Members of Congress: Orville H. Browning (1806-1881)

In September 1864, Orville H. Browning wrote a friend that he was never “able to persuade myself that [President Lincoln] was big enough for his position.”1 One of the mysteries of the Lincoln-Browning friendship is that Browning seemed to have so little real respect for a legal and political associate that he had known over three decades. Browning had much in common with Mr. Lincoln – Kentucky birth, legal occupation, Whig politics – but their association seemed tinged by jealousy on Browning’s part. It was a jealousy that Mr. Lincoln must have sensed but chose to overlook. “The President liked his company, thought it seemed that along in the fall of’64 the President came to look at Browning as one of the most peculiarly befuddled individuals that had come out of the war, and he became less free in outpourings of mind and spirit to Browning,” wrote Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg.2

“Of their earlier relations we know comparatively little, but nothing to contradict the natural supposition that the handsome, stately, suave college man and finished orator regarded himself as superior to the homely, self-educated, rough and ready stump-speaker,” wrote historian Thomas Calvin Pease, who edited Browning’s extensive diaries. “One judges that Lincoln must have acquiesced in Browning’s implied claim of superiority, though not without a keener insight into his friend than Browning imagined. At all events the entries in the diary, 1854-1860, deal with Lincoln so slightly as to suggest that Browning took refuge in its pages to ignore a constantly waxing political rival.”3

But Mr. Lincoln clearly paid attention to Browning. Portrait Painter Thomas Hicks, for whom Mr. Lincoln sat after the Republican National Convention in the spring of 1860, later wrote that “the one man, in those days, who was always with him, with whom he advised, in whom he confided, with whom he talked over the Constitution of the United States in its relations to slavery, the condition of the South, and the mutterings of the slave-owners, whose views accorded with his own, whom he held by the hand as a brother, was Orville H. Browning of Quincy. The future President cracked his jokes and told inimitable stories, by way of illustrating some question or argument, with a hundred men, during the week I was there, and always in his quaint way, with aptness and an abundant good-humor. But when he and Browning were alone together, they discussed with thoughtful consideration many events which might occur, among which were the threatening of an unnecessary civil war, the cruelties of which, fortunately, could not be foreseen, in those peaceful days, by his friends and neighbors in the quiet town of Springfield.”4

In later life, Browning boasted of the relationship. “The personal relations between him and myself were of a very intimate Character for thirty years,” Browning wrote an early Lincoln biographer.5 There was ample evidence that he was right. Prior to the debate between Mr. Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in Quincy in 1858, German-American politician Carl Schurz arrived on the train with Mr. Lincoln. Schurz recalled: “When we arrived at Quincy, we found a large number of friends waiting for him, and there was much hand-shaking and many familiar salutations again. Then they got him into a carriage, much against his wish, for he said that he would prefer to ‘foot it to Browning’s,’ an old friend’s house, where he was to have supper and a quiet night. But the night was by no means quiet outside. The blare of brass bands and the shouts of enthusiastic, and not in all cases quite sober. Democrats and Republicans, cheering and hurrahing for their respective champions, did not cease until the small hours.”6

Browning recorded in his diary on February 9, 1861 – two days before Mr. Lincoln left Springfield for Washington: “At night I called at the Chenery House and had an interview of an hour with Mr Lincoln We discussed the state of the Country expressing our opinions fully and freely. He agreed entirely with me in believing that no good results would follow the border State Convention now in session in Washington, but evil rather, as increased excitement would follow when it broke up without having accomplished any thing. He agreed it broke up without having accomplished any thing. He agreed with me no concession by the free States short of a surrender of every thing worth preserving, and contending for would satisfy the South, and that [Kentuckian John] Crittendens proposed amendment to the Constitution in the form proposed ought not to be made, and he agreed with me that far less evil & bloodshed would result from an effort to maintain the Union and the Constitution, than from disruption and the formation of two confederacies.” Browning observed: “I expressed my views very freely, and there was no point upon which we differed. This is the first interview I have had with him since the election, and though brief it was satisfactory. I found him firmer than I expected.”7

The memoranda written by John G. Nicolay during the early months of the Lincoln Administration attest to the way that Mr. Lincoln used his long-time friend Browning as his eyes and ears. So did Browning’s later testimony to those days. “Browning, of all the trials I have since I came here, none begin to compare with those I had between the inauguration and the fall of Fort Sumpter. They were so great that could I have anticipated them, I would not have believed it possible to survive them,” Browning said Mr. Lincoln told him in early July 1861. “The first thing that was handed to me after I entered this room, when I came from the inauguration was the letter from Maj.[Robert] Anderson saying that their provisions would be exhausted before an expedition could be sent to their relief.”8

Though the Senate’s newest member, Browning became President Lincoln’s link to the chamber during the special war session that month. A week later, Nicolay wrote: “The President, Gov. Seward and Mr. Browning were together, and had considerable conversation about the case of Mr. Harvey.” James E. Harvey was a journalist who had been appointed U.S. Minister to Portugal Nicolay recorded that after a caucus of Republican Senators, “Mr. Browning came this evening more particularly to tell the President that he was satisfied that even if the Senate caucus should vote to take no action, that he had heard individual Senators declare their purpose to take the responsibility and themselves introduce such resolutions as would cause an overhauling and public investigation of the whole matter.”9 He also was privy to Mr. Lincoln’s thinking and sometimes was called on to do the President’s bidding – as in July 1861 when President Lincoln asked him to support journalist John W. Forney for secretary of the Senate.

Browning was also privy to the President’s moods. He told John G. Nicolay that Mr. Lincoln “always had these spells of melancholy. I have frequently found him in Washington in these very moods. And many times even there, when in these moods, he used to talk to me about his domestic troubles. He has several times told me there that he was constantly under great apprehension lest his wife should do something which would bring him into disgrace.”10 Browning had enough contact with Mrs. Lincoln to tell Nicolay: “As for poor Mrs. Lincoln I have for several years past considered her demented.”11

Browning later told Nicolay: “I recollect one occasion very distinctly when I went to his room in the Executive Mansion and found him in a spell of deep melancholy, such as I have attempted to describe. After talking to me awhile about his sources of domestic sadness, he sent one of the boys to get a volume of Hood’s poems. It was brought to him and he read to me several of those sad pathetic pieces – I suppose because they were accurate pictures of his own experiences and feelings. Between his reading and our talking, I gradually got him into a more comfortable frame of mind, and by [the] time I left him, he seemed quite cheerful and happy again.”12

Browning’s friendship was unique in that his relations with Mr. Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln were almost equally friendly. Many of Mr. Lincoln’s Springfield friends were no longer on good terms with his wife by the time the Lincolns moved to Washington. But the Brownings frequently visited Mrs. Lincoln – with and without his wife. Browning’s special standing with the family was particularly important when Willie Lincoln died on February 20, 1862. Browning came into Nicolay’s office that afternoon and was told of the death of the President’s favorite son: “He went and saw Mrs. L and promised at once to bring up Mrs. B,” Nicolay wrote. “Later I went to see the Prest. who had lain down to quiet T[ad] and asked him if I should charge Browning with the direction of the funeral. ‘Consult with Browning’ said he.”13 In this case and others, Browning’s relationship with the Lincolns was enhanced by his religious convictions. Browning’s family frequently worshiped at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church – and sometimes went home with the Lincolns to the White House after church services. It was natural and easy for Browning to arrange for the church’s pastor, Phineas D. Gurley, to preside at the White House funeral.

“Breakfasted at the Presidents — then came to Senate,” read his Browning’s diary the next day. “After dinner returned to the Presidents and remained all night At 6-7 & 9 PM went in Prests carriage to Rail Road depot to meet Mrs. [Elizabeth] Edwards of Springfield, Illinois — She was on the 9 Oclock train.”14 As such diary entries suggested, Browning had more of a social relationship with the President than a true political alliance. Many important political events and revealing personal moments were recorded by Browning in his diary – because Browning had access to the White House at times when it was closed to public business.. Browning recorded a night in early 1863 when he went to dinner at Secretary of State William H. Seward’s home – located across Lafayette Square from the White House:

We played whist with Mrs Seward and Miss Fanny till 9 O’clock and the Seward and I went over to the Presidents. We found Genl Butler there who had just arrived from New Orleans. He read to us his parting address to the people of New Orleans, and Genl Banks’ proclamation upon assuming command. His conversation indicated he was a very ultra abolitionist. He gave it as his opinion that the only way to put down the rebellion was to destroy slavery. This class of people do not seem to know that armed rebellion stands between us and slavery, and that to get at the latter we must first crush the former.”15

Browning’s diary is spiced with such insights into presidential thinking. “A very warm day. After night went to the Presidents in same way & returned at 9 perspiring freely with walking. Had long talk with the President about the war — He told me he was thinking of taking the field himself, and suggested several plans of operation One was to threaten all their positions at the same time with superior force, and if they weakened one to strengthen another seize and hold the one weakened,” Browning wrote in mid-January 1862. “Another was to shell them out of their intrenchments with guns that would throw very large shell over two miles — the enemy having none of that size Said Pensacola had gone to the Gulf to operate against New Orleans, and the movement from Cairo on Columbus was only a feint to aid Buel at Bowling Green.16

Although they often clashed on issues and policies, Mr. Lincoln seemed to enjoy debating with Browning. For example, in September of 1861, Senator Browning wrote President Lincoln objecting to his reversal of General John C. Frémont’s emancipation of slaves in Missouri. The President went to considerable lengths to rebut his views, closing a long letter, “Your friend as ever”:

Yours of the 17th is just received; and coming from you, I confess it astonishes me. That you should object to my adhering to a law, which you had assisted in making, and presenting to me, less than a month before, is odd enough. But this is a very small part. Genl. Fremont’s proclamation, as to confiscation of property, and the liberation of slaves, is purely political, and not within the range of military law, or necessity. If a commanding General finds a necessity to seize the farm of a private owner, for a pasture, an encampment, or a fortification, he has the right to do so, and to so hold it, as long as the necessity lasts; and this is within military law, because within military necessity. But to say the farm shall no longer belong to the owner, or his heirs forever; and this as well when the farm is not needed for military purposes as when it is, is purely political, without the savor of military law about it. And the same is true of slaves. If the General needs them, he can seize them, and use them; but when the need is past, it is not for him to fix their permanent future condition. That must be settled according to laws made by law-makers, and not by military proclamations. The proclamation in the point in question, is simply ‘dictatorship.’ It assumes that the general may do anything he pleases – confiscate the lands and free the slaves of loyal people, as well as of disloyal ones. And going the whole figure I have no doubt would be more popular with some thoughtless people, than that which has been done! But I cannot assume this reckless position; nor allow others to assume it on my responsibility. You speak of it as being the only means of saving the government of the U.S. – any government of Constitution and laws, – wherein a General, or a President, may make permanent rules of property by proclamation?
I do not say Congress might not with propriety pass a law, on the point, just as General Fremont proclaimed. I do not say I might not, as a member of Congress, vote for it. What I object to, is, that I as President, shall expressly or impliedly seize and exercise the permanent legislative functions of the government.

So much as to principle. Now as to policy. No doubt the thing was popular in some quarters, and would have been more so if it had been a general declaration of emancipation. The Kentucky Legislature would not budge till that proclamation was modified; and Gen. Anderson telegraphed me that on the news of Gen. Fremont having actually issued deeds of manumission, a whole company of our Volunteers threw down their arms and disbanded. I was so assured, as to think it probable, that the very arms we had furnished Kentucky would be turned against us. I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we can not hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capitol. On the contrary, if you will give up your restlessness for new positions, and back me manfully on the grounds upon which you and other kind friends gave me the election, and have approved in my public documents, we shall go through triumphantly.

You must not understand I took my course on the proclamation because of Kentucky. I took the same ground in a private letter to General Fremont before I heard from Kentucky.

You think I am inconsistent because I did not also forbid Gen. Fremont to shoot men under the proclamation. I understand that part to be within military law; but I also think, and so privately wrote Gen. Fremont, that it is impolitic in this, that our adversaries have the power, and will certainly exercise it, to shoot as many of our men as we shoot of theirs. I did not say this in the public letter, because it is a subject I prefer not to discuss in the hearing of our enemies.17

A year later, however, Browning and the President’s positions on slavery reversed. The President proclaimed a draft emancipation – and Browning repeatedly opposed his actions as unwise, writing in his diary the night before it was officially proclaimed on January 1, 1863: “There is no hope. The proclamation will come – God grant that it may not be productive of the mischief I fear.”18

Browning seemed to relish political advancement – but preferred not to show too much interest in it. He clearly had deep reservations about the political potential and policy wisdom of his less educated, less polished friend. In 1860, Browning preferred Missourian Edwin Bates for the Republican presidential nomination. Nevertheless, Browning was included in the Illinois Republican delegation to the Chicago convention. Richard “Oglesby and others protested the inclusion of Browning, who thought that Edward Bates would be more acceptable to the South,” wrote Oglesby biographer Mark A. Plummer. “But Lincoln correctly judged that Browning should be with the delegation where they could keep an eye on him rather than on the outside. He trusted Browning’s sense of obligation to the unit rule, and he may have been looking ahead to the need to bring Bates’ Know-Nothing supporters into the party.”19

Indeed, after the convention, Browning did act as a bridge to motivate Bates’ involvement in the campaign – and later to getting Bates to meet with Mr. Lincoln about a Cabinet appointment. Bates recorded in his diary at the end of May: “A few days ago, O.H. Browning, of Quincy, (who was one of the Ills: Delegates to Chicago, and very much my political friend) called to see me (having written me an urgent letter which reached me the same day he called) to consult me on the subject of Mr. Lincoln’s nomination, and get me to take an active part [in] support of it, by taking the stump in Illinois. He said that he came not only on his own account, but urged by some of the leading Republicans of Illinois and several Delegates from New England.” Bates declined to speak but agreed to write a letter on Mr. Lincoln’s behalf.20

Once Mr. Lincoln was elected, Browning tried to be circumspect in his own ambitions for patronage, but wrote Mr. Lincoln when a vacancy appeared on the U.S. Supreme Court. Historian David M. Silver wrote: “Browning felt a strong personal distaste for what he was doing and told Lincoln that he was unwilling for everyone to know that he had solicited the post. ‘I am willing you shall know that I do desire the office – I am not willing that the world shall,’ he wrote the President. He feared that his ambition might become publicly known, and he asked Lincoln to spare that humiliation. He pointed out that although powerful pressures would be exerted, ‘I know that you can do as you please, and that the great body of people will not care a fig who the appointee is.’ Ending with the thought that ‘The whole matter is in your hands,’ Orville H. Browning was ready too rest his case. After this outburst Browning continued writing letters to the President (usually four pages), but he did not again refer to his desire for a justiceship.’21

Browning’s wife had no such compunction about pressing the case. She desperately wanted him to be named to the Supreme Court and so wrote Mr. Lincoln in the spring of 1861. So did her husband. Instead he was named to the Senate – where friends of David Davis feared that he was using his proximity to and influence with the President to advance his prospects for the Court. The Missouri congressional delegation did register their support. In a desperate bid to prevent his appointment, Leonard Swett rushed to Washington in the summer of 1862 and nullified any patronage obligations that might be owed Swett if Davis would get the Supreme Court nod. Davis did and in the fall Browning lost his Senate seat.

Browning’s political ambitions were cooled somewhat by his defeat for reelection, but revived again in late 1864 when the Chief Justiceship of the Supreme Court opened and it appeared likely that the position of Secretary of the Interior would be also be vacant. For the Supreme Court vacancy, Browning hardly seemed in the running. After Chief Justice Roger B. Taney died in October 1864, Browning, according to his diary, “Called on the President and urged on him the appointment of Mr Stanton as chief Justice. He said nothing in reply to what I urged except to admit Mr Stantons ability, and fine qualifications. I think he was pleased with what I said and I have some hope that he will adopt my suggestion.”22 Instead, Mr. Lincoln chose former Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. For the Interior spot, Browning had serious competition from Illinois State Auditor Jesse K. Dubois and Iowa Senator James Harlan. Browning seemed curiously maladroit, however, in building political capital for such an appointment – and no Presbyterians came to his assistance as Methodists did successfully for Harlan. It was the second time Browning lost the position – it had been unreliably rumored to be slated to succeed Caleb B. Smith in December 1862. Browning finally got the appointment in 1866 – only after Mr. Lincoln died, and Harlan resigned from the post.

Browning meanwhile had a front row seat for the observing President Lincoln during the Presidency. He was around the White House when Confederate troops under Jubal Early threatened Washington in mid-July, 1864. Browning wrote in his diary:

“The President concluded to desert his tormentors today & travel around the defenses. Gillmore arrived & reported. Wright & staff also came in.

At three o’clock P.M. the President came in bringing the news that the enemy’s advance was at Ft Stevens on the 7th Street road. He was in the Fort when it was first attacked, standing upon the parapet. A soldier roughly ordered him to get down or he would have his head knocked off. I can see a couple of columns of smoke just north of the White House. It is thought to be Silver Spring in flames – I was at Mr. Blair’s this evening: Fox says Gen. Wright tells him that Silver Spring is not burnt.

The President is in very good feather this evening. He seems not in the least concerned about the safety of Washington. With him the only concern seems to be whether we can bag or destroy this force in our front.23

During this period, Browning’s primary ambition seemed financial and he used his access to the White House to advance it. He turned down one administration job because the compensation was inadequate. When he needed help with his financial schemes, Browning knew where to go and where he had entree, however. His scruples did not prevent him from using his connections. He sought relief for his legal clients and help for business clients. Among Mr. Lincoln’s Illinois friends, Browning was not alone in trying to use his friendship for financial gain. But certainly he was the most persistent in personally asking his favors from the President.

Nevertheless, Browning seemed to be reaching the limits of his influence. Browning wrote on January 30, 1865 that his partner, General James Singleton, has “brought back contracts for seven millions dollars wroth of Cotton, Tobacco, Rosin and Turpentine, which will make us rich if we can only get it out.”24 On February 1, “Singleton & I went to the Presidents, and had a talk about public affairs – Singleton reporting who he saw, and what was said in Richmond. He then showed [President Lincoln] his contracts, and told him he only wanted protection in getting out what he had bought – the whole to be paid for in Green backs. He expressed himself pleased with what was done – said he wanted to get out all he could, and send in all the Green backs he could exchange, and that he would do for us all that he could.”25

This transaction was apparently interrupted by Congressman Elihu B. Washburne, who opposed such traffic in contraband. Washburne and President Lincoln had a heated discussion on deals like the one engineered by Singleton and took up a presidential challenge to have General Ulysses S. Grant put a stop to it. “By the next boat, subsequent to this interview, the Congressman left Washington for the headquarters of General Grant. He returned shortly afterward to the city, and so likewise did [Joseph] Mattox and Singleton. Grant had countermanded the permits,” wrote Ward Hill Lamon.26

Browning also intervened on behalf of a client, Confederate pirate John Y. Beall, several times in February 1865. Despite his reputed calls on President Lincoln, however, the answer was: “General [John] Dix may dispose of the case as he pleases – I will not interfere!” Beall was executed before the end of the month.27

Carl Sandburg’s description of Browning’s behavior seems apt: “Wearing a serenity somewhat blank and colorless, almost empty of humor, precise in the forms and manners, scrupulous and overly vain about his scruples, busy as a proverbial busy bee, Browning went here and there, saw everybody who was anybody, made the entries in his diary, two lines, ten lines, without elation or melancholy, earnest and careful.” But Browning did not lift a finger to help reelect his friend and when he was called upon to give a speech in his home town of Quincy, complained Sandburg, “The name of Browning’s intimate personal friend and political benefactor, then a candidate for re-election, escaped his mention.”28


  1. Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia, p. 39.
  2. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume III, p. 276.
  3. Theodore Calvin Pease and James G. Randall, editor, The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, Volume I, 1850-1864, p. xvi.
  4. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 603 (Thomas Hicks).
  5. Allen C. Guelzo, “Holland’s Informants: The Construction of Josiah Holland’s ‘Life of Abraham Lincoln’”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 23, Number 1, Winter 2002, p. 22 (Letter of Orville H. Browning to Josiah G. Holland, June 8, 1865).
  6. Carl Schurz, Reminiscences of Carl Schurz, Volume II, p. 89-98.
  7. Theodore Calvin Pease and James G. Randall, editors, The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, Volume I, 1850-1864, p. 453 (February 7, 1861).
  8. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 46-47 (Memorandum, July 3, 1861).
  9. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 48 (Memorandum, July 13, 1861).
  10. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 3 (Conversation with Orville H. Browning, June 17, 1875).
  11. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 3 (Conversation with Orville H. Browning, June 17, 1875).
  12. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 4 (Conversation with Orville H. Browning, June 17, 1875).
  13. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 71 (Memorandum, February 20, 1862).
  14. Theodore Calvin Pease and James G. Randall, editor, The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, Volume I, 1850-1864, p. 531 (February 25, 1862).
  15. Theodore Calvin Pease and James G. Randall, editor, The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, Volume I, 1850-1864, p. 609 (January 2, 1863).
  16. Theodore Calvin Pease and James G. Randall, editor, The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, Volume I, 1850-1864, p. 523 (January 12, 1862).
  17. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 531-533 (Letter to Orville H. Browning, September 22, 1861).
  18. Theodore Calvin Pease and James G. Randall, editor, The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, Volume I, 1850-1864, p. 607 (December 31, 1862).
  19. Mark A. Plummer, Richard J. Oglesby, Lincoln’s Rail-Splitter, p. 43.
  20. Howard K. Beale, editor, The Diary of Edward Bates, p. May 31, 1860.
  21. David M. Silver, Lincoln’s Supreme Court, p. 70-71.
  22. Theodore Calvin Pease and James G. Randall, editor, The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, Volume I, 1850-1864, p. 688.
  23. Theodore Calvin Pease and James G. Randall, editor, The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, Volume I, 1850-1864, p. 677 (July 16, 1864).
  24. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume IV, p. 52.
  25. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume IV, p. 52.
  26. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 187.
  27. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume IV, p. 132.
  28. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume III, p. 277.