired, in a nineteenth-century version of Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre. Meanwhile, South Carolina attempted to “nullify” the national tariff, which provoked a strong reaction from Jackson and a deep resentment among supporters of states’ rights.14 While northern Whigs were upset about banking policy, southern supporters of state prerogatives were also driven to join the Whig Party, despite its support for the tariff.
Whigs were focused on economic progress. They pushed the nation’s first bankruptcy law and the creation of limited liability companies.15 The Whigs anticipated and advocated for many of the features now associated with the modern economy, while Jackson and the Democrats had a nostalgic view of a nation of yeoman farmers toiling away.
The Jacksonian era, which gave rise to a new party system, also saw the dramatic expansion of voting rights. New tactics would be necessary to win over this broad new electorate. These included new newspapers, and events such as campaign “rallies, parades, barbecues, and pole raisings.”16
The Panic of 1837 allowed the Whigs to present a unified and national economic message, discussing what they were for and not what they were against.17
Lincoln would recall that he “was always a Whig in politics,”18 and called the Whig platform “the right to rise.”19 While many have celebrated the extreme poverty from which Lincoln emerged, he was never among that group. It was his desire to foster a society with social mobility, in which everyone could rise according to his talents and hard work. Henry Clay was Lincoln’s “beau ideal of a statesman, the man for whom I fought all my humble life.”20
In 1838, John Stuart, Lincoln’s law partner, decided to run for Congress. His Democratic opponent was Stephen Douglas, then only twenty-five. Stuart and Douglas traveled the broad district, one of only three in the state of Illinois, and even rode to debates together. One night they arrived late at an inn, and the innkeeper roused his guests from their beds, telling them to make room for two more (it was not uncommon, with the scarcity of sleeping space on the frontier, for innkeepers to ask patrons to share a bed with strangers). Upon learning the partisan affiliations of the two existing guests, Douglas said, “Stuart, you sleep with the Whig, and I’ll sleep with the Democrat.”21 But the campaign was not always a model of civility. In a debate at the Market House in Springfield, Stuart lifted Douglas by his head and paraded him around the square.22 With limited options, the diminutive Douglas closed his jaws around Stuart’s thumb, scarring the latter for life.23
On May 10, 1838, Abraham Lincoln filled in on the campaign trail for Stuart, who was sick—it was the first Lincoln-Douglas debate.24
Stuart won, becoming the first Whig representative from Illinois. On September 29, there was a barbecue for two thousand in celebration at Porter’s Grove. Three of the prominent speakers—Abraham Lincoln, John J. Hardin, and Edward D. Baker—were probably even then contemplating how they would win the seat when Stuart gave it up.
By 1843, Lincoln was one of the senior leaders of the Illinois Whig Party, and “the most ambitious man in the world” was itching to move on to the next level. With his behind-the-scenes campaign for Congress revving up, Lincoln participated in a Whig meeting on March 1 to organize for the upcoming elections.
From his home at the Globe Tavern on Adams Street, where he lived with Mary Todd, his wife of four months, Lincoln could see the Illinois State Capitol, his destination. The Globe advertised itself as “well provided with rooms for families and travelers . . . one square southwest of the state house,” charging twenty-five cents a meal, fifty cents per day for people, and to stable horses twenty-five cents per night.25
Lincoln would have been an instantly recognizable sight on the streets of the town. He weighed 160 pounds, ridiculously thin for his six-foot-four-inch frame.26 His height was all the more distinctive due to his long legs.27 Though he stood head and shoulders above nearly everyone he met, when seated he was “no taller than ordinary men.”28
The capitol stood in stark relief against the scattered structures of the sleepy town of Springfield, the seat of government for an infant state on the western frontier of a young republic.29 Months earlier, in response to a sermon on the second coming of Christ, Lincoln had said of his town: “If the Lord has been in Springfield once, he will never come the second time.”30 But that view of the capitol must have served as a constant point of pride for Lincoln. Nearly six years earlier, he and the other legislators from Sangamon County had secured Springfield as the site of the new capital for Illinois.II This Classical Revival building was created out of limestone from a local quarry, giving it an unusual brown and yellow color, crowned by a white cupola and a modest red dome, topped by an American flag with twenty-six stars.
Inside the packed Hall of Representatives, enthusiasm ran high as Whigs readied for the next contest. Their optimism was a triumph of hope over experience.
The Whigs of Illinois had “never carried a presidential election, never elected a United States Senator, never elected a Governor or Lieutenant Governor,” were in the minority in the General Assembly, and had never held more than one of the state’s three congressional seats.31
The meeting made a number of resolutions and committed them to a policy paper, “An Address to the People of Illinois.”32 Lincoln was one of three assigned to craft it.III The address offers the clearest possible insight into Lincoln’s philosophy as he first set his sights on national office, covering not only political issues but also best practices for local party organizations. The address advocated for a tariff on imports to fund the operations of the federal government and eliminate the need for direct taxation, which the Whigs opposed. In such a case, Lincoln argued, “The land must be literally covered with assessors and collectors, going forth like swarms of Egyptian locusts, devouring every blade of grass and other green thing.” Whigs also favored a tariff to protect American manufacturing from competition with foreign goods.33
The address denounced deficit spending and borrowing by the national government, “growing with a rapidity fearful to contemplate.” Indebtedness “is a system,” Lincoln wrote, “not only ruinous while it lasts, but one that must soon fail and leave us destitute. An individual who undertakes to live by borrowing, soon finds his original means devoured by interest, and next no one left to borrow from—so must it be with a government.”
The third point of the circular was the “necessity and propriety of a National Bank,” one of the most contentious national issues. As to the advisability of the bank, the circular simply asks its readers to compare the economy now with what it had been under the bank’s existence, a predecessor to the perennial question: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
The fourth resolution regarded Henry Clay’s bill on public land sales. This would allow states to keep a percentage of federal property sold within their borders, money that could be used to promote economic development in the form of internal improvements. The benefit to Illinois from this bill, Lincoln reasoned, “seems to us the clearest imaginable.” Illinois would receive substantial annual revenues, “no part of which we otherwise receive. . . . Shall we accept our share of the proceeds, under Mr. Clay’s bill; or shall we rather reject that, and get nothing?”
Resolutions five through nine concerned organizing and preparing the Whig Party for victory. A Whig candidate should be slated for every seat in Congress, Lincoln argued, regardless of how difficult the district.
In addition to fielding a full slate of candidates, the circular prescribed the use of a convention system to narrow the field to a single candidate. “This we believe to be of the very first importance. Whether the system is right in itself, we do not stop to enquire; contenting ourselves with trying to show, that while our opponents use it, it is madness in us not to defend ourselves with it. Experience has shown that we cannot successfully defend ourselves without it.” Today it is nearly universally accepted that parties, mostly through primary elections, must narrow down the field for the final ballot, but that was far from the case at the time. Lincoln reported that “go where you would in a large Whig county, you were sure to find the Whigs, not contending shoulder to shoulder against the common enemy, but divided into factions, and fighting furiously with one another.” Consequently, the Whig counties sent twenty-seven Democrats to the Illinois House. Conventions were so controversial within the party that Whigs who ran against the convention choice frequently polled ahead of their rivals, only to see themselves lose to the Democrat, “the spoils chucklingly borne off by the common enemy.”
“That ‘union is strength’ is a truth,” Lincoln observed, “that has been known, illustrated and declared, in various ways and forms in all ages of the world.” In an analogy that Lincoln would later use to unforgettable effect, “He whose wisdom surpasses that of all philosophers, has declared that ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand.’ ”
“If two friends aspire to the same office, it is certain both cannot succeed. Would it not, then, be much less painful to have the question decided by mutual friends some time before, than to snarl and quarrel till the day of election, and then both be beaten by the common enemy?”
The simple formula for victory, to render Whig candidates “always successful,” was to get them all to the polls, and to vote unitedly. “This is the great desideratum. Let us make every effort to attain it. At every election, let every Whig act as though he knew the result to depend upon his action.”
But hatred of political conventions had contributed to the founding of the Whig Party. In 1832, the Democratic Party held its first national nominating convention. The renomination of Andrew Jackson for president was beyond doubt. At issue was who would serve as his running mate and vice president in his second term, and so at its heart it was a decision on who would succeed him as president and party leader. Richard Mentor Johnson was extremely popular in the West and among the grass roots of the party. Johnson, a colorful but largely forgotten figure, held out one of his slaves, Julia Chinn, as his wife (though of course they could not legally marry), and, much to the chagrin of Kentucky’s debutante set, even tried to have their daughters presented to society. Johnson had won a massive following in the West for his efforts to eliminate indebtedness as a criminal offense.34 But while Johnson may have held the hearts of the grass roots, it was Martin Van Buren of New York who was selected. Elected officials and party bosses were overrepresented in the convention, and “steam roller methods” were used to rubber-stamp the predetermined vote.35 Many of the disappointed joined the Whig Party, bringing with them their antipathy for conventions. One of these was Joseph Duncan, a former Democratic governor of Illinois. Duncan replied to the circular Lincoln had drafted by saying, “I look upon the convention system as designed by its authors to change the government from the free will of the people into the hands of designing politicians.”36
As a legislator, Lincoln was part of a nucleus of influential Whigs who refused to cede the tactical high ground to the Democrats. Referred to by their detractors as “the Springfield Junto,” they worked quietly behind the scenes to slate ambitious Whigs for office and deter others to avoid dividing the vote. The Junto’s “saving grace,” it was reported, “was the lack of reliable information about it.”37
Many Whigs still prided themselves on being “too independent to wear the collar of party discipline,”38 but there is nothing like the crush of persistent political reversals to open minds to new approaches. In October 1839, the Whigs had their first state convention, in Springfield. Counties that had honored the result of conventions were successful.39 Lincoln tried to capitalize on that success by publishing a handbook for party organization. It read as follows:
Lincoln’s Plan of Campaign in 184040
1st. Appoint one person in each county as county captain, and take his pledge to perform promptly all the duties assigned him.
Duties of the County Captain.
1st. To procure from the poll-books a separate list for each Precinct of all the names of all those persons who voted the Whig ticket in August.
2nd. To appoint one person in each Precinct as Precinct Captain, and, by a personal interview with him, procure his pledge, to perform promptly all the duties assigned him.
3rd. To deliver to each Precinct Captain the list of names as above, belonging to his Precinct; and also a written list of his duties.
Duties of the Precinct Captain.
1st. To divide the list of names delivered him by the county Captain, into Sections of ten who reside most convenient to each other.
2nd. To appoint one person of each Section as Section Captain, and by a personal interview with him, procure his pledge to perform promptly all the duties assigned him.
3rd. To deliver to each Section Captain the list of names belonging to his Section and also a written list of his duties.
Duties of the Section Captain.
1st. To see each man of his Section face to face, and procure his pledge that he will for no consideration (impossibilities excepted) stay from the polls on the first Monday in November; and that he will record his vote as early on the day as possible.
2nd. To add to his Section the name of every person in his vicinity who did not vote with us in August, but who will vote with us in the fall, and take the same pledge of him, as from the others.
3rd. To task himself to procure at least such additional names to his Section.
Instead of capitalizing on that success, as Lincoln argued, the Whigs backed off the convention system, running a disorganized campaign in 1842, and were routed throughout the state.
When the redistricting maps were completed, the Whig stronghold of central Illinois found itself in the Seventh District.IV Though competition for the spot would be intense, all sides seemed to agree that a nominating convention was the fairest method of ensuring the seat remained in their hands.
On the morning of March 6, the Whigs of the Seventh District met to decide the date and place of their congressional convention. The next day, Lincoln wrote to his old friend John Bennett, a Whig living in Petersburg, Menard County. “I am sorry to hear that any of the Whigs of your county, or indeed of any county, should longer be against conventions . . . the right way for you to do, is to hold your meeting and appoint delegates any how; and if there be any who will not take part, let it be so. The matter will work so well this time that even they who now oppose will come in next time.”41
The race would be covered by newspapers, each openly affiliated with one political party or another. In Lincoln’s day, this primarily meant the Whig-allied Sangamo Journal (later the Illinois State Journal) and the Illinois State Register, the organ of the Democrats.
Both papers featured advertisements, often illustrated, to meet the various needs of their frontier readership; these included “incorruptible teeth,” balm to restore lost eyesight, lozenges (the “Greatest discovery of the age”), glasses, putty, hand pumps, plows, and other farm implements. As time went on, these ads reflected advancements in technology such as spectacles and daguerreotypes. Flashy drawings or headlines helped the ads compete against their neighbors (WAR IN TEXAS! preceded a blurb for a local apothecary). The local papers featured divorce decrees (in one memorable ad, a man warned merchants that he was no longer responsible for paying his ex-wife’s creditors), New Hampshire Senate elections, riots in Canada. The papers reprinted the queen’s speech at the opening of Parliament and reported Indian slayings on the frontier and alongside revolutions in the Punjab region of India, as well as strange lights witnessed on the Illinois horizon.
Unlike today, when news outlets and reporters make a pretense at impartiality, the newspapers proudly advertised their partisan and ideological identities. Readers were invited to digest the news accordingly. The Register featured a recurring column titled “Whig falsehoods.” The Whig-affiliated Journal, with overstatement characteristic of the partisan press, called the new congressional maps the worst “specimens of gerrymandering, the equal of which was never before exhibited in a representative government.”42
The Whig nomination would not come easily for Lincoln. For ambitious, experienced Whigs, there was no realistic chance of being elected governor, or to statewide office, or to be elected by the General Assembly to the United States Senate. The Seventh District was the funnel of Whig aspirations. Though many expressed interest, Lincoln’s true competitors were John Hardin of Morgan County and Edward Baker, who like Lincoln lived in Sangamon.
Hardin was from one of the elite families of Kentucky. Lincoln had lived the first seven years of his life in Hardin County, Kentucky, named for his adversary’s grandfather, a Revolutionary War hero killed by the Indians to whom he’d been sent by George Washington. Hardin’s father was a United States senator who had served as Kentucky’s Speaker of the House and secretary of state.43 Hardin’s reputation was that of an “honest, upright, and inflexible public servant.”44 Hardin’s wife once received a letter from a friend advising her to “put yourself down as favored among women,” noting that she’d be hard-pressed to “challenge the annals of matrimony to produce another specimen of husband.”45 Though serious in demeanor, Hardin was sweet with his children, and a doting father. “You are at an age where you are forming habits which will last you through life,” he once wrote his daughter. “Be studious, and you will store your mind with useful knowledge, which will be a resource to you whenever you may be left with a lonesome or idle hour on your hands.”46 To his son, during a Christmas when they were separated, he wrote, “It is a great sacrifice for me to be without the society of my two oldest children, and nothing in this world can give me so much pleasure as to hear from them and learn they are good and happy, and improving in knowledge, and learning something of the great responsibilities of life.”47
Though Lincoln and Hardin were always more professional colleagues than friends, Abe was as close as could be with Edward Baker. It was said that “wherever he spoke he carried his audience captive by the power of his eloquence and the strength of his arguments.”48 Baker was an incredible showman, who liked to deliver speeches with “a pet eagle chained to a ring.”49 When denouncing Democratic failures, the eagle was trained to “lower its head and droop its wings,” but when discussing the promise of Whig policies, the eagle would “spread its wings and scream.”50 Even the Register thought Baker “a very handsome man . . . an eloquent speaker . . . naturally good natured.”51 Such was Baker’s drive that he denounced his parents for having him in England, once he found out its impact on his eligibility to be president.52 The Register ribbed Baker, saying that he “has neglected everything else this session in order to get himself a district made here . . . we hope our legislature will have mercy on Congress.”53
It is a maxim of politics that intraparty contests are the most vicious of all. Elections are about offering contrasts to voters and clarifying choices. With Lincoln, Baker, and Hardin in harmony on the issues, with each an experienced legislator and lawyer, that left their supporters limited options to advance their candidate’s cause. They could trump up minor or nonexistent policy differences or attack the opposition personally.
The Congressional District Convention would be made up of delegates nominated at smaller county conventions. Lincoln’s first hurdle was getting past Baker in their shared home county of Sangamon.
Leave it to the Register to cover Whig infighting with feigned shock: “Our ears are stunned here, just now, by the din of the Whigs, concerning Lincoln and Baker as to which shall go to Congress from this district. If we are to believe either of the two factions, it would be difficult to decide which is the bigger rascal.”54 The Register, which had contributed mightily to the mythos surrounding the “Springfield Junto,” reported that their “secret agents” are “ready to visit the several counties.”
Lincoln had a number of challenges to overcome. The first was Baker’s popularity and long standing in Sangamon County. The rest were personal to him. First, his association by marriage with the Edwards family led to charges of elitism and aristocracy.
Mary Todd was descended from Kentucky high society and could reportedly trace her lineage back to the sixth century.55 She came to Springfield at age twenty-one, where in the course of time she would be united to a man with an undistinguished past but a promising future. Mary Todd’s sister, Elizabeth, was married to Ninian Edwards, scion of a prominent Illinois family and one of Lincoln’s fellow legislators.56
Mary Todd’s education, intelligence, and pedigree made her popular among the many single men of the frontier. In time, Lincoln joined the others in calling on her. Elizabeth remembered her sister as “the most ambitious woman I ever knew.”57 But it was a man’s world, and Mary’s ambitions would have to be satiated by her husband’s successes. She was reported to have said that, from her many suitors, she would marry “him who has the best prospects of being President.”58
Their mutual friends thought Abraham and Mary an improbable match.
For his part, Lincoln grew to realize the wisdom of these observations. One evening, he summoned his friend Joshua Speed to his home, handing him a breakup letter to convey to Mary. In an act with wide-ranging and unforeseeable consequences, Speed threw it in the fire, insisting that Lincoln tell her himself.59 But Lincoln had written the letter for a reason, and what happened next he probably anticipated. Lincoln told Mary that he did not love her, and she burst into tears.60 Lincoln hugged her and kissed her and backed down. He reported the news that evening to Speed, who told him that he was a fool, and that the die was now cast.61 Lincoln said, “Well if I am in again, so be it. It’s done, and I shall abide by it.”62 Then on January 1, 1841, after food had been prepared and the guests arrived for the event, Lincoln simply didn’t show up for his wedding.63
When Lincoln was finally located, he was so frantic and upset that his friends undertook a suicide watch, with Speed recalling, “Knives and razors, and every instrument that could be used for self destruction were removed from his reach.”64 In the weeks that followed, Lincoln reported, “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 earth. Whether I shall ever be better, I cannot tell.”65 Lincoln, diligent in his attendance at the legislature, now absented himself for weeks.66 Returning, he barely kept his seat warm during the remainder of session. During this time, Congressman John Stuart, his former law partner, recommended him to Secretary of State Daniel Webster for a diplomatic post in Bogotá, Colombia.67 Nothing came of it.
After the session, Lincoln repaired to Kentucky, where Speed was now living. Speed was still frightened of his guilt-ridden friend harming himself. Why Lincoln did not may be found in something he said to Speed during the course of this visit. Lincoln despaired that “[h]e had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived; and that to connect his name with the events transpiring in his day and generation, and so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow-men, was what he desired to live for.”68 Even the most miserable man living could survive, it appears, with something to hope for.
Lincoln returned to Springfield, still burdened by “the never-absent idea that there is one still unhappy whom I have contributed to make so. That kills my soul. I cannot but reproach myself for even wishing to be happy while she is otherwise . . . I must gain confidence in my own ability to keep my resolves when they are made. In that ability I once prided myself as the only chief gem of my character; that gem I lost, how and where you know too well. I have not regained it; and until I do I cannot trust myself in any matter of much importance.”69
The wife of Simeon Francis, editor of the Sangamo Journal, conspired to bring Lincoln and Mary Todd back together.70 After a party held for that sole purpose, to which neither knew the other had been invited, they continued to see each other at the Francis home.71
In November 1842, James Matheny was awakened from sleep by a knocking at his door. He opened it to find his friend Abraham, informing him that he would be married later that evening, and asking him to serve as best man.72
As Lincoln dressed for the occasion at his friend’s house, their little boy came up to him, and “in boyish innocence asked him where he was going.”73 “To hell, I suppose,”74 was Lincoln’s response. One can only imagine the look on the boy’s face.
This time, Lincoln showed up for his wedding, “as pale and trembling as if being driven to slaughter,” and went through with the ceremony. In William Herndon’s view, Lincoln, caught between “honor and domestic peace . . . chose the former, and with it years of self-torture, sacrificial pangs, and the loss forever of a happy home.”75 Now it was hurting Lincoln’s chances of going to Congress. With a growing movement against centralized control and the perceived machinations of the Springfield Junto, Ninian Edwards was defeated in his attempt for renomination to the legislature at the 1840 Sangamon Whig convention. Lincoln grumbled that he himself would have lost had the Whigs not desired his speaking skills out on the stump.76 Lincoln’s marriage into what passed for Illinois aristocracy, ironically, would hamper the chances of this former farmhand.
Religion was also a factor. Baker was a member of the Campbellite religious movement and received perhaps every vote from that quarter. But Lincoln, who was not a member of any church and whose personal beliefs were considered suspect, faced great resistance from some religiously motivated voters. If that were not enough, there was the Shields affair.
The trouble began with a decision by the leadership of Illinois to stop accepting taxes in notes from the state bank. In criticism, Lincoln penned “A Letter from the Lost Townships,” purportedly written by a widow flush with notes from the state bank but unable to pay her taxes.77 Lincoln’s rapier wit was deployed to full effect, with Treasurer James Shields bearing the brunt. Shields demanded of the newspaper editor the name of his anonymous attacker, which Lincoln gave him permission to provide, and Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel. Lincoln received some bad advice from the person he’d chosen as his second and issued a highly technical response that made things worse. Eventually, Lincoln responded that the letter was of a political, not a personal nature, but that if this was unsatisfactory, Lincoln (as the challenged party) would choose to fight with broadswords, across the Mississippi River from Alton on the Missouri side.78 As Lincoln pointed out, “I did not want to kill Shields, and felt sure I could disarm him . . . and furthermore, I didn’t want the damned fellow to kill me, which I rather think he would have done if we had selected pistols.”79 The duelists and their parties (and a substantial crowd) had made it all the way to the dueling site before their seconds and a number of others, including John Hardin, who had come down in an attempt to prevent the duel, found a way to do so. Lincoln would spend the rest of his life embarrassed and reminded of the incident, saying years later, “If all the good things I have ever done are remembered as long and well as my scrape with Shields, it is plain I shall not soon be forgotten.”80
Baker had campaigned hard. The Register described him “running this way to catch a man by the hand, then that way to pat another on the shoulder, then starting off to seize a third by the buttonhole—nodding and bowing to people two or three squares distant—running into a knot of Whigs, and offering his hat full of cigars with astonishing liberality.”81
March 20 was the day. The Sangamon County Whigs met at the capitol to appoint delegates to the Seventh District Convention. Lincoln must have felt knots in his stomach as he watched so many familiar faces enter the convention, to weigh in on whether he or Baker should be the nominee.
Political conventions take on a life of their own, more than the sum total of their parts. The palpable feeling of who has momentum often exceeds the predictions of the best head counter. It is likely that Lincoln could feel that the tide was not in his favor. The convention was more similar to a primary with one polling location. The Whigs of Sangamon County filed in, hundreds of them, and probably signaled their preference to a teller, who recorded their vote in a poll book. The Register reported that Baker’s forces came as early as possible, as Lincoln’s friends were trickling in. Around noon, Lincoln was convinced to withdraw. After more than eight hundred votes, Lincoln trailed Baker by fifty-one.82 Lincoln’s acquiescence, however, seems to have been a fatal political mistake. According to the Register, Lincoln stepped aside before “his real strength was apparent.” As the day went on, delegates in favor of Lincoln arrived in greater numbers. In fact, the Register reports that “Lincoln would have ‘paralyzed’ Baker’s support by nightfall.”83 Mary “berated him for not exerting himself hard enough to win.”84 Indeed, it seems as though Lincoln failed to heed his own advice. If he had identified his supporters throughout the county, and made note of who had voted and who was outstanding, he may well have realized that the contest was not yet over.
Baker would carry delegate-rich Sangamon County to the district-wide convention in Pekin. Despite his best efforts to decline, the disheartened Lincoln was selected as a delegate to the district convention, committed to supporting Baker. Lincoln compared it to “a fellow who is made groomsman to the man who has ‘cut him out,’ and is marrying his own dear gal.” He predicted that Hardin would prevail.85 It surely wasn’t easy for Lincoln and Baker, two friends, to stand in each other’s way as they had, and it was probably just as difficult for the Whigs of Sangamon to choose between friends. According to the Journal, “At the end of the meeting Lincoln was loudly called for and addressed the meeting.”86 No doubt he gamely congratulated Baker and preached the familiar gospel of party unity.
Lincoln’s loss in Sangamon very nearly, but not entirely, ruined his chances for 1843. Though Lincoln himself was a pledged Baker delegate, his allies throughout the district could still send pro-Lincoln delegates to the district convention. Menard County, meeting shortly thereafter, instructed its delegates to support Lincoln. Menard included Lincoln’s original Illinois home of New Salem, and the town of Petersburg, which Lincoln had plotted as a young land surveyor. Petersburg had attracted many former New Salem residents when that town failed.87 If other counties followed suit, or if a compromise candidate was needed at Pekin, Lincoln might still have emerged the nominee.
Lincoln wrote to his friend Martin Morris, “It is truly gratifying to me to learn that while the people of Sangamon have cast me off, my old friends of Menard, who have known me longest and best, stick to me.”88 He related to Morris the litany of charges he faced from Baker supporters. “It would astonish, if not amuse, the older citizens to learn that I (a stranger, friendless, uneducated, penniless boy, working on a flatboat at ten dollars per month) have been put down here as the candidate of pride, wealth, and aristocratic family distinction. Yet so, chiefly, it was . . . it was everywhere contended that no Christian ought to go for me, because I belonged to no church, was suspected of being a deist, and had talked about fighting a duel . . . those influences levied a tax of a considerable per cent upon my strength throughout the religious controversy. But enough of this.”89
Lincoln took a long walk in the woods with James Matheny, the best man at his wedding, to further vent his frustration. “Why Jim,” he protested, “I am now and always shall be the same Abe Lincoln I was when you first saw me.”90
While Lincoln stewed over the “bitter features of the canvass,”91 Hardin and Baker campaigned intensely. Both frantically wrote to supporters throughout the district. In Hardin’s letters he manifested an intense attention to detail, knowing the particulars of the local convention in Visalia, Woodford County.92 Hardin had traveled to Versailles, and then to Lacon in Marshall County, visiting the opinion leaders and power brokers at each stop, knowing which delegates were committed and which ones were uninstructed.93 In five days he traversed an astounding two hundred miles on horseback. Writing from Tazewell, Hardin believed the delegates there would go for “Lincoln, Logan [Lincoln’s law partner, who was also interested but not actively campaigning], Baker, or myself,” while in Woodford “they are instructed to go for Baker as a 2nd choice,” and in Putnam the first choice.94 Hardin, never prone to problems with self-esteem, wrote that if he believed any man from (his home county) Morgan could defeat the nominee of Sangamon, “I should not have taken the field.”95 He pledged to do “anything which is honorable and fair to get the nomination.”96 Hardin seems to have been looking past the convention, and upon encountering Baker supporters he could not persuade, asked them to commit to supporting him in the general election.97
Toward the end of April, Baker traveled from Cass County to Petersburg, in Menard, “in low spirits,” recorded one of Hardin’s informants.98 Baker, with some of his comrades from the Black Hawk War, had a muster on the other side of the river “and at Clary’s Grove.”99
That same informant noted, “At present there is more excitement with us than we usually have between Whig and Locos on the eve of an election.”100 Loco Focos, originally a name for a wing of the Democratic Party, had by now become a Whig epithet for the entire group.
On May 1, Lincoln arrived in Pekin for the districtwide Whig convention. If he were best man to the person who was marrying his dear old gal, this was the wedding. That morning featured a long impasse, with Baker and Hardin tied through many ballots. Lincoln watched one round follow the next. Being pledged to support his opponent made the situation difficult enough. But knowing that his support in Menard would have put him over the top had he, and not Baker, been nominated by Sangamon must have been especially painful. Still, Lincoln had been pledged and he did his utmost to bring Menard into Baker’s column.
“When the convention assembled,” wrote James Ruggles, “Baker was there with his friend and champion delegate, Abraham Lincoln. The ayes and noes had been taken, and there were fifteen votes apiece, and one in doubt that had not arrived. That was myself. I was known to be a warm friend of Baker, representing people who were partial to Hardin. As soon as I arrived Baker hurried to me, saying: ‘How is it? It all depends on you.’ ”101
This was not possible, however, as that county’s convention had ranked the candidates; if Lincoln could not be chosen, the delegates were instructed to support Hardin over Baker. He relates that he reluctantly broke the tie.102 Lincoln as chair of Sangamon withdrew Baker’s name and allowed Hardin to be chosen by acclamation.103
What Lincoln did next seemed for all the world to be an act of party unity. Though carefully disguised, it was a masterful political power play. As the door swung shut on his congressional ambitions, he managed to stick his boot in its path, just in time.
“Immediately after the nomination,” Ruggles remembered, “Mr. Lincoln walked across the room to my table, and asked if I would favor a resolution recommending Baker for the next term. On being answered in the affirmative, he said: ‘You prepare the resolution, I will support it, and I think we can pass it.’ The resolution created a profound sensation, especially with the friends of Hardin.”104
It is all the more amazing since he likely thought of it on the spot. There was no way to know for sure that it would come down to one vote. Or that Lincoln would find out that Hardin commanded a majority of the delegates’ pledges but not a majority of their preferences. It was the intensity of the fight, and the disappointment from half of the convention, that so easily paved the way for Lincoln to act.
The carefully worded resolution read as follows:
“That this convention, as individuals, recommend E. D. Baker as a suitable person to be voted for by the Whigs of this district, for representative to Congress, at the election in 1844, subject to the decision of a district convention should the Whigs of the district think proper to hold one.”105
By a vote of 19–14, it was successful.106
The measure of the success might be judged against the faux outrage from the Register. “Was this fair? Was this not going beyond the line of duty? Although it is only a recommendation, it has the moral force of a nomination. . . . We have never before, in all our political experience, heard of such an instance as this.” They likened the Whigs to a “tyrannical despotism, worse than that of Turkey.”107
Surely Hardin was livid. He would not soon forget what had happened—or at whose hands it had been done. But he was cornered. At a Jacksonville barbecue on October 6, 1843, well before taking office, he publicly announced that he would not run for reelection.108 But he did not foreclose a political comeback. One upset supporter said, “I am rejoiced to find that you by no means intend to [spend] the balance of your days upon the political laurels you have already won.”109
While unheard-of today, short tenure in the House of Representatives was the rule, not the exception, in the era of Abraham Lincoln.
The 1840s saw the highest turnover of any other decade, with 60 percent over the course of those ten years.110 From that number, retirements due to voluntary withdrawal were as high as 75 percent and as low as 55 percent.111 It was the norm that more than half of any incoming House of Representatives would be freshmen, and not until 1876 did this figure drop below 50 percent.112 It was not until 1901 that less than 30 percent of the House were freshmen.113
One of the reasons for this was that the principle of rotation, introduced to the Seventh District by Lincoln, was common throughout most of the country, more or less for the same reasons. House districts were “artificial political units which generally subsumed several or more separate communities. With few political organizations extending beyond their local towns and counties, district nominating caucuses were pluralistic, frequently fragmented affairs with each local organization sponsoring its own candidate.”114 Like the Seventh, “Districts throughout the country had long found rotation of the nomination to be an acceptable method for resolving conflict.”115 In a few areas the rotation period was a strict “one term and out,” whereas in others it was a much more common two-term limit.116 From 1838 to 1865, 30 percent of freshmen were defeated, compared to 23 percent of more senior members of the House (outside of the South).117 More than 50 percent of all turnover was due to voluntarily withdrawal.118 From 1838 to 1853, in nonsouthern states, the figure was 45 percent for freshmen, 61 percent for sophomores, and 42 percent for those with three or more terms.119
Why was the South largely exempt from this phenomenon? The reason is as simple as it is sinister. Southern voters believed that slavery was constantly endangered by Congress. Understanding that seniority mattered in obtaining influence and mastering the mechanics of Congress, districts frequently returned the same members. After Reconstruction, southern electorates would employ the same tactic for similar reasons, ensuring that the powerful committee chairs were in place to block civil rights legislation.
So Hardin, loath as he may have been to retire from Congress at age thirty-five, was in the same position as many of his colleagues.
The Register, when it had expected Baker to win the convention, had taken a “poor Hardin vs. the Junto” attitude. Now that he’d been nominated, they referred to Hardin as part of the “Springfield Junto Whig Ticket.”120
Hardin feared that the Sangamon Whigs would be less than enthusiastic in working toward his election. To counter this, Lincoln and his compatriots offered a wager in the Journal: Hardin’s majority in Sangamon would be double that of his home county of Morgan. “The losing county shall give a free barbeque to the Whigs of the other county. . . . Whigs of Morgan, will you go for it?”121
Lincoln wrote to Hardin, assuring him that Sangamon would not only fall in line but deliver big. “You will see by the Journal of this week that we propose, upon pain of losing a barbecue, to give you twice as great a majority” as Morgan.
But despite campaigning for the ticket, Lincoln could not bring himself to vote for Hardin, instead casting no vote at all in the congressional race.122 Nothing could better manifest his hurt at not being chosen.123
Hardin won without Lincoln’s vote. The Register blamed a superior Whig turnout operation, plus the number of Democrats that stayed home.124
On the day Hardin left to take his place in Washington, Mary “shed buckets full of tears.”125
I It is not totally clear when Stuart declined to run again; on April 6, after weeks of reporting on the campaign to replace him, the Sangamo Journal noted, “We ought to have stated several weeks since that Hon. John T. Stuart is not a candidate for Congress.”
II Remarkably, all were taller than six feet, and they were collectively dubbed “the Long Nine.”
III Also on the committee were Stephen Logan, Lincoln’s law partner, and Albert Bledsoe, a lawyer who occupied the office next to Lincoln’s, who would later serve as assistant secretary of war for the Confederacy.
IV The Seventh Congressional District included the counties of Sangamon, Scott, Morgan, Cass, Menard, Logan, Mason, Tazewell, Woodford, Marshall, and Putnam. Of these, Sangamon, Menard, Tazewell, and Woodford were in Lincoln’s Eighth Judicial Circuit.
Chris DeRose, the “gifted young historian” (Richard Norton Smith) who penned one of The Washington Post’s “Best Political Books” with 2011’s Founding Rivals, draws from the unpublished “Papers of Abraham Lincoln,” and other rare sources, to deliver the first fully realized portrait of Lincoln’s controversial early political career.
The years 1847 through 1849, though marked by defeat and divisiveness for Washington’s newest arrival, ultimately defined Lincoln’s future as president during America’s darkest days. With keen insights sprung from his exhaustive research, DeRose portrays Congressman Lincoln as a leader torn between principle and viability, who once nearly dueled a political adversary; a master strategist and member of the Whig party; a reluctant husband saddled with a tormented private life; and more—in a biography so timely and relevant that House Speaker John A. Boehner quoted Congressman Lincoln at length in a 2013 address to House Republicans, excerpting Lincoln’s warnings about government debt “growing with a rapidity fearful to contemplate.”
- Threshold Editions |
- 352 pages |
- ISBN 9781451697285 |
- February 2014