The Boys: William Butler (1797-1876)

"First time I saw Lincoln was when he came down Sangamon River from Macon Co. in canoe. He was as ruff a specimen of humanity as could be found. His legs were bare for six inches between bottom of pants and top of socks." William Butler told an early biographical researcher in 1860.1 "I was at Vandalia the last winter he spent there. Lincoln, myself, and two others traveled home together on horseback, after the fashion of those times. We stopped over night down here at Henderson's Point, and all slept on the floor. We were tired, and the rest slept pretty well. But I noticed from the first that Lincoln was uneasy, turning over and thinking, and studying, so much so that he kept me awake," reported William Butler about their return from a meeting of the State Legislature in then capital of Illinois.

Mr. Lincoln told Butler on the way back to New Salem: "All the rest of you have something to look forward to, and all are glad to get home, and will have something to do when you get there. But it isn't so with me. I am going home, Butler, without a thing in the world. I have drawn all my pay I got at Vandalia and have spent it all. I am in debt, I am owing Van Bergen, and his has levied on my horse and compass, and I have nothing to pay the debt with and no way to make any money. I don't know what to do."2

Butler saw Mr. Lincoln's potential - but also saw how his debts were holding him back. Mr. Lincoln told Butler one day how his willingness to sign a bond for others had gotten him into debt. When Butler asked what Mr. Lincoln would do if freed from his financial burdens, Mr. Lincoln "said he would first pay his debts, and then would like to study law - but did not see how he could do it as he had no books or influential friends - said that every body wished him well - but he never could ask a man for a favor." Having paid off $400 of Mr. Lincoln's debts, Butler rejected all efforts to repay him. Mr. Lincoln "has tried again and again to pay me but I never would receive any thing," said Butler in 1860. "He came to me with the money a few years ago. I told him not to mention the subject again if he did not wish to offend me. Has been grateful."3

Butler took Lincoln under his wing in Springfield, paying his debts, getting his laundry washed and even selling his horse. He told the young legislator "I want you come down here, and board here and make my house your home." Butler later complained gently: "You know he was always careless about his clothes. In all the time he stayed at my house, he never bought a hat or a pair of socks, or a coat. Whenever he needed them, my wife went out and bought them for him, and put them in the drawer where he would find them."4 During the six year period between Mr. Lincoln's move to Springfield in 1837 and his marriage to Mary Todd in 1842, Mr. Lincoln ate most of his meals with the Butler family. He also met Butler's young sister-in-law, Sarah Rickard, and is said to have proposed marriage to her. It was at the Butler house that Mr. Lincoln dressed for his wedding to Mary Todd in November 1842. Mr. Lincoln told young Speed Butler that he was going "To hell I suppose."5 Another version was related to by the Butler's daughter, Salome:
We all loved Mr. Lincoln - he played with us and would toss me over his shoulder when we would run to meet him.

The night Mr. Lincoln and Mary Todd were married, I thought my mother was very handsome in her yellow satin evening gown, as she walked down the hall to Mr. Lincoln's room to see if he was dressed properly for his marriage. As usual, my brothers and I trooped in behind her. As my mother tied Mr. Lincoln's necktie on him, little Speed called out: 'Where are you going, Mr. Lincoln?' Mr. Lincoln jokingly replied: 'to the devil!'6

Butler encouraged Mr. Lincoln to study law. He "took no little interest in Lincoln, while a member of the Legislature." wrote contemporary biographer William H. Herndon. "After his removal to Springfield, Lincoln boarded at Butler's house for several years. He became warmly attached to the family, and it is probable the matter of pay never entered Butler's mind. He was not only able but willing to befriend the young lawyer in this and many other ways."7 Lincoln biographer William E. Barton wrote: " Lincoln made payments as he could, but the system of accounting was rather lose and irregular. Lincoln had a home with the Butlers for five and a half years from the time of his arrive in Springfield in March, 1837, until he married Mary Todd, November 4, 1842."8

Since Butler owned a hotel, psychobiographer Edward J. Kempf noted that Butler's generosity was "good business, for, as Whig leader, Lincoln attracted many guests. He grew warmly attached to the Butler family and never, it seems, felt obliged to pay for his meals although he continued this dependence for several years. He has been criticized for having been a 'sponge' and 'working a racket' but the modern view does not apply here, for the practice among the early settlers of trading help for benefits was customary."9

But Butler offered to helped in other ways as well. Dr. William Jayne recalled that after Mr. Lincoln "had moved to our city, Mr. James Brown, the traveling postoffice agent, [came] into Robert Irwin's store and inquired where he could find Mr. Lincoln, former postmaster at New Salem; that he wished to collect the money of the United States still in his possession. William Butler being present said, 'Mr. Brown, I will see Mr. Lincoln at my house at dinner; he will call on you at the hotel and pay you.' At dinner Mr. Butler told him what Mr. Brown's business was. Thinking Mr. Lincoln might not have the money to settle his postoffice collections, Butler said: 'I will let you have the money to settle your postoffice account.' Lincoln replied: 'I thank you very much, but I have all the money in my trunk which belongs to the government.' The identical silver, quarters and twelve and a half cent pieces were safely put away in an old sock in his trunk, ready any day for immediate settlement of his official account."10

But Mr. Lincoln's relationship with Butler was not without difficulties. Kempf wrote: "In 1839, two of his best friends, William Butler and Edward Baker, became involved in a bitter quarrel over the legislative division of Sangamon County. Butler seems to have been hot tempered and inclined to make unfair charges against his opponent. Three letters written by Lincoln within a week indicate how strongly he desired to bring about a peaceful reconciliation between them."11

On January 26, Mr. Lincoln wrote a reply to a letter from Butler: "You were in an ill-humor when you wrote that letter, and, no doubt, intended that I should be thrown into one also; which, however, I respectfully decline being done. All you have said about our having been bought up by Taylor, Wright, Turley, enemies &c I know you would not say, seriously , in our moments of reflection, and therefore I do not think it worth while to attempt seriously to prove the contrary to you. I only now say, that I am willing to pledge myself in black and white to cut my own throat from ear to ear, if, when I meet you, you shall seriously say, that you believe me capable of betraying my friends for any price." Mr. Lincoln signed off the letter: "Your friend in spite of your ill-nature."12

On February 1, Mr. Lincoln wrote a second letter to Butler: "There is no necessity for any bad feeling between Baker & yourself. Your first letter to him was written while you were in a state of high excitement, and therefore ought not to have been construed as an emination [sic] of deliberate malice. Unfortunately however it reached Baker while he was writhing under a severe tooth-ache, and therefore he at that time was incapable of exercising that patience and reflection which the case required. The note he sent you was written while in that state of feeling, and for that reason I think you ought not to pay any serious regard to it. It is always magnanamous [sic] to recant whatever we have said in passion..." He signed off this letter "Your friend as ever." Mr. Lincoln knew the contents of Baker's reply to Butler because he himself had written the letter - at Baker's dictation. Baker had told Butler "If you believe the charges you make to be true, I say most flatly you are a fool." Butler later wrote Baker "it was not my intention to insult you or any one of my friends though under the misapprehension I felt myself badly treated...."13

Butler himself came to Mr. Lincoln's aid three years later when Mr. Lincoln was about to be challenged to a duel by State Auditor James Shields. In September 1842 Butler and Elias H. Merryman rushed to warn Mr. Lincoln - who was then in Tremont - that Shields was on his way to confront him. "Butler who had been on the look out saw Shields and Whitesides start off. He suspected what was in the wind, and jumping into his own buggy followed them at a short distance, sometimes being in sight but generally keeping so far behind them that they did not suspect his presence. When night came Shields and his friend stopped at a wayside tavern, while Butler hurried on and in this reached Tremont before them and aprized Lincoln of what was coming," Butler later told John G. Nicolay. Butler had also thought ahead and brought with him a pair of dueling pistols in case they were needed.14 Although a Lincoln duel with Shields was eventually averted, the controversy led to another challenge - from Shields to Butler. Butler accepted and proposed rifles as the weapon of choice. Shields's second rejected the duel and the matter closed.

In 1849, Mr. Lincoln again became involved in a dispute with Butler - this one over patronage. This one was bitter - because not only a job for Butler was at stake but so was one for Mr. Lincoln. According to William H. Herndon, Mr. Lincoln 'had some patronage to bestow and his old friend Butler applied to him for the office of the Register or receiver of public monies in this city. There was another applicant for the same office by the name of King, a kind of worthless man, in my opinion, and Lincoln gave the office to [Turner R.] King over the head of Butler. Butler and Lincoln did not speak for years. Butler opposed Lincoln in all his aspirations for office from 1847 till about 1858. Butler frequently with others defeated Lincoln's schemes."15 In April 1949, Mr. Lincoln had drafted a letter to Secretary of the Interior Thomas Ewing:

I recommend that William Butler be appointed Pension Agent, for the Illinois agency, when the place shall be vacant﷓﷓ Mr [Charles R.] Hurst, the present incumbent, I believe has performed the duties very well. He is a decided partazan, and, I believe, expects to be removed - Whether he shall, I submit to the Department. This office is not confined to my District, but pertains to the whole state; so that Col Baker has an equal right with myself to be heard concerning it - However, the office is located here; and I think it is not probable any one would desire to remove from a distance to take it. The correspondence tells a more complicated story.16

The letter may never had been sent. Butler desired to be Receiver of the Springfield Land Office but Lincoln refused to nominate him, nominating Walter Davis instead. Then a campaign developed to defame Turner King, whom Mr. Lincoln recommended "on the recommendation of his neighbors to me. I know him personally, and think him a good man; still my acquaintance with him is not intimate enough to warrant me in totally disregarding a charge against him," Mr. Lincoln wrote Secretary Ewing. Two weeks later, Mr. Lincoln wrote Ewing again and referred to Butler as "an old personal friend":
I regret troubling you so often in relation to the Land Offices here, but I hope you will perceive the necessity of it, & excuse me. On the 7th April I wrote you recommending Turner R. King for Register, and Walter Davis for Receiver - Subsequently I wrote you that, for a private reason, I had concluded to transpose them That private reason was the request of an old personal friend, who himself desired to be Receiver, but whom I felt it my duty to refuse a recommendation - He said if I would transpose King & Davis he would be satisfied. I thought it a whim, but anxious to oblige him, I consented - Immediately he commenced an assault upon Kings character, intending as I suppose, to defeat his appointment, and thereby secure another chance for himself - This double offence of bad faith to me, and slander upon a good man, is so totally outragious, that I now ask to have King & Davis placed as I originally recommended - That is King for Register and Davis for Receiver - 17

In retaliation for his own failed candidacy, Butler started to circulate a petition favoring Justin Butterfield over Mr. Lincoln as Illinois' favorite candidate to take over the federal land office. Dr. Anson G. Henry wrote Mr. Lincoln: "Almost every name obtained by Butler, recommending Butterfield, was obtained through mis﷓representation, and I have the first man yet to see, who does not regret having signed it."18 Four days later, Dr. Henry wrote a second letter to Mr. Lincoln in which two things were clear; there was political warfare in Springfield and Butler was at its center:

It is said by [Elias H.] Merryman on the authority of Bill Pope that you had joined with Baker in recommending Doctor [William] Wallace for Pension Agent - Van, swears that if you have done so after the abuse Wallace has heaped upon you, that he will never forgive you for it. I should feel a little sore about it myself, for he & Butler are going it most bitterly against me because I sustained your Course - [Peter ]Van Bergen and [Simeon] Francis have been to see me about it. I took the responsibility of saying that it could not be so. I infer from what Butler let fall yesterday that Wallace is expecting it through his (Butlers) great & mighty influence at Washington - I have no disposition to engage in a War with any one, but I must fend off the best way I can the illiberal & unjust assaults upon me from that quarter. I have incurred their hatred & malice on your account, & what I supposed to be the interests of the party - I have never harmed Wallace in word or deed, & his open & loud denunciation of me in the Streets is most unaccountable. 19

It took nearly a decade but the relationship between Butler and Mr. Lincoln was finally patched up. Butler came to Mr. Lincoln's aid once again in the 1860 election. He was very active on Mr. Lincoln's behalf at the Republican National Convention in Chicago. Butler kept Lincoln appraised of developments at the Republican National Convention in Chicago in May 1960. On May 15, Butler wrote Lincoln: "No material change in Sentiment of public opinion amongst deligates Since yesterday The Strife between dilegates from New York & Pennsylvania Still rage high[.]
Pennsylvania will never gow for Seward I see one Sign I will mention to you Confidentially that I dont like, Mr [Preston] King of Albany who rooms with Mr Weed came to me this Morning & braught with him Mr Street of Onida County Newyork. After interducing him Mr King left. Mr Street Soon entered into what he termed a confidential Conversation he Said he was authorised to say If Illinois would consent to have Mr. Lincolns name placed on the Ticket in Connection with Mr Seward, that an arangement Could be made to Carry Illinois that One hundred thousand Dollars placed in the proper hands would Carry Illinois & Indiana
I promptly told him under no Circumstances Could your name be used in a Second place on the Ticket I imediately told Logan--4 I am a little afraid of this eliment, to extent it may be used I Cant say
I feel much incouraged though you Must be prepared for defeat Wentworth & Wilson are both against you. (Letter from William Butler to Abraham Lincoln, May 15, 1860).

Butler wired Lincoln at one point: "Your friends are doing all that can be done for you - [Chicago Mayor John]Wentworth I think has changed his feet and is now for you".20 Butler helped in other ways as well. "It was early [Mr. Lincoln's] friend in Springfield that there would be expenses incidental to the campaign which Lincoln should not be expected to meet," wrote historian Harry E. Pratt. "Stephen T. Logan, his second law partner, took the lead in raising funds. Five hundred dollars each was subscribed by ten Republican leaders. The names of only eight of these are known: Logan, Jacob Bunn, John W. Bunn, William Butler, Robert Irwin, John Williams, Ozias M. Hatch, and Thomas Condell." The committee paid to hire John G. Nicolay as Mr. Lincoln's secretary as well as hotel bills and a major rally in Springfield on August 8, 1860. 21

Butler was appointed state treasurer to replace James Miller in 1859 and elected Illinois State Treasurer in 1860 - so he wasn't in need of federal patronage during the Civil War. When he visited the President in Washington in 1861, Mr. Lincoln asked: "Butler, now I am in a position to do something for you - what can I do for your?" Butler replied: Mr Lincoln you cant do anything for me. There is not an office I could fill which would be worthy my having; and there is no office it might be worth while to accept, such as perhaps a foreign appointment, which I am qualified to fill."22 Having had his patronage fight with Mr. Lincoln in the 1840s, Butler's post-assassination memories were not embittered by rancor over jobs lost or debts unpaid.

William Butler's son Speed, however, was appointed commissary of subsistence by President Lincoln and became an army major in September 1861. During the period in April 1861 in which Washington was cut off from the North by Confederate sympathizers in Baltimore, "Speed Butler was second man to get through" the blockade, according to John G. Nicolay. "He brought a requisition from Gov Yates for arms from Jeff[erson] Barracks. Order was endorsed by Capt Lyons." Nicolay and young Butler took the requisition to General Winfield Scott, who approved the delivery of munitions to Illinois.23 During the Civil War, a military training facility, Camp Butler, was set up on the east side of Springfield and named after the State Treasurer.

Along with fellow Republican statewide officials - Governor Richard Yates, State Auditor Jesse K. Dubois, and Secretary of State Ozias M. Hatch - he peppered Mr. Lincoln with ideas, complaints and patronage pleas. "Stand firm in the Vallandigham Case The Country will sustain you", Butler and friends telegraphed in June 1863 after President Lincoln had sent Ohio Copperhead Clement Vallandigham across Confederate lines. 24



  1. Roy P. Basler, editor, “James Quay Howard’s Notes on Lincoln”, The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, Volume IV, December 1947, No. 8, p. 396.
  2. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 22 (Conversation with William Butler).
  3. Roy P. Basler, editor, “James Quay Howard’s Notes on Lincoln”, The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, Volume IV, December 1947, No. 8, p. 396-397.
  4. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 23 (Conversation with William Butler).
  5. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 180.
  6. Eugenia Jones Hunt, “My Personal Recollections of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln”, The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, March 1945, p. 238.
  7. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 149.
  8. William E. Barton, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 230.
  9. Edward J. Kempf, Abraham Lincoln’s Philosophy of Common Sense: An Analytical Biography of a Great Mind, Volume I, p. 170.
  10. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 77 (William Jayne, speech to Springfield Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, February 12, 1907).
  11. Edward J. Kempf, Abraham Lincoln’s Philosophy of Common Sense: An Analytical Biography of a Great Mind, Volume I, p. 203.
  12. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 139 (Letter to William Butler, January 26, 1839).
  13. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 141-142 (Letter to William Butler, February 1, 1839).
  14. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 24 (Conversation with William Butler, June 1875).
  15. Emanuel Hertz, The Hidden Lincoln, p. 135 (Letter from William H. Herndon to Jesse W. Weik, January 15, 1886).
  16. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Draft of Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Thomas Ewing, April 7, 1849).
  17. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 46-47 (Letter to Thomas Ewing, May 10, 1849).
  18. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Anson G. Henry to Abraham Lincoln, June 11, 1849).
  19. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Anson G. Henry to Abraham Lincoln, June 15, 1849).
  20. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from William Butler to Abraham Lincoln1, May 16, 1860).
  21. Harry E. Pratt, The Personal Finances of Abraham Lincoln, p. 110-112.
  22. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 23-24 (Conversation with William Butler).
  23. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 36 (Memorandum, April 20, 1861).
  24. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter From William Butler et al. to Abraham Lincoln, June 13, 1863).