Members of Congress: Isaac N. Arnold (1815-1884)

Isaac N. Arnold
Isaac N. Arnold

Isaac N. Arnold “possessed some of Mr. Lincoln’s best qualities,” wrote Treasury official Lucius E. Chittenden. “His kindness of heart and amiability. No man knew Mr. Lincoln more appreciatively than Mr. Arnold. He had known him from the time he came to the bar; had been many times associated with him as counsel, and they had been close friends. Mr. Arnold had ‘wintered and summered’ with him and was consulted by him frequently while he was President.”1

In 1836 Arnold moved from New York, where he was a school teacher, to Chicago, where he opened a law practice and pursued an interest in Democratic politics. He was elected to the State House of Representatives the year Mr. Lincoln left that body. Arnold’s anti-slavery convictions moved him first into the Free-Soil Party and later in the Republican Party. He lost one congressional race before winning election along with Mr. Lincoln in 1860. In Congress, Arnold had a reputation as one of the President’s strongest supporters. Indeed when Congressman Thaddeus Stevens was asked to show a Pennsylvania editor “some member of Congress friendly to Mr. Lincoln’s renomination, Stevens took him to meet Arnold and said “You are the only one I know, and I have come over to introduce my friend to you.”

“Let Abraham Lincoln finish the great work he has begun,” said Arnold delivered a speech on the House floor in favor of Mr. Lincoln’s renomination in March 1864 . “He has borne censure and denunciation for acts for which others were responsible, with a generosity which has extorted from his rivals the declaration, ‘Of all men, Mr. Lincoln is the most unselfish.’ I ask the ardent and impatient friends of freedom to put implicit faith in Abraham Lincoln. If you deem him slow, or if you think he has made mistakes, remember how often time has vindicated his wisdom.”2

Arnold put his thoughts in a letter to a newspaper editor in early May in which he argued that Mr. Lincoln’s renomination was inevitable despite the opposition of powerful interests. “There is no organization among the friends of the President, they are doing nothing; but this action of the people is spontaneous, unprompted, earnest, and sincere. State after state holds its convention, appoints its delegates, and without a dissenting voice instructs them to vote for Mr. Lincoln. This popularity of the President, this unanimity of the people, is confined to no section, but East as well as West, middle state and border state, they all speak once voice, ‘Let us have Lincoln for our candidate.'”3

Arnold’s own congressional renomination ran into trouble. In their biography of Mr. Lincoln, John G. Nicolay and John Hay wrote: “During the progress of the campaign Mr. Lincoln was frequently called upon to assist his friends, to oppose his enemies, and to exercise his powerful influence in appeasing discord in different States and districts. He interfered as little as possible, and always in the interests of the party at large, rather than in those of individuals. He took no account of the personal attitude of candidates towards himself. In the case of those who were among his intimate friends he would go no further than to demand that Government officers should not work against them.”4

In Arnold’s case, he had become involved in a feud with John L. Scripps, a journalist whom Mr. Lincoln had appointed as Chicago’s postmaster. The problem seems to have dated back more than three years. Soon after Mr. Lincoln was inaugurated, Congressman Arnold wrote him: “As the immediate representative of the people of Chicago I desire to be heard in regard to the appointment of Post Master at that place – Usage and custom, I believe have established the rule that the recommendation of the Representative of the District shall be regarded as making a prima-facie case for the appointment”.5

Mr. Lincoln tried to intervene on Arnold’s behalf with Scripps, but according to Hay and Nicolay, “The President would do nothing more than to order the offending postmaster to content himself with the exercise of his own rights as a citizen and a voter and to allow his subordinates to do the same.”6 To Mr. Lincoln, Scripps replied: “That I am opposed to the renomination of Mr. Arnold is true; but that I have, at any time, either directly or indirectly, used my ‘official power’ to defeat his renomination, is utterly untrue…Mr. Arnold well knew the falsity of the charge at the time he preferred it…But he knew what he would do were he similarly situated, and I suppose could not credit the fact; and so he went whining to you about the ‘official power’ of this office being thrown against him…”

President Lincoln replied in turn to Scripps: “Mine to you, was only a copy, with names changed, of what I had said to another Post-Master, on a similar complaint, and the two are the only cases in which that precise complaint has, as yet, been made to me. I think that in these cases I have stated the principle correctly for all public officers, and I certainly wish all would follow it.”7 Noted Hay and Nicolay: “Although Arnold was an intimate and valued friend of the President, he declined to exercise any further pressure upon the postmaster, and Mr. Arnold soon afterwards withdrew from the contest.”8

At the end of his term Arnold was given a Treasury Department appointment in which he served until 1866. The Treasury post wasn’t his first choice. Arnold sought unsuccessfully to succeed Gustave Koerner as Minister to Spain. “I see by the telegraphic dispatches that our friend Gov. Koerner is returning from Spain. If he has resigned, & there is a vacancy in that Mission I would gratefully accept it,” wrote Arnold in September 1864. “I do not desire to press the matter, & I hope You will regard this note as a suggestion, that the appointment would be gratifying, & not as indicating that I would embarrass You in the least by any urgent request in the matter”9 Then in February 1865 Arnold wrote “I respectfully suggest that the office of solicitor of the court of claims is now vacant.”10 The next month, Arnold again wrote the President: “After some reflection I have concluded to accept the suggestion you kindly made last night, & I shall gratefully accept the position you named; unless indeed, something else should be more agreeable to you. I shall go home & prepare to enter upon the duties whenever required. With great respect & regard, I will say “God bless you in your great work & goodbye.”11

Like President Lincoln, Arnold was a firm opponent of slavery and introduced a constitutional amendment in the House to abolish slavery. “To him belongs the credit of making the first suggestion in this [1864] Congress to abolish slavery in the United States by an amendment of the Constitution,” wrote journalist Noah Brooks. He described Arnold as “an intelligent, clear-headed man with sound judgment, an affected speech, and undying faith in Od Abe and the Great Western Ship Canal.”12 Arnold had also a strong proponent of an emancipation proclamation in the summer of 1862. Senator Orville H. Browning wrote in his diary: “Met Arnold between the War Department and the Presidents. He is eager for the President to issue a proclamation declaring all the slaves of rebels free. He thinks it would ‘fire the public heart,’ encourage enlistments and go far towards ending the war. I have always been in favor of seizing and appropriating all the slaves of rebels that we could lay our hands on, and make any valuable use of, but I have no faith in proclamations or laws unless we follow them by force and actually do the thing – and when done we don’t need either the proclamation or law.”13

Historian Gabor Boritt observed that President Lincoln had a special interest in this Illinois-Michigan Canal. Congressman Arnold “acted as the chief legislative promoter of the measure. Arnold was not only a Congressman from Illinois at the time, but also an attorney for the Canal that the young Lincoln had worked hard to have built. Arnold evidently obtained the Chief Executive’s discreet support for the new venture very early. The 1861 annual message to Congress spoke of the military need for navigation improvements and specifically mentioned the Great Lakes region.” Arnold followed up but neither he nor the President were able to move needed legislation through Congress.14

In late May 1863, Arnold urged the sacking of Halleck. Arnold had suggested that Halleck be replaced – and blamed him for the limbo of unassigned Generals Benjamin F. Butler, John C. Frémont, & Franz Sigel. Mr. Lincoln replied to Arnold at length. He not only closed the letter “Your friend” but pointedly wrote “now my good friend” in the middle of the letter:

Your letter advising me to dismiss Gen. Halleck is received. If the public believes, as you say, that he has driven Fremont, Butler, and Sigel from the service, they believe what I know to be false; so that if I were to yield to it, it would only be to instantly beset by some other demand based on another falsehood equally gross. You know yourself that Fremont was relieved at his own request, before Halleck could have had any thing to do with it – went out near the end of June, while Halleck only came in near the end of July, I know equally well that no wish of Halleck’s had any thing to do with the removal of Butler or Sigel. Sigel, like Fremont, was relieved at his own request, pressed upon me almost constantly for six months, and upon complaints that could have been made as justly by almost any corps commander in the army, and more justly by some. So much for the way they got out. Now a word as to their not getting back. In the early Spring, Gen. Fremont sought active service again; and, as it seemed to me, sought it in a very good, and reasonable spirit. But he holds the highest rank in the Army, except McClellan, so that I could not well offer him a subordinate command. Was I to displace Hooker, or Hunter, or Rosecrans, or Grant, or Banks? If not, what as I to do? And similar to this, is the case of both the others. One month after Gen. Butler’s return, I offered him a position in which I thought and still think, he could have done himself the highest credit, and the country the greatest service, but he declined it. When Gen. Sigel was relieved, at his own request as I have said, of course I had to put another in command of his corps. Can I instantly thrust that other out to put him in again?

And now my good friend, let me turn your eyes upon another point. Whether Gen. Grant shall or shall not consummate the capture of Vicksburg, his campaign from the beginning of this month up to the twenty second day of it, is one of the most brilliant in the world. His corps commanders, & Division commanders, in part, are McClernand, McPherson, Sherman, Steele, Hovey, Blair & Logan. And yet taking Gen. Grant & these seven of his generals, and you can scarcely name one of them that has not been constantly denounced and opposed by the same men who are now so anxiously to get Halleck out, and Fremont & Butler & Sigel in. I believe no one of them went through the Senate easily, and certainly one failed to get through at all. I am compelled to take a more impartial and unprejudiced view of things. Without claiming to be your superior, which I do not, my position enables me to understand my duty in all these matters better than you possibly can, and I hope do not yet doubt my integrity.15

As one of the President’s closest friends and chief promoters in Congress, Arnold had special access to the President. “Tonight the President talking with Arnold and me, told a magnificent Western law story about a steam doctor’s Bill,” wrote presidential aide John Hay in his diary.16 Arnold himself used his own personal interactions with Mr. Lincoln as the basis for one of the first Lincoln biographies – The Life of Abraham Lincoln.

In this book Arnold testified to Mr. Lincoln’s religious convictions which other contemporaries denied. Arnold contended that “no man, clergyman or otherwise, could be found so familiar with [the Bible] as he. This is apparent, both in his conversation and his writings. There is hardly a speech or state of his in which allusions and illustrations taken from the Bible do not appear.”17 Arnold wrote: “No more reverent Christian than he ever sat in the executive chair, not excepting Washington. He was by nature religious; full of religious sentiment. It is not claimed that he was orthodox. For creeds and dogmas he cared little. But in the great fundamental principles of the Christian religion he was a firm believer. Belief in the existence of God; in the immortality of the soul; in the Bible as the revelation of God to man; in the efficacy and duty of prayer; in reverence toward the Almighty and in love and charity to man, was the basis of his religion.”18


  1. L. E. Chittenden, Personal Reminiscences, 1840-1890, p. 424.
  2. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 562.
  3. Isaac N. Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 388 (Letter from Isaac Arnold to the New York Evening Post, May 2, 1864).
  4. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume IX, p. 361.
  5. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Isaac Arnold to Abraham Lincoln, March 21,1861).
  6. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume IX, p. 361.
  7. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VII, p. 453 (Letter to John L. Scripps, July 20. 1864).
  8. John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, Volume IX, p. 361.
  9. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Isaac Arnold to Abraham Lincoln Sept. 7. 1864).
  10. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Isaac N. Arnold to Abraham Lincoln, February 28, 1865).
  11. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Isaac N. Arnold to Abraham Lincoln, March 13, 1865).
  12. P. J. Staudenraus, editor, Mr. Lincoln’s Washington: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 307 (March 9, 1864).
  13. Theodore Calvin Pease and James G. Randall, editor, The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, Volume I, 1850-1864, p. 561-562.
  14. Gabor S. Boritt, Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream, p. 212-213.
  15. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 230-231 (Letter to Isaac Arnold, May 26, 1863).
  16. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editor, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 124 (December 10, 1863).
  17. Isaac N. Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 21.
  18. Isaac N. Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 446-447.