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The Journalists: Thomas J. Pickett (1821-1891)

Thomas J. Pickett, born in Kentucky, founded more than a dozen newspapers in three states. Pickett moved to Illinois where he became editor of several newspapers in northwest Illinois. Pickett, who served in the Illinois Senate and as an army colonel during the Civil War, was a close political supporter of Abraham Lincoln for more than two decades.

According to a history of Peoria, "Pickett was a man filled with the spirit of enterprise in advance of his times and it was his ambition to establish a daily newspaper. He formed a partnership with H. K. W. Davis, a son of the former publisher and editor and started in connection with the Peoria Register a daily paper which they called the Daily Register and the first number was issued on June 28. 1848, but its life was short. Still infected with the daily issue idea Pickett started another daily in the following year and called it The Champion....The first number of this second daily was issued on December 13, 1849, and it appears that there must have been something fateful in its name, for in the following month, on January 26, 1850, the building in which it was published was wrecked by an explosion of combustible liquids and William Pickett, brother of the proprietor and James Kirkpatrick, publisher of the Peoria American...were killed by falling walls. Their office was in the second story of a brick building on the corner of Main street and what was known at that time as Printers' Alley, between Washington and Water streets."1

In June 1840 Pickett launched another publication, the Weekly Republican. Peoria historian James Rice Montgomery wrote: "It was well edited and printed and was devoted to the whig interest until the old party lines began to break up between 1854 and 1856 and then it espoused the principles of the rising republican party. Issued first as a weekly it eventually became a daily, tri-weekly and weekly and ran successfully until 1856 when Pickett became a candidate for the office of circuit clerk and the paper passed into the possession of Samuel L. Coulter, who endeavored to run it in the whig interest, but the whig party was rapidly going to pieces and two years later the Peoria Republican went out of existence."2 In the 1850s after losing several campaigns for political office, Pickett moved to Rock Island, Illinois where he edited the Rock Island Register.

Lincoln visited Peoria several times during the presidential campaign of 1844 - speaking for Henry Clay and the tariff. On one occasion, he faced off against former Congressman William May, who had switched from the Democratic Party to the Whig Party after he lost renomination to Congress to Stephen A. Douglas in 1837. May subsequently returned to the Democrats. In his speech, May criticized a campaign pole the Whig had erected. In his response, Lincoln defended the pole and attacked May's party-switching. "The Whigs of Peoria had no cause to be especially proud of their pole," said Mr. Lincoln. After all, "it was not made of the best timber and was not straight, but there was one thing about it he could explain, account for and admire. The hollow place at the butt of the pole was where Colonel May had crawled out of the Whig Party, and his party friends now propose to close it up so that the colonel never could return." May was incensed by the jibe and further incensed by the hilarity that greeted it. According to Pickett, May restrained himself. He "knew that if he carried his indignation too far there was danger that Lincoln would throw him over the pulpit rails."3

Pickett recalled that Springfield Democratic leader John Calhoun came to Peoria to give a campaign speech a week after Lincoln had spoken at the Peoria county court house on a soggy Saturday night, April 6. 1844: "In their handbills announcing the meeting the Whigs were invited to make a reply. Learning that Mr. Lincoln was at Tremont...twelve miles distant, and believing we had no speaker capable of meeting Calhoun, I sent a messenger for him and Mr. Lincoln reached Peoria about the time the meeting opened."4 Democrats later claimed that Lincoln was snuck into the court house and remained outside the room while Calhoun began speaking on the evening of Saturday, April 13. Pickett recalled that Lincoln "repaired to the courthouse, where the gathering was held, and quietly took a seat near the door."5 When Mr. Lincoln got his chance for rebuttal, it was almost midnight. Pickett reported that "for thirty minutes poor Calhoun was first skinned and then drawn and quartered, and the operation was performed with the utmost good nature."6 The Peoria Democratic Press was less impressed and less patient. It reported: "Mr. Lincoln, the opposing candidate of Mr. Calhoun, followed in reply. He set out by stating that Mr C.'s great complaint against the tarif[f] was that it taxed the people. This was enough for us on that occasion - We did not stay to hear him out."7

In February 1856, Pickett attended the meeting in Decatur of newspaper editors in which the Republican Party was founded. Pickett wrote Lincoln in reply to a letter from him in August 1858: "You are stronger here than Republicanism and in all of our meetings instead of heading them "Republican" I shall say "Meeting of the friends of Lincoln." I think by this course we can gain some thing from the old whigs, who may be wavering, and soften down the prejudices of others. We must have all the help you can give us. One good speech here might effect more good than a dozen in counties you are sure of.- We intend to have a meeting to elect delegates to attend the Congressional convention - on Saturday Aug. 14th, at Tremont. If you could send Herndon we can get up a good meeting. I think he would please our fence men. We hav'nt [sic] a good speaker in the county, while the Douglas men have several. The leading 'Americans' feel sore towards you, but Turner, Williamson, Babcock Tom. King, and others assure me they will do what they can for our side. Pickett added: "In closing let me say that anything that I can do to vote you 'up' and Douglas 'down' will be done freely, for in so doing I know I am subserving the best interests of the country.8

Pickett was one of the first boosters of Abraham Lincoln's presidential possibilities. Historical writer Gary Ecelbarger wrote: "Statesmanship, statewide exposure, and national attention combined to heighten Lincoln in the minds of Republican editors across Illinois. Thomas J. Pickett and C. W. Waite, the joint owners of the Rock Island Register, recognized this more than anyone in the spring of 1859, and - dissatisfied with the sparse official endorsements of Lincoln for president - they sought to create their own Lincoln boom in Illinois, one they hoped would spread across the North."9 On August 13, 1859, Pickett wrote Lincoln: "At the request of several citizens of this place, I write to request that you will deliver your lecture on "Inventions" in this city at such time as may suit your convenience. We think a full house would greet you. Please write and let me know whether it will be within your power to come." He added:
I would like to have a "talk" with you on political matters - as to the policy of announcing our name for the Presidency - while you are in our city. My partner (C. W. Waite) and myself are about addressing the Republican editors of the State on the subject of a simultaneous announcement of your name for the Presidency.10
Lincoln appears to have decided that his chances of winning the presidential nomination were best if they were perceived to be non-existent. On April 16, Lincoln replied to Pickett: "Yours of the 13th. is just received. My engagements are such that I can not, at any very early day, visit Rock-Island, to deliver a lecture, or for any other object. As to the other matter you kindly mention, I must, in candor, say I do not think myself fit for the Presidency. I certainly am flattered, and gratified, that some partial friends think of me in that connection; but I really think it best for our cause that no concerted effort, such as you suggest, should be made."11

Pickett's dream eventually came true - and Lincoln remembered him. Pickett apparently went to Washington for his inauguration in March 1861. The President wrote new Secretary of War Simon Cameron: Thomas J. Pickett, the bearer of this, and an Illinois State Senator, resides at the City of Rock-Island, in that State, and in the immediate vicinity of the Island of that name. The Island belongs to the U.S; and Mr.Pickett thinks there is an agency for it, in charge of your Department, worth some $700. If this be true, I wish Mr. Pickett could have the agency."12 Pickett was appointed as the resident quartermaster in Rock Island.

In April 1863, Pickett telegraphed the President: "Am removed from agency Island Rock Island without chance to be heard in defense desire investigation: will send Evidence by mail." The charges were made by J. B. Danforth, editor of the Rock Island Argus. Lincoln wrote on the telegram: "What, if anything, does the Sec. of Interior know about this?" The response - because Pickett's initial on the telegram was wrong - was: "This Dept has no information upon the Subject within referred to, & no officer there."13

Meanwhile, Pickett had written Lincoln's secretary, John G. Nicolay, himself a former newspaper editor in Illinois: "You may recollect that soon after the inauguration of Mr. Lincoln I obtained, through assistance from yourself and others, the agency of the Island of Rock Island. Things have gone smoothly with me since that time until within a few days. During my absence at Springfield, in attending the Legislature, the Copperhead organ in Rock Island charged me with various delinquencies as Government Agent and sent copies of the paper to Qr. Master Gen. Meigs in Washington. On the strength of these charges, the Qr. Master Gen. notifies the Mustering and Disbursing officer at Davenport, Iowa, to enquire into the truth of the charges and if the charges are sustained -- the charges I would say are that I have been selling timber and stone belonging to the Government -- to remove me. Well; the Mustering officer happens to belong to the democratic persuasion and consequently leans to the side of my copperhead accuser, and I think has prejudged the case against me. I think he had determined on my removal even before hearing a word in my behalf. Before seeing me, as I am informed, he tendered the agency to another person! My friends have presented to Capt. Hendershott (the Mustering officer alluded to) a paper to the effect that since I have been acting as Government agent, the interests of the Gov't. on the Island of Rock Island have been better attended to than ever before. This paper was signed by the leading men who had the best opportunities of knowing whether the Government's interests were neglected or not. I suppose it will have no effect on Capt. H., and that he will remove me in order to make room for a friend."
The simple facts in reference to the editorial charges of my assailant (who richly deserves a cell in Fort Warren) is this: The Island of Rock Island contains nearly a thousand acres of timbered land. At the upper end of the Island in Illinois is the town of Moline -- at the lower end in the same State, the city of Rock Island, and opposite in Iowa, is Davenport. Its nearness to these towns and cities would render a regiment of soldiers necessary to prevent all depredations. This being true I do not pretend that trespassers have not encroached; but I do maintain and can establish by the testimony of our best citizens that less depredations have been committed than under Democratic administrations. I utterly deny the truth of the allegations, and shall look to Mr. Lincoln for justice in the matter. I trust you will take the trouble to favor me I in this, as you have in times past, and present it to the President, at a time when great affairs are not pressing him for imminent attention.14
President Lincoln wrote to a local official in Rock Island: "Thomas J. Pickett, late agent of the Quarter-Master's Department for the Island of Rock-Island, has been removed, or suspended from that position, on a charge of having sold timber and stone from the Island for his private benefit. Mr. Pickett is an old acquaintance and friend of mine; and I will thank you if you will set a day or days, and place, on & at which, to take testimony on the point; notify Mr. Pickett, and one J. B. Danforth Jr. (who, as I understand, makes the charge) to be present with their witnesses; take the testimony in writing, offered by both sides, and report it in full to me. Please do this for me."15

Pickett's name was on a long list of possible patronage appointments in Montana that Lincoln compiled in 1862. Pickett was proposed for secretary of the territory.16 He did not get that job.

After the Civil War, Pickett moved back to his native Kentucky where he started the Federal Union in Paducah and served as postmaster and a court clerk. He later moved to Nebraska where he started several more newspapers.

 

Footnotes

  1. Ernest E. East, Abraham Lincoln Sees Peoria, p. 7.
  2. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress., “Transcribed and annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois”, (Letter from Thomas Pickett to Abraham Lincoln, August 13, 1859).
  3. CWAL, III, p. 337 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Thomas Pickett April 16, 1859).
  4. CWAL, IV, p. 297 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Simon Cameron, March 21, 1861).
  5. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress., “Transcribed and annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois”, (Letter from Thomas J. Pickett to Abraham Lincoln, April 3 1863 - with endorsements).
  6. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress., “Transcribed and annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois”, (Memorandum on Montana Patronage, June 1862).
  7. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress., “Transcribed and annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois”, (Letter from Thomas J. Pickett to John Nicolay, March 30, 1863).
  8. James Montgomery Rice, Peoria City and County, Illinois, I, p. 406.
  9. James Montgomery Rice, Peoria City and County, Illinois, I, p. 406.
  10. Michael Burlingame, editor, Walter B. Stevens, “A Reporter's Lincoln ”, p. 164-165.
  11. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, “Intimate Memories of Lincoln”, p. 190-191 (Thomas Pickett).
  12. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, “Intimate Memories of Lincoln”, p. 191 (Thomas Pickett).
  13. Ernest E. East, editor, Abraham Lincoln Sees Peoria, p. 8 (Democratic Press, April 17, 1844).
  14. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. , “Transcribed and annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois”, (Letter from Thomas Pickett to Abraham Lincoln, August 3, 1858).
  15. Gary Ecelbarger, The Great Comeback, p. 41.
  16. CWAL, VI, p. 182 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Calvin Truesdale, April 20, 1862).