ESSAY –Boss Lincoln

The essay by Matthew Pinsker originally appeared in The Living Lincoln, a collection of essays edited in 2011 by Thomas Horrocks, Harold Holzer, and Frank Williams in 2011 for Southern Illinois University Press.  The essay analyzes newly discovered documents that help show how Abraham Lincoln acted and sounded differently when he was communicating in private to his closest partisan allies.

Boss Lincoln: A Reappraisal of Abraham Lincoln’s Party Leadership

Matthew Pinsker


On Sunday, October 9, 1859, Abraham Lincoln wrote what he termed a “reply in a hurry” to what he seemed to consider an annoying note from Ohio congressman Thomas Corwin. Lincoln had just returned from two weeks of breakneck travel, making several political speeches and trying various legal cases. He had crisscrossed a half dozen towns and two states and was about to leave the next day for yet another week of circuit-riding. Yet, he could not ignore the challenge from a noted politician and fellow Republican leader like Tom Corwin, who had goaded him by claiming that Lincoln had denigrated an entire wing of their party when announcing in a recent speech that “a Moderate man” would lose Illinois in the next presidential election by fifty thousand votes.[1] Perturbed, and in great haste, Lincoln dropped his usual armor of folksy charm.   He denied the charge, even as he acknowledged that he had told a Cincinnati audience that a presidential nominee who might “turn up his nose at the Republican cause” by ignoring the “Slavery issue,” would surely lose his state by a landslide. Lincoln then explained that the debate over slavery’s future was the only “living issue of the day.” He also pointed out to Corwin, a former Whig like himself, that because of the ongoing controversy about slavery, “more democrats have gone with us, then Whigs have gone against us.” While Lincoln conceded that it would be “unfavorable” for the new party to have “an extreme antislavery candidate,” he also observed, with popular sovereignty champion Stephen A. Douglas clearly in mind, that Republicans needed a man “who does not hesitate to declare slavery a wrong.” “It is idiotic to think otherwise,” he added sharply.[2]

There is much to love about this blunt and confidential letter, not least because it marks the only time in the Lincoln canon that the great man used the word “idiotic.” Tired, pressed for time, and confident that his comments would be kept out of general circulation, Lincoln spoke with rare candor. The gist of the message was eminently Lincolnian with that familiar combination of principle and pragmatism, but the tone stands out nonetheless. This letter suggests a grittier side of Lincoln and illustrates how the calculating politician whose ambition “was a little engine that knew no rest” might have sounded during backroom moments when he was not so worried about projecting a public image.[3]   Documenting the Great Emancipator in this party boss mode can be challenging. Modern scholars have long acknowledged that Lincoln was capable of acting as a partisan wire-puller, but they hardly ever show those wires being pulled.

For this reason, and because it was only made public in 2005, the Corwin letter holds special significance.[4] During his lifetime, Lincoln wrote a number of such sharply worded letters, but is striking how many have only recently become available, especially those from the period before he became president. Over the last thirty-five years, there have been two published supplements (1974, 1990) to the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (1953) and now an official website from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency that has been posting the latest in unpublished Lincoln material.[5] The results are surprising. There are now about one hundred “new” documents from Lincoln’s pre-presidential partisan career that involve political matter, including more than half that are quite rich in content. These letters and memoranda made public only during the last 35 years cover important topics such as the Land Office episode from 1849, Lincoln’s first senatorial bid in 1854-55, the famous 1858 campaign against Douglas, and the turbulent presidential contest of 1860.   Taken together, these materials offer a unique opportunity to reappraise the role of Lincoln’s party leadership on his rise to power.

The new material does not transform “Honest Abe” into “Boss Lincoln,” but the documents nevertheless illustrate with great clarity how Lincoln appeared as a party boss when the circumstances required. While addressing fellow politicians in notes ominously marked “Private” or “Confidential,” Lincoln’s style was more combative than many might expect and far more assertive than popular lore suggests. He bullied and even threatened on occasion. He meddled often and gave advice just as freely with his partisan allies as he would later do with his military generals. Yet Lincoln could also be deft, using wry humor and light asides to deflect awkward issues. Mostly, however, the Springfield attorney proved to be cool, unflappable and quite steely in his determination to bring his party and its principles into power.


Lincoln’s natural talents for party leadership appeared early. Writing to Captain Andrew McCormick, one of the legendary Long Nine in the Illinois legislature who had helped him move the state capital to Springfield in the late 1830s, a thirty-one year-old Lincoln noted in a letter that was first published in 1957: “I have just learned, with utter astonishment, that you have some notion of voting for Walters.” William Walters was a Democratic newspaper editor who was competing for a patronage contract from the assembly as state printer, vying against Lincoln’s close friend and Whig ally, Simeon Francis. “It can not be,” Lincoln wrote emphatically, “that one so true, firm, and unwavering as you have ever been, can for a moment think of such a thing.”

“What! support that pet of all those who continually slander and abuse you, and labour, day and night, for your destruction. All our friends are ready to cut our throats about it.”

Writing sometime in January 1841 when Lincoln was allegedly on suicide watch because of his broken engagement with Mary Todd, the young legislator seemed a little overwrought but not by any private concerns. Instead, he was quite focused in his urgent and none-too-subtle political appeal.

“For Heaven’s sake, for your friends sake, for the sake of the recollection of all the hard battles we have heretofore fought shoulder, to shoulder, do not forsake us this time… Stand by us this time, and nothing in our power to confer, shall ever be denied you.”[6]

Despite the intense full-court press, Walters won the position.

Many of Lincoln’s attempts at party management in this era involved patronage battles, what he termed in another letter that same month, the “everlasting subject.”[7] Writing in 1849 to a man who wanted a Democrat removed as federal postmaster by the new Whig administration, then former congressman Lincoln provided concise guidelines on how to arrange a patronage coup. “I would be very glad to oblige you,” he wrote, “but I have not had any P.M. removed at the request of a single man. Get up a petition, stating your objection to Smith, and asking the appointment of Glenn, have it signed by the whigs of the neighborhood, forward it to me, and I will then get the thing done,” adding, “This is the right way.”[8]

When it came to patronage, Boss Lincoln had strict views about the rightness of things. He coolly informed the Secretary of Interior in 1849 that a nasty rumor about Lincoln buying votes to deny an appointment to a political rival “annoys me a little.” The former Illinois congressman then proceeded to summarize his moral philosophy of patronage, if it can be labeled as such, in stark terms. “I opposed the appointment of Mr. B.,” Lincoln wrote, “because I believe it would be a matter of discouragement to our active, working friends here, and I opposed it for no other reason.”[9] In an earlier letter to a Whig senator from Kentucky regarding the episode, Lincoln had conceded that the aforementioned “Mr. B.” was “entirely competent,” but also claimed that “so far as I know [he] is not recommended by any citizen of this state directly for the office, and we feel that should he receive it, we are emphatically under a foreign guardianship.” Eager to nail down this point and perhaps to flex some political muscle, Lincoln added darkly, “This, you know, men rebel against.[10]

That Lincoln also lost this patronage battle suggests an important reason why he left the Whig Party by the mid 1850s. By then, he was deeply frustrated with the inability of so many of his partisan allies to recognize the practical demands of tending to the machine.[11] This republican inhibition common among a certain segment of anti-party Whigs was never one that Lincoln shared. Usually in public, but always in private, he presented himself as eminently practical, focused on the political tasks at hand, and happily reconciled to the new partisan ways of the antebellum period. Consider how precisely he parsed his words in a letter from 1854 that addressed gossip about local Whig congressman Richard Yates’s problems with alcohol. Lincoln wrote to a mutual friend after he had learned that Yates’s “enemies” were “getting up a charge against him, that while he passes for a temperate man, he is in the habit of drinking secretly.”[12] This was a dangerous allegation in this era, especially in the downstate region of the state. Alluding to rumors that his correspondent, Richard J. Oglesby, was somehow the source of this accusation, Lincoln added, “If, indeed, you have told them any thing, I can not help thinking they have misunderstood what you did tell them.” Coming from a different type of nineteenth-century party boss, the historian might be inclined to read such lines as veiled threats. Without any official standing, or direct leadership interest in the affair, Lincoln appeared to be meddling in a congressional race and making it clear to a fellow partisan that his allies suspected him of treachery. The Springfield attorney and former congressman then proceeded to spell out what might have been intended as the party line. “Other things being equal,” Lincoln wrote, “I would much prefer a temperate man, to an intemperate one; still I do not make my vote depend absolutely upon the question of whether a candidate does or does not taste liquor.” Yet Boss Lincoln was not quite finished. He then rattled off a list of reasons why the charge must be false –claiming among other factors that he for one had “never seen” Yates drink, “nor act, or speak, as if he had been drinking,” nor even “smelled it on his breath”—but leaving nothing to chance in that critical year of the party realignment, Lincoln asked Oglesby to “tell me what the truth of this matter is” and then offered an explicit marker for a future favor by concluding, “I will reciprocate at any time.”[13]

Later in the decade, Lincoln adopted a similar tone while writing to Yates himself on a matter of partisan coalition building. “Butler says you rather have an eye to getting our old friend Bill Green on the track,” Lincoln wrote prior to the general election campaign in 1858. “Nothing would please me better, whenever he got on to ground that would suit you, except it would give us no access to the Fillmore votes,” adding impatiently, “Dont you see? We must have some one who will reach the Fillmore men, both for the direct and the incidental effect.”[14]

This particular note to Yates is revealing in several ways. The problem was all about old Whig ties and the tricky business of navigating local coalition-building in the aftermath of the bitter three-way 1856 presidential contest that had involved Democrat James Buchanan, Republican John Fremont, and American Party candidate (and former Whig president) Millard Fillmore. Lincoln was attempting to convince his colleague from nearby Jacksonville to have a notice placed within one of the “anti-administration papers down your way” that would promote Springfield resident James H. Matheny for Congress. Matheny had once been Lincoln’s best man at his wedding but they had fallen out dramatically in the mid-1850s over the partisan realignment. In 1856, Matheny had actually blasted Lincoln in public, accusing him of treachery as part of an alleged “bad bargain” between him and Lyman Trumbull involving the new Republican Party and a desire for the U.S. Senate seat.[15] This accusation by a former Lincoln intimate would soon become one of the more damaging charges leveled by Stephen Douglas in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, yet clearly as late as March 1858, Lincoln was still trying desperately to win Matheny back into the fold. His businesslike approach apparently left some of the new Republicans, such as Yates, disenchanted, but Lincoln was adamant. “We have thought this over here,” he warned. “The leading Fillmore men have a wish to act with us, and they want a name upon which they can bring up their rank and file.”[16]

Lincoln’s focus on the so-called “Fillmore men” also raises the issue of his elusive relationship to nativism and Know Nothings. The American Party in 1856 was the political outgrowth of the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know Nothing movement. Many former Whigs, such as Fillmore and Matheny, participated in the organization of this third party in hopes that they might forge a moderate alternative to what they considered the new radical and dangerously sectional Republican organization. Lincoln was dismissive of nativism at least in private and most of his biographers have quoted a handful of his now famous letters to figures such as political activist Owen Lovejoy and old friend Joshua Speed in the mid-1850s that contained some moving denunciations of nativist prejudice. Yet the new documents from the post-Collected Works period also illustrate how Boss Lincoln was also apparently able to compartmentalize his personal views whenever it came to the necessities of managing the party machinery.

Lincoln’s outreach to Know Nothings, Americans, and former Fillmore men was not only persistent but also at times subtle.   Consider this rarely cited 1854 note from the First Supplement (1974) to Chicago attorney and businessman Jonathan Y. Scammon regarding Lincoln’s first campaign for a seat in the U.S. senate:

“My dear Sir:

Some partial friends here are for me for the U.S. Senate; and it would be very foolish, and very false, for me to deny that I would be pleased with an election to that Honorable body. If you know nothing, and feel nothing to the contrary, please make a mark for me with the members. Write me, at all events. Direct to Springfield. Let this be confidential.

Yours as ever   A. Lincoln”[17]

“If you know nothing, and feel nothing to the contrary.” Such a confidential double entendre might have been a mere coincidence, but most likely it was a clever pun intended to create some ambiguity as to whether or not Lincoln was kidding around or trying to signal implicit sympathy with the Know Nothings. Scammon cautiously declined to answer in writing, promising instead to “communicate personally.”[18] Scammon’s ties to the nativist movement, if any, remain murky, although all that really matters here is what Lincoln might have believed.[19] Know Nothings did exist in Illinois, a fact that Lincoln knew first-hand even though he often joked disingenuously about their existence on the stump that fall, claiming at one point that he “Knew Nothing in regard to the Know-Nothings.”[20] Such puns succeeded in confusing some of Lincoln’s peers about his real attitudes regarding the secret organization –a result that had tangible benefits for him even if they were also perhaps unintentional. Less than a week after getting Scammon’s reply, for instance, the ambitious senate candidate received a secret report from Leonard Swett, an attorney from the Eighth Judicial Circuit and one of his closest political advisors from the period which illustrates how deftly the Lincoln team was navigating these choppy partisan waters. Swett detailed how Alexander McIntosh, the editor of the Joliet True Democrat was “a Whig — without doubt — a Know Nothing & for you.” McIntosh believed that the Know Nothings would control the state legislature and ensure that their ally Lincoln would thus secure the senate seat. Swett mentioned nothing in his letter about correcting McIntosh’s misimpressions and apparently did nothing to undermine Lincoln’s standing with this anti-immigrant supporter.[21]

Lincoln himself never gave up courting –and counting on—nativist support. During the Lincoln-Douglas campaign in 1858, Lincoln wrote a hastily scrawled note on railroad company stationery to friend (and former American party supporter) Joseph Gillespie that first appeared in the Second Supplement. Lincoln warned Gillespie that since the former Americans and Republicans had “failed to form a union” in New York state, “This fact may be seized upon to help prevent a union in [Gillespie’s own community of] Madison Co.”   Writing while en route between the third and fourth debates, Lincoln pushed for action. “I am more than ever anxious that you should be at home Saturday to do what you can,” he wrote. “Please do not fail to go.”[22] More revealing, Lincoln continued to treat former Know Nothings with care and attention even after his election as president. One of his more recently published letters was a short apology penned to William W. Danenhower, the former head of the Illinois Know Nothing movement, on March 25, 1861.  “It was with great pain that I turned you away without an interview this morning,” Lincoln wrote. “The Senate is about adjourning, and hence my time is next to a matter of life and death with me.” He added, “Besides, there is one Illinois appointment which circumstances forced me to make to-day and that done I can crowd Illinois no further, until I have time to take a recovering,” before signing off, “No less your friend than ever.”[23]

Lincoln may have been “no less” Danenhower’s friend in 1861, but the truth is that they had never been more than passing political allies. The former bookseller who led the state’s nativist movement hardly ever appears in any study of Lincoln’s life or career. Yet it was revealing that Lincoln felt obligated to feign friendship even after achieving national success. Such contrivances and other pretenses of politics did not usually appear to bother Boss Lincoln, though occasionally he let loose with some frustrations and regrets. On his fortieth birthday, Lincoln wrote to Judge David Davis, a true friend, with uncharacteristic self-pity. “Out of more than than [sic] three hundred letters received this session,” he wrote from his desk in Congress, “yours is the second one manifesting the least interest for me personally.”[24] It was not just or even mainly constituent work or congressional business that frustrated the forty-year-old, but rather his self-imposed commitment as one of only two Whigs in Congress at that moment from Illinois to act as a state party leader. The rest of the 1849 note to Davis described Lincoln’s concern about the patronage battle over the appointment for Commissioner of the General Land Office. He claimed that he was not interested in the position for himself, partly because it “would be a final surrender of the law” but also because “every man in the state, who wants it himself, would be snarling at me about it.”[25]

Yet it was particularly revealing that despite expressing these sentiments, Lincoln pursued the job anyway, explaining to one correspondent that he did so “more to prevent what would be generally bad for the party here, and particularly bad for me, than a positive desire for the office.”[26] Moreover, this scramble for control of the Illinois Whigs eventually degenerated into an intense contest between Lincoln and Justin Butterfield (the so-called “Mr. B” described earlier) that pitted Springfield against Chicago and resulted in defeat of Springfield, “the center” as Lincoln termed it.   The Zachary Taylor administration subsequently offered Lincoln appointments in the Oregon Territory, but he wisely declined and determined that he would stake his political claims in Illinois, but would do so with broader horizons than Sangamon County.[27]

Here is thus another way to consider the story of Lincoln’s rise to power during the 1850s –as the narrative of a maturing party leader. Following his single, disappointing term in Congress, Lincoln returned to Springfield and his life as a circuit-riding attorney. He did not, however, abandon either politics or his role as party boss. Lincoln continued to manage the affairs of the dwindling Whig forces as best he could, serving on the statewide Whig electoral slate in 1852 and providing service and advice to the party as needed in the early 1850s. But what he really did with unprecedented energy and focus was seize the moment in 1854 after Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act and repeal of the Missouri Compromise had utterly disrupted the Democratic Party. This has traditionally been cast as an example of great moral fervor for Lincoln and subsequently as a period of astonishing success for him as an orator and public debater, but it was also a crucial test of party management. Lincoln had clearly learned lessons from his Whig days and especially from his term in Congress and the 1849 Land Office episode. After 1854, he no longer pretended that Chicago attorneys represented “foreign guardianship” for an Illinois political culture that was increasingly being dominated by its upstate forces. Nor did he feign suicidal impulses when confronted with the prospect of working with Democrats as he had once done as a young legislator. Instead, he embraced both the regional shift and partisan upheaval with gusto unmatched by any other leading political figure in Illinois. He soon positioned himself as an honest broker capable of uniting all factions within the emerging Republican Party.

None of the more recently discovered letters better illustrates Lincoln’s leadership transformation than a revealing account he sent to Jesse Olds Norton following his defeat in the 1855 senatorial balloting.[28] Norton was the congressman from Joliet, elected in 1852 and again in 1854 with a coalition of Republican, Whig, anti-slavery Democratic, and Know Nothing votes. He had been a Lincoln supporter in the U.S. senate contest and was sorely disappointed that his political friend, who had led the initial balloting with 45 votes (out of 51 required for election) somehow had been compelled to give way to Lyman Trumbull, a downstate anti-Nebraska Democrat who had begun the contest with only five supporters in the joint session of the legislature.[29]

Lincoln’s explanation to Norton about what had happened in the balloting, published in the Second Supplement (1990), may be the most significant new political document discovered since the publication of the Collected Works. First, it begins with a strikingly upbeat tone. “I have now been beaten one day over a week,” reported Lincoln, “and I am very happy to find myself quite convalescent.” This was not the melancholy Lincoln of recollected or psychoanalytical lore, but rather a pragmatic party leader intent on plowing ahead. Not coincidentally, Lincoln reacted the same way following his better known defeat against Stephen Douglas four years later. Writing to Norman B. Judd in 1858, Lincoln even chose identical words in a letter fully transcribed for the first time in the First Supplement. “I have the pleasure to inform you that I am convalescent,” Lincoln claimed after his second senatorial setback.     “For the future my view is that the fight must go on,” adding in true party leader spirit, “We have some hundred and twenty thousand clear Republican votes. That “pile” is worth keeping together.”[30] Lincoln’s comments reflect the reality of senatorial elections in those days of the legislative ballot –they indicated far more about relative party strength than personal popularity.

What is also worth recalling here is that Republican state committee chairman Norman Judd had been one of those five recalcitrant anti-Nebraska Democrats in 1855 supporting Trumbull for senator, the cabal, according to Lincoln’s report to Norton, “who never could vote for a whig; and without the votes of two of whom I never could reach the requisite number to make an election.”[31] The evolution of Lincoln’s relationship with Judd –they were now not only close partisan allies but also essentially business partners—further illustrated Lincoln’s growing stature and calculated approach to partisan feuds.[32]

In 1855, however, Lincoln had been somewhat less cool, complaining to Norton about the “maneuvering” of Governor Matteson, which he insisted had “forced upon me and my friends the necessity of surrendering to Trumbull.” The bile here does not make complete sense unless placed in the context of some unique details that Lincoln provided within the newly discovered letter about Matteson’s “tampering.” There have long been other extant accounts from Lincoln describing the results of the 1855 senatorial balloting but none except for this recently published letter to Norton identify by name those who cast all their ballots with Lincoln or Trumbull, but were still apparently pledged in secret to Matteson.[33] This fact underscores the startling conclusion that Lincoln was almost surely pushed into a last-minute alliance with anti-Nebraska Democrats because the regular Democratic governor of the state was just about to succeed in buying the election. Other previously available evidence from the period has loosely suggested corruption by the Democrats, such as one of the newer letters from Lincoln which reported from the days before the balloting that his men had hoped the Democrats had “reached the bottom of the rotten material” but conceded, “What mines and pitfalls they have under us we do not know.” Only this summary provided to Norton makes explicit what has in the past been mere conjecture and highlights another reality of political culture in the 1850s –it was rife with fraud.[34]

This was therefore the dramatic setting for the heated nine-ballot contest in February 1855 that culminated with Lincoln’s decision to send his remaining supporters to Trumbull on the final ballot to deny the Democrats a stolen election. “There was no pre-concert about it,” Lincoln admitted. “The heat of the battle, and the imminent danger of Matteson’s election were indispensably necessary to the result.” Describing how his competitive instincts overrode previous partisan inhibitions, Lincoln wrote, “I gave the direction, simultaneously with forming the resolution to do it.”[35]

Although the election of Trumbull may have been the product of the “heat of battle” and a particular distaste for Joel Matteson’s special brand of “tampering,” the net effect of Lincoln’s action was to vault him ahead of all other figures in the statewide Republican movement, at least in terms of party leadership. Nobody else crossed party and regional lines with such aplomb. Lincoln was the first emerging Republican leader in Illinois willing to make the personal and political sacrifices necessary to achieve a statewide victory. Nor did he rest on those organizational laurels. During the next several years, Lincoln was the one figure who turned up at all the key meetings and major conventions; the state party leader who showed up nearly everywhere and corresponded with nearly everyone, dispensing advice, brokering feuds and generally serving as a unifying force within the evolving organization from 1854 until his election as president.

Lincoln became a unifying figure in Illinois Republican party circles, but not because he was easy-going or deferential. Flashes of temper and a hard-driving demeanor were as much a part of Lincoln’s partisan leadership style in the late 1850s as any of his homespun stories. The stakes were too high, and Lincoln was playing for keeps. Lincoln’s newly discovered comments to Corwin in 1859 (“idiotic”) document this harder side of the rising leader, but few letters better illustrate his occasional sharp edge than a handful of documents recently posted by the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project. These include two unpublished notes to Charles H. Ray, editor of the Chicago Tribune, from June 6, 1858 and June 27, 1858, complaining about Tribune coverage of various matters that put elements of Boss Lincoln on full display.

The new letter from June 6, 1858 letter addressed attacks against Judge David Davis, Lincoln’s old friend, who stood accused of conniving to replace Republican congressman Owen Lovejoy. The moderate, mostly old Whig faction of the Republican Party had been attempting to sideline Lovejoy, a Congregational minister and fiery antislavery figure, since his first surprising election to the state legislature in 1854. When Lovejoy had defeated attorney Leonard Swett for the Republican congressional nomination in 1856, Lincoln had complained to Davis that it “turned me blind” with anger but still advised the judge to “let it stand.”[36] In this letter now two years later, Lincoln rose to Davis’s defense, labeling the recent Tribune claims about ongoing feuds in the district as a “great injustice … to my intimate friend of more than twenty years.” Yet as always, Lincoln refused to let personal feelings intrude upon business. “I wish to take, and will take no part between Lovejoy and his rivals –or opponents,” he wrote emphatically, even though he acknowledged that “Many of the latter are my very best friends.”[37] For the mature party boss, political alliances trumped personal friendships.

The other new letter, from June 27, 1858, offers something else –an angry Lincoln. He was mad about a recent Tribune article that appeared to endorse a Douglas Democrat from Indiana who was seeking reelection to Congress. The opening sentence asked: “How in God’s name do you let such paragraphs into the Tribune, as the enclosed cut from that paper of yesterday?” “Does Sheahan write them?” he added, referring to James Sheahan, the editor of Chicago’s Democratic newspaper. Lincoln’s sarcasm was furious and unrelenting. “How can you have failed to perceive that in this short paragraph you have completely answered all your own well put complaints of Greely and Sister Burlingame?” The uncharacteristic slur against Massachusetts congressman Anson Burlingame’s manhood indicated just how seriously Lincoln took this matter. He was so annoyed because he recognized that his party’s consistency was at stake. During the previous year, the Democratic Party had splintered badly over the Lecompton “swindle” in Kansas.   Senator Douglas, chief advocate for popular sovereignty, had refused to accept a bogus constitution from pro-slavery forces in Kansas that had been produced in 1857. President James Buchanan, on the other hand, was insisting upon party loyalty for his Lecompton policy of accepting that pro-slavery document. Some eastern Republicans considered this rupture a wonderful opportunity to court the Little Giant and hopefully switch his party affiliation. Lincoln was willing to bring in almost anybody to the Republican coalition, except his longtime rival Douglas. In another new letter from this period, Lincoln had written in almost proverbial fashion, “My judgment is that we must never sell old friends to buy old enemies.”[38] In this particular note to Ray, he was even more explicit:

“What right have you to interfere in Indiana, more than they in Illinois? And what possible argument can be made why all Republicans shall stand out of Hon. John G. Davis’s way in his district in Indiana that can not be made why all Republicans in Illinois shall stand out of Hon. S.A. Douglas’s way?”

Continuing to dissect the details, Lincoln also noted (in referring to the font size of the clipping) that “The part in larger type is plainly editorial, and your editorial at that, as you do not credit it to any other paper.” He ended the five sentence blast with one final stinger: “I confess it astonishes me.   Yours truly, A. Lincoln.”[39]

If Lincoln was astonished by the Tribune’s incompetence, modern day readers must find it astonishing to hear the Great Emancipator throw around insults like “Sister Burlingame” while dressing down a colleague in such blunt fashion. This is not the Lincoln we know. But could it have been the Lincoln that was? The new evidence suggests that these elements were far more integral to his style than we have previously acknowledged. The reason why Lincoln almost never seems this angry is because there has never been much written evidence of it. He learned how to control his anger over the years and rarely put such outbursts into writing. And when he did, those letters were often burned or kept out of public view. The first major Lincoln scholar to gain access to the 1858 letters to Ray and to quote the “Sister Burlingame” line was Michael Burlingame in his 2008 two-volume biography.[40]

Practically none of the new Lincoln letters quoted within this essay have been quoted by any of the most popular recent studies of Abraham Lincoln. There are twenty-one “new” documents cited here. Only four of them appear within some of the best-selling one-volume biographies of Lincoln produced during the last fifteen years (by David Herbert Donald, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Ronald C. White, Jr.). The new Corwin letter appears in White’s bicentennial year biography, and both White and Donald each quote from different letters that originally appeared in the First and Second Supplements. Yet most revealing, Goodwin, despite focusing on the “Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” quotes from none of these very political letters.[41] The significance of these omissions should be clear enough. Lincoln does not sound like this to most of us, because this facet of his voice rarely gets heard. He does not look like a party boss, because we rarely see him acting like one. Hearing and showing these moments does not alter the central narrative of Lincoln’s career, but it does suggest important enhancements. Abraham Lincoln abandoned old friends and worked with sometimes unsavory new ones with more calculation and a harder edge than biographers have detailed. He was a wire-puller who pulled wires in specific ways during the 1850s that helped make him president. Abraham Lincoln was not a corrupt hack and he did not chomp on unlit cigars. But Honest Abe was nonetheless a nineteenth-century party boss in ways that went much deeper than name alone.


[1] Corwin was a longtime Whig politician from southwestern Ohio who had been a congressman in the 1830s, before serving briefly as the state’s governor (1840-42) and U.S. senator (1845-50). He also served as secretary of treasury in the Millard Fillmore administration. He wrote to Lincoln following the Springfield attorney’s September 17 speech in nearby Cincinnati. See Corwin to Lincoln, Lebanon, OH, September 25, 1859, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress,

[2] Abraham Lincoln to Thomas Corwin, Springfield, October 9, 1859, The Papers of the Abraham Lincoln, In his previous letter (September 25, 1859), Corwin had informed Lincoln that, “I am not a squeemish, or punctilious gentleman,” which might at least partially explain the sharp response.

[3] William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life (3 vols., Chicago: Bedford-Clarke, 1890), 2: 375.

[4] See Harold Holzer, “History Now: Lincoln Heard and Seen –A Crucial Letter and Life Portrait Finally Surface,” American Heritage 56 (Feb/March 2005).

[5] Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (8 vols., New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953-55); Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln: Supplement, 1832-1864 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974); Roy P. Basler and Christian O. Basler, eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln: Second Supplement, 1848-1865 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990).See “New Documents,” The Papers of the Abraham Lincoln,

[6] To Andrew McCormick, [January 1841], First Supplement, 5-6. This letter originally appear in The Lincoln Herald 59 (Fall 1957), 3-7.

[7] To John Todd Stuart, Springfield, February 3, 1841, First Supplement, 6.

[8] To P.S. Harrison, Tremont, September 23, 1849, First Supplement, 17.

[9] To Thomas Ewing, Springfield, October 13, 1849, Second Supplement, 5.

[10] To Joseph R. Underwood, Springfield, June 3, 1849, Second Supplement, 2.

[11] See Joel H. Silbey, “’Always a Whig in Politics’: The Partisan Life of Abraham Lincoln,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 8 (1986): 21-32.

[12] To Richard J. Oglesby, Springfield, September 8, 1854, First Supplement, 24.

[13] To Oglesby. September 8, 1854. Yates was eventually ruined by his alcoholism. See Mark A. Plummer, Lincoln’s Rail-Splitter: Governor Richard J. Oglesby (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 17.

[14] To Richard Yates, Springfield, March 9, 1858, First Supplement, 29.

[15] See Stephen A. Douglas, Opening Speech at Jonesboro, September 15, 1858, Paul M. Angle, ed., The Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 (1958; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 196-7.

[16] To Richard Yates, March 9, 1858, First Supplement, 29.

[17] To J. Young Scammon, Springfield, November 10, 1854, First Supplement, 25.

[18] J. Young Scammon to Abraham Lincoln, Chicago, December 16, 1854, Abraham Lincoln Papers at Library of Congress,

[19] See an interesting recollection of Scammon by a Hungarian immigrant who worked for him, Julian Kune, Reminiscences of an Octogenarian Hungarian Exile (Chicago: By author, 1911), 75-79.

[20] For a more complete discussion of Lincoln’s perception of nativism and political relationship with Know Nothings during the 1854 campaign, see Matthew Pinsker, “Not Always Such a Whig in Politics: Abraham Lincoln’s Partisan Realignment in the 1850s,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 29 (Summer 2008), 27-46.

[21] Leonard Swett to Abraham Lincoln, Bloomington, December 22, 1854, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, During the Civil War, Lincoln appointed McIntosh to several posts in the Union army, including one as quartermaster with Sherman’s army during the “March to the Sea.”

[22] To Joseph I. Gillespie, Centralia, September 16, 1858, Second Supplement, 16.

[23] Abraham Lincoln to William W. Danenhower, March 25, 1861, published in Thomas F. Schwartz, ed., “Whither The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln?: More Unpublished Lincoln Letters,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 13 (1992): 52. Danenhower served in the Lincoln administration as an auditor in the Treasury Department, see Appointment of William W. Danenhower, January 28, 1862, Papers of Abraham Lincoln,

[24] To David Davis, Washington, February 12, 1849, First Supplement, 14.

[25] To Davis, Feb. 12, 1849, First Supplement,14.

[26] To Moses Hampton, Charleston, June 1, 1849, Second Supplement, 1.

[27] To Thomas Ewing, Tremont, September 23, 1849, Second Supplement, 5.

[28] To Jesse Olds Norton, Springfield, February 16, 1855, Second Supplement, 9-11.

[29] For a fuller account of this complicated contest, see Matthew Pinsker, “Senator Abraham Lincoln,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 14 (Summer 1993), 1-22.

[30] To Norman B. Judd, Springfield, November 15, 1858, First Supplement, 34. A partial copy of this letter appeared in the Collected Works 3: 337. There are about a dozen contemporary letters from Lincoln in the Collected Works commenting on the outcome of the 1858 elections. All of them are optimistic or at least defiant in the same spirit as this note to Judd.

[31] To Norton, Feb. 16, 1855.

[32] Lincoln loaned Judd a few thousand dollars in 1857 to finance land speculation in Iowa. See Harry E. Pratt, The Personal Finances of Abraham Lincoln (Springfield, IL: Abraham Lincoln Association, 1943), 78.

[33] See, for instance, Lincoln to Elihu B. Washburne, Springfield, February 9, 1855, Collected Works 2:306.

[34] To Richard Yates, Springfield, January 14, 1855. To Norton, February 16, 1855, Second Supplement, 10. And see Pinsker, “Senator Lincoln,” 17-19, for more details on the apparent bribery scheme.

[35] To Norton, February 16, 1855, Second Supplement, 10.

[36] To David Davis, July 7, 1856, First Supplement, 27.

[37] To Charles H. Ray, June 6, 1858, Papers of Abraham Lincoln,

[38] To Ozias M. Hatch, Lincoln, March 24, 1858, First Supplement, 29.

[39] To Charles H. Ray, June 27, 1858, Papers of Abraham Lincoln, It is worth noting that Ray was not must flustered by Lincoln’s outburst and declined to respond until the next month, simply noting that he had been out of the office when it was produced. Charles H. Ray to Abraham Lincoln, July 1858, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress,

[40] Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2 vols., Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 1: 446-7. Allen Guelzo cites the Ray letter in his study of the 1858 campaign, but does not quote from it and seems to have had the June 6 letter in mind in any event. See Allen C. Guelzo, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008), 330n. The first “paper” on the newly discovered letter was an excellent high school project produced for History Day by the teenage son of Papers director Daniel W. Stowell. See Samuel Stowell, “Abraham’s Anger in the Campaign of 1858,” unpublished.

[41] See David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995). Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005). Ronald C. White, Jr., A. Lincoln: A Biography (New York: Random House, 2009).

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