The Boys: John W. Bunn (1831-1920)

John W. Bunn came to know Lincoln when the teenager moved from New Jersey to Springfield in 1847 to work in his brother Jacob’s store. The much older Jacob was a prominent Springfield citizen who had opened a grocery store at the corner of Adams and Fifth Streets on the central square of Springfield. In 1858, John became a full partner with his brother and the name of the firm was changed to “J. and J.W. Bunn Company.”1 The enterprising Jacob employed Abraham Lincoln as his lawyer. John would become a prominent Springfield banker and railroad financier.

Bunn biographer Andrew Taylor Call wrote that by the time John arrived in Illinois, Jacob’s “reputation as a successful merchant with a seemingly inexhaustible line of merchandise was coextensive with his reputation as an honest business.”2 Call wrote: “What is especially important about the J. Bunn Grocery Company is that it not only served the communities of central Illinois, and acted as a pacesetter in the wholesale and retail sectors of the economy, but that it also provided opportunities for others to begin their careers in Illinois business.”3

John W. Bunn wrote of Lincoln that during the 1850s, “I am proud to say that I was one of his junior political agents. Like very many others, I was always glad to do for him anything that I could do. I was often present at political gatherings, held for the purpose of consultation, and I thus came to know pretty well the workings of his mind, so far as they could be learned from close personal contact and observation. I certainly knew something about his personal bearing and concerning the attitude of others towards him. I never heard any man call Mr. Lincoln ‘Abe,’ and he certainly was never spoken of as ‘Abe’ in his own presence. It was not until the campaign of 1860 that I began to hear the talk about ‘Abe’ Lincoln and ‘Honest Abe.’ His associates always called him ‘Mr. Lincoln.’ It may be that sometimes men like Judge Logan, John T. Stuart, Judge Davis or Leonard Swett, called him simply ‘Lincoln.'”4

Bunn recalled the Lincoln-Douglas debate of early October 1854. Douglas spoke first in the State Capitol. “Lincoln was present and heard him, and gave notice that he would answer Douglas, one evening very soon, from the same platform. It was a way Lincoln had to talk with people and find out the views they took of current events, but he seldom or never asked anybody’s advice. Accordingly, the next day after Douglas had made his speech Lincoln came along and stopped to talk with me upon the sidewalk in front of my brother’s store. He said to me, ‘Did you hear the speech of Judge Douglas last night?’ I answered that I had heard the speech, and he said, ‘What do you think of it?’ I replied, ‘Mr. Lincoln, I think it was a very able speech, and you will have a good deal of trouble to answer it. To this he replied, ‘I will answer that speech without any trouble, because Judge Douglas made two misstatements of fact, and upon these two misstatements he built his whole argument. I can show that his facts are not facts, and that will refute his speech.’ I was present and heard the reply which Mr. Lincoln made to Judge Douglas’ speech, and to my mind he did disprove Douglas’ facts, and, as I thought, completely answered his arguments.”5

Lincoln campaign effectively against the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Douglas that fall. After the election, he announced his candidacy for the seat held by Douglas’s ally, James Shield. Bunn was present in the Illinois State Capitol in February 1855 for the election by the State Legislature which was won by anti-Nebraska Democrat Lyman Trumbull even those Lincoln initially had the most supporters. Bunn recalled the climatic vote: “The hall and galleries were packed — there was intense excitement when the solid democratic vote was changed from Shields to [Governor Joel] Matteson. Then Lincoln urged his friends to vote for Trumbull. They did so with the most obstinate reluctance. It was only after Lincoln had begged him to do so that Logan amid breathless silence got up and changed his vote, and Trumbull was chosen.”6

Bunn recalled his campaign for city treasurer in 1857, he encountered Lincoln and another Springfield man – to whom he made a campaign pitch. ‘Well,” said Lincoln, “you’ve got two votes right here, his and mine.” Lincoln reported told him: “If you don’t think enough of your success to ask anybody to vote for you, it is probable they will not do it and that you will not be elected.” As Lincoln in January 1861 was preparing his Cabinet in Springfield, Bunn recalled that he “went up to Mr. Lincoln’s room in the State House, and as I went up the stairs I met [future Secretary of the Treasury] Salmon P. Chase of Ohio just coming away. When I entered the room I said to Mr. Lincoln, rather abruptly, ‘You don’t want to put that man in your cabinet.’ It was an impertinent remark on my part, but Mr. Lincoln received it kindly and replied to me in a characteristic way, by saying, ‘Why do you say that?’ ‘Because,’ I said, ‘he thinks he is a great deal bigger than you are.’ ‘Well,’ said Lincoln, ‘do you know of any other men who think they are bigger than I am?’ I replied, ‘I do not know that I do, but why do you ask me that?’ ‘Because,’ said Mr. Lincoln, ‘I want to put them all in my cabinet.’ This is, perhaps, unimportant talk, but I think it shows a real characteristic of Lincoln and shows that he was not afraid to match himself against other men, however prominent they might be.”7

Bunn had worked hard on Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign in Springfield. He recalled: “After the campaign was over and had been successful, I was once in Lincoln’s office in the State House, when some question came up about my having spent a great deal of time in and about the canvass locally. Lincoln asked me some questions which brought out the fact that I had spent a good deal of my own money in the canvass-a thousand dollars, or more. Mr. Lincoln said to me that I was not able to lose that money. He spoke very seriously. I replied, ‘Yes, Mr. Lincoln, I am able to lose it, because when you go to Washington you are going to give me an office.’ This statement seemed to almost startle him. The look on his face grew very serious. He said to me that he had not promised me any office whatever. I replied, ‘No, Mr. Lincoln, you have not promised me anything, but you are going to give me an office just the same.’ ‘What office do you think I am going to give you?’ asked Mr. Lincoln. I said, ‘The office of pension agent here in Illinois. During Isaac B. Curran’s term as pension agent under Buchanan I have done all the work in the office, in order to get the deposits in my brother’s bank. The salary amounts to $1,000 a year, and when you go to Washington you are going to give me that office.’ To this he made no word of reply. He did not say he would give me the office, or that he would not, but on the 7th of March, 1861, I was appointed to the office of pension agent of Illinois by Caleb B. Smith, Secretary of the Interior.” Bunn concluded:

“I do not believe that anything on earth could have extracted a promise from Mr. Lincoln to give me that office, nor do I think he would have bargained to give any man an administrative office before or after his election. It is probable that he had selected the members of his cabinet, and that he had advised them of the fact before they were appointed, but, outside of his cabinet officers, I do not believe he promised anybody an office before the day of his inauguration, and yet the incident I have above related shows that he was not by any means insensible to ordinary political considerations.8

Bunn’s brother Jacob would be one of several Illinois Republicans who in 1863 complained to President Lincoln about the behavior of two of his patronage appointees in Springfield – Lincoln’s brother-in-law, Ninian Edwards and William H. Bailhache.9 Lincoln removed them from office.

John Bunn wrote of Lincoln: “His associates treated him with the respect that was due to his position, and he always behaved with dignity, so far as I observed. Many fictions of a later day have grown up about Mr. Lincoln. They are mostly exaggerations indulged in by persons who delight in telling a striking tale, and not infrequently for the purpose of making the relator seem important in his relations with Lincoln. All representations of Mr. Lincoln as a clown or a buffoon are false, and these things, to the real friends of Lincoln-men who really knew him well-are very offensive. I have always felt outraged by them.”10


  1. Andrew Taylor Call, Jacob Bunn: Legacy of an Illinois Industrial Pioneer, p. 24.
  2. Andrew Taylor Call, Jacob Bunn: Legacy of an Illinois Industrial Pioneer, p. 23.
  3. Andrew Taylor Call, Jacob Bunn: Legacy of an Illinois Industrial Pioneer, p. 27.
  4. Isaac N. Phillips, editor, Abraham Lincoln, by Some Men Who Knew Him, p. 146-148.
  5. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 39 (August 21, 1879).
  6. Isaac N. Phillips, editor, Abraham Lincoln, by Some Men Who Knew Him, p. 161, 163-164.
  7. Isaac N. Phillips, editor, Abraham Lincoln, by Some Men Who Knew Him, p. 164-166.
  8. Isaac N. Phillips, editor, Abraham Lincoln, by Some Men Who Knew Hi, p. 155-156.
  9. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, “Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois.”, (Letter from Jacob Bunn to Abraham Lincoln, May 25, 1863.).
  10. Isaac N. Phillips, editor, Abraham Lincoln, by Some Men Who Knew Him, p. 156-157.