Senate Campaign of 1858

The Lovejoy problem was not the only dispute among Republicans which Mr. Lincoln had to mediate. Republicans in Chicago were polarized by Mayor John Wentworth, who seemed to enjoy picking fights with fellow politicians and fellow newspaper editors. These feuds required Mr. Lincoln’s repeated intervention. “I do not entirely appreciate what the republican papers of Chicago are so constantly saying against Long John,” Mr. Lincoln wrote fellow attorney Henry C. Whitney. “I consider those papers truly devoted to the republican cause, and not unfriendly to me; but I do think that more of what they say against ‘Long John’ is dictated by personal malice than [they] themselves are conscious of. We can not afford to lose the services of ‘Long John’ and I do believe the unrelenting warfare made upon him, is injuring our cause.”1

Mr. Lincoln had a personal reason to want Wentworth to be mollified. During the 1857 mayoral campaign Wentworth had said in one Chicago speech: “I’ll tell you why they hated me. It is because they know that I shall leave No stone unturned to put that man (pointing to Lincoln) in the seat now disgraced by Stephen A. Douglass.”2 Rumors, however, developed that Wentworth wanted the 1858 Republican Senatorial nomination for himself and had a strategy to elect his supporters to the State Legislature.

Many of Mr. Lincoln’s friends were Wentworth’s enemies. “So his enemies and Lincoln’s friends resolved to outwit the Chicago manipulator by the simple device of declaring in the Republican platform that Lincoln was the Republican candidate for Senator. Such a thing never had been done before in any State – even the Douglas Convention had not thus named their idol – and Wentworth could not well have foreseen so unprecedented a move,” wrote biographer Albert Beveridge. “It would have availed him nothing if he had suspected it, for the Chairman of the Republican State Committee, Norman B. Judd, was leader of the Chicago faction hostile to Wentworth, and head of the Cook County delegation to the State Convention at Springfield. Also, on this delegation was Charles L. Wilson, editor of the Chicago Journal, and a violent antagonist of the Mayor. As State Chairman, Judd knew and had great influence with most Republican politicians of the State, nearly all of whom were delegates, and he hated Wentworth only less than he hated Douglas.”3

During this election, Mr. Lincoln got a reputation for asking for and ignoring the political advice of his friends. The first example, according to Herndon was when Lincoln met in the State Capitol law library and read them the speech he expected to deliver at the Republican State Convention on June 16. They were worried about the speech’s radical tone and advised against it. “Friends,” Mr. Lincoln replied, “this thing has been retarded long enough. The time has come when these sentiments should be uttered; and if it is decreed that I should go down because of this speech, then let me go down linked to the truth – let me die in the advocacy of what is just and right.”4

According to historian Don E. Fehrenbacher, attorney Leonard Swett “never departed from his belief that Lincoln invited certain defeat in 1858 with the ‘unfortunate’ and ‘inappropriate’ doctrine which he enunciated at the beginning of the campaign.5 Swett later recalled: “In the Summer of 1859 when he was dining with a party of his intimate friends at Bloomington the subject of his Springfield speech was discussed. We all insisted it was a great mistake, but he justified himself, and finally said, ‘Well Gentlemen, you may think that Speech was a mistake, but I never have believed it was, and you will see the day when you will consider it was the wisest thing I ever said…”6

Republican leader Norman Judd remembered a conversation he had with Mr. Lincoln a few weeks after the speech whom they discussed its printing. “Well Lincoln had I seen – that Speech I would have made you Strike out that house divided part”. Replied Mr. Lincoln: “You would – would you Judd.”7 A man named Doctor Long confronted Mr. Lincoln in his law office and complained bitterly about the speech. “Well Doct -, If I had to draw a pen across and erase my whole life from Existence & all I did; and I had one poor gift or choice left, as to what I should Save from the wreck, I should choose that speech and leave it to the world unerased.”8

Before the second debate at Freeport, Mr. Lincoln again met with Republican advisers and expounded on five questions which he intended to ask Douglas. A legend grew up that Mr. Lincoln defied his advisers in propounding these questions. Fehrenbacher wrote: “The story goes that when he submitted the latter to the scrutiny of certain advisers, they shook their heads at [question] number two. It would give Douglas a chance to increase his popularity in antislavery circles, they warned. It might easily cost Lincoln the election. But Lincoln, we are told, waved the protests aside and declared, ‘I am after bigger game. The battle of 1860 is worth a hundred of this.'” However, maintained Fehrenbacher, “no part of the story can be substantiated by contemporary testimony.”9

“The fact is that Lincoln did not decide to ask the question, but to ask questions – partly as a matter of quid pro quo, and partly as a way of taking the offensive. Many of his friends thought he had done too much backpedaling in the Ottawa debate. Far from advocating restraint, they were, like the managers of a sluggish prize fighter, imploring him to ‘open up’ in the next round,” wrote Fehrenbacher.10

The 1858 debates with Senator Douglas caused Mr. Lincoln’s friends much apprehension – even though they were the agents for his debate challenge. It was Bloomington businessman Jesse W. Fell who urged Mr. Lincoln to challenge Douglas and Chicago attorney Norman Judd who delivered the challenge. But they were worried about his ability to handle the nation’s premier debater. Isaac Arnold wrote that Mr. Lincoln became “conscious that some of his party friends distrusted his ability to meet successfully a man whom, as the Democrats declared and believed, had never had his equal on the stump. Seeing an old friend from Vermillion County, Lincoln came up, and shaking hands, inquired the news. His friends replied: ‘All looks well, our friends are wide awake, but ?,’ he continued, ‘they are looking forward with some anxiety to these approaching joint discussions with Douglas.” Chicago attorney Arnold reported that Mr. Lincoln immediately understood the “apprehensions of his friends” and proceeded to relate a story:

My friend, sit down a minute, and I will tell you a story….You and I, as we have traveled the circuit together attending court, have often seen two men about to fight. One of them, the big, or the little giant, as the case may be, is noisy, and boastful; he jumps high in the air, strikes his feet together, smites his fists, brags about what he is going to do, and tries hard to skeer the other man. The other says not a word… his arms are at his side, his fists are clenched, his teeth set, his head settled firmly on his shoulders, he saves his breath and strength for the struggle. This man will whip, just as sure as the fight comes off.11

In the first of the Lincoln Douglas debates in 1858, Mr. Lincoln described the “friends of freedom” and the “pretended friends” of the Declaration of Independence. He repeatedly referred to Judge Douglas as his “friend” and his listeners as “my friends.” Mr. Lincoln ended the Senate campaign in Springfield on October 30: “My friends, to-day closes the discussions of this canvas. The planting and the culture are over; and there remains but the preparation, and the harvest. I stand here surrounded by friends – some political, all personal friends, I trust. May I be indulged, in this closing scene, to say a few words of myself.”12

Both debaters needed their friends in this contest, but it was a telegram from Douglas to former Lincoln ally Usher F. Linder on August 25 1848 that best illustrated their neediness to the public: “The hell-hounds are on my track. For God’s sake, Linder, come and help me fight them.”13 Linder was thereafter known as “For-God’s-sake-Linder.”

Mr. Lincoln had just experienced what he might justly have considered an act of betrayal by friends. Kentucky Senator Thomas Crittenden, whom Mr. Lincoln later said “I have always loved with an affection as tender and enduring as I have ever loved any man,” had written a very influential letter in support of Douglas’s reelection. It was a deliberate and conscious attempt to derail the Republican campaign effort, especially among former Whigs. Robert W. Johannsen, biographer of Stephen Douglas, explained how two men whom Mr. Lincoln regarded as friends, killed his Senate candidacy:

“Early in July, Lincoln asked John J. Crittenden to clarify reports that the Kentucky Senator was anxious that Douglas be re-elected. ‘You have no warmer friends that here in Illinois,’ Lincoln stated. He was uneasy lest Crittenden’s influence be exerted on behalf of his rival. Rather bluntly, he warned the Kentuckian ‘that you would better be hands off!’ There was enough substance to the report to give Lincoln cause for uneasiness. In waning days of Congress the month before, Crittenden had urged Trumbull ‘to have no controversy with Douglas.’ Not long afterward, he assured [John T.] Harris that he was prepared to express his views in Douglas’ favor ‘in any mode in which they would be most effective.’ On the same day that Lincoln wrote Crittenden, Harris urged Douglas to consult with the Kentuckian as soon as possible, predicting that his support would be worth 20,000 votes to the Douglas campaign. Douglas moved quickly. [T. Lyle] Dickey recalled a conversation with Crittenden in which the latter lauded Douglas’ ‘courage and patriotism’ on the Lecompton question, ‘at the Sacrifice of old party associations [and] in the face of the bristling bayonets of the Republicans and defiance of the power and patronage’ of the administration. Dickey wrote to Crittenden and asked him to confirm these sentiments.14

Crittenden’s response was to provide a letter of support for Douglas which he sent Dickey and a letter of rebuke for Lincoln in which he maintained that the reelection of Douglas was be “a vindication of the great cause of popular rights & public justice.”15

Mr. Lincoln also had contended in 1858 with implicit support of Douglas from New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley. Mr. Lincoln’s friends rallied behind him against eastern interlopers. Historian Don E. Fehrenbacher wrote: “Not satisfied with presenting their case in letter and editorials, the Republican leaders of Illinois prepared to employ more formal means of rebuffing the Greeley faction. ‘We must make them understand that Lincoln is our man,’ said the prominent German-American, Gustave Koerner.”16 When William Herndon wrote abolitionists Theodore Parker after the election, his second reason for Mr. Lincoln’s defeat was “Greeley never gave us one single, solitary, manly life. On the contrary, his silence was his opposition.”17 In a letter to Senator Lyman Trumbull, Mr. Lincoln asked: “What does the ‘New York Tribune‘ mean by its constant eulogising, and admiring, and magnifying Douglas?” He worried that if it continued, “it is more than can be hoped that all [Illinois readers of the Tribune] will stand firm.”18

Lincoln was understandably frustrated with Eastern editors who were backing Douglas’s reelection. Law partner William Herndon was sent to New York and Washington to quiet those who were “taking up” the candidacy of Douglas. Editor Horace Greeley was a particular problem. It was the help of a team of friends like Herndon that helped Mr. Lincoln nearly defeat Douglas – despite the undermining of new Republicans in the East and old Whigs in and near Illinois. Herndon recalled:

“I remember early in 1858 of his coming into the office morning and speaking in very dejected terms of the treatment he was receiving at the hands of Horace Greeley. ‘I think Greeley,’ he complained, ‘is not doing me right. His conduct, I believe, savors a little of injustice. I am a true Republican and have been tried already in the hottest part of the anti-slavery fight, and yet I find him taking up Douglas, a veritable dodger, – once a tool of the South, now its enemy, – and pushing him to the front. He forgets that when he does that he pulls me down at the same time. I fear Greeley’s attitude will damage me with Sumner, Seward, Wilson, Phillips, and other friends in the East.’ This was said with so much of mingled sadness and earnestness that I was deeply impressed. Lincoln was gloomy and restless the entire day. Greeley’s letters were driving the enthusiasm out of him. He seemed unwilling to attend to any business, and finally, just before noon, left the office, going over to the United States Court room to play a game of chess with Judge [Samuel] Treat, and did not return again that day. I pondered a good deal over Lincoln’s dejection, resolved to go to the eastern States myself and endeavor to sound some of the great men these. The next day, on apprising Lincoln of my determination, he questioned its propriety. Our relations, he insisted, were so intimate that a wrong construction might be put upon the movement. I listened carefully to him, but as I had never been beyond the Alleghanies I packed my valise and went, notwithstanding his objections.”19

Herndon went to Washington to meet with Senator Trumbull before he went to New York. His visit to Greeley in New York was not productive. “Forget the past and sustain the righteous,” was Greeley’s cryptic advice to Herndon.20 It was a path Mr. Lincoln himself followed.


  1. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 428 (Letter to Henry C. Whitney, December 18, 1857).
  2. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 677 (Letter of Edward L. Pierce to William H. Herndon, September 15, 1989).
  3. Albert J. Beveridge, Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1858, Volume II, p. 567-568.
  4. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 326.
  5. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s, p. 71.
  6. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 165 (Leonard Swett’s letter to William H. Herndon, January 17, 1866).
  7. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 267 (William H. Herndon interview with William Jayne, August 15, 1866).
  8. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 575 (William H. Herndon interview with John Armstrong, February 1870).
  9. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s, p. 122-123.
  10. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s, p. 126.
  11. Isaac N. Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 146-147.
  12. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, p. 334 (October 30, 1858).
  13. The Letters of Stephen A. Douglas, p. 428.
  14. Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas, p. 652-653.
  15. Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas, p. 653.
  16. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s, p. 63.
  17. William E. Barton, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 400.
  18. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 430 (Letter to Lyman Trumbull, December 18, 1857).
  19. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 319-320.
  20. Albert J. Beveridge, Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1858, Volume II, p. 549.