The Lawyers: James Conkling (1816-1899)

James C. Conkling wrote of the conclusion of the Illinois Legislative social season in early 1841 that Mr. Lincoln, “poor hapless simple swain who loved most true but was not loved again – I suppose he will now endeavor to drown his cares among the intricacies and perplexities of the law. No more will the merry peal of laughter ascend high in the air, to greet his listening and delighted ears. He used to remind me sometimes of the pictures I formerly saw of old Father Jupiter, bending down from the clouds, to see what was going on below. And as an agreeable smile of satisfaction graced the countenance of the old heathen god, as he perceived the incense rising up – so the face of L. was occasionally distorted into a grin as he succeeded in eliciting applause from some of the fair votaries by whom he was surrounded. But alas! I fear his shrine will now be deserted and that he will withdraw himself from the society of us inferior mortals.”1

Conkling was an attorney, public official, and an accomplished politician. In 1856, Conkling served as Illinois Republican Chairman. He served in the Illinois Legislature both as a Whig before the Civil War (1851) and as a Republican after it (1867). He was elected Mayor (1845) and helped arrange for construction of the State Capitol in Springfield. In 1860, he delivered a speech dedicating Oak Ridge Cemetery, where President Lincoln was eventually buried at his wife’s insistence.

In 1841, Whig Conkling formed a legal partnership with newly arrived Irish Democrat, James Shields. A year later, Shields and Mr. Lincoln nearly fought a duel. The same month in September 1841, Conkling married Mercy Leverett, close friend of Mary Todd. Two months later, the Lincolns themselves were wed. Their oldest son, Robert, was about the same age and a close friend the Conklings’ oldest son, Clinton. It was Clinton Conkling who learned of the Republican National Convention results and chased after the nominee to announce: “Mr. Lincoln, you’re nominated.”

A few days after Mr. Lincoln was elected President, Clinton’s mother wrote Clinton who like Robert was at school in New England: “…The good news you have known long since. I wrote you the evening of the 6th, and also sent a paper or two last week. The supper at Watsons that night was a rich, and very exciting scene. An artist was present taking a sketch for the Harper. I will send you a copy as soon as they come out. I called at Mrs. Lincolns this afternoon to congratulate her, she is in fine spirits! As you may imagine! Spoke of Mr. Lincoln having received a letter from you, and that he wanted to reply to it, but really had not found time, but would do so yet. Mrs. L. desired me [to] say to you that when they are settled at Washington she will be glad to have you visit them with Bob. He will be here about the 20th of January, and remain with Mr. Lincoln till after the Inauguration…”2

In early December 1860 the Conklings hosted a dinner for the state Republican electors when they met in Springfield to cast Illinois’ votes for President. James Conkling wrote Clinton: “…I notice that Charley and Jimmy [Conkling] have attempted to say something about our Dinner last Wednesday — the day when our Electors cast their votes. I thought it would be more hospitable to invite them to my house than to allow them to remain all the time at the Hotel. We accordingly had Mr. Lincoln President Elect, Gov Wood now acting Gov of our State, Mr. Yates Governor elect and Ex Gov Bebb formerly of Ohio besides the 11 Electors — some of the State officers and others — 19 or 20 in all and had a very pleasant time.”3

Historian Paul M. Angle wrote: “During this dinner allusion was made to efforts then being formulated at Washington looking to some kind of a compromise with what Mr. Seward once called the ‘irrepressible conflict.’ These efforts effort soon afterwards resulted in the appointment by Congress of thirty-three members to constitute a committee to endeavor to find some common ground of agreement. Mr. Lincoln expressed himself on this occasion in such decided terms against any movement looking to a compromise on the slavery question….”4

The Lincolns themselves had a reception in early February which the Conklings attended. Mrs. Conkling wrote her such that “such a crowd, I seldom, or ever saw at a private house. It took about twenty minutes to get in the hall door. And then it required no little management to , make your way out. Bob figured quite largely. While I was standing near Mr. L. he came up, and in humorous style, gave his hand to his father, saying: ‘Good evening, Mr. Lincoln!’ In reply his father gave him a gentle slap in the face.”5

Nearly 14 months later, James Conkling wrote Clinton instructions on visiting Mr. Lincoln: “Provide yourself with some cards for your visit to Mrs. Lincoln. Mr. Lincolns office is in the second story in the end of the Building towards Willards.” He added “If Mr Riggs or Mrs [Elizabeth Todd] Edwards or Mr Lincoln speaks of my short visit at Washington tell them my business was very pressing at home & I could not remain away very long. I received a letter from Mr Lincoln last evening about Mackinaw from which it appears he cannot aid us about the fortifications at that point…”6

Conkling was appointed a State Agent for purchasing by Governor Richard Yates during the Civil War. When he came to Washington in 1863, Mr. Lincoln gave him an introduction to Quarter-Master General Montgomery C. Meigs stating that Conkling “has ample business qualifications, is entirely trustworthy; and with all is my personal friend of long standing. Please see & hear him.”7

In August 1863, President Lincoln was invited by Conkling to address a meeting of Illinois’ Union supporters. “I was directed by a meeting of unconditional Union men, to invite Mr Lincoln to attend a mass meeting composed of such men,” recalled Conkling.8 Mr. Lincoln first replied: “I will go, or send a letter – probably the latter.”9 He wrote back a few days later: “I cannot leave here now. Herewith the letter instead. You are one of the best public readers. I have but one suggestion. Read it very slowly. And now God bless you, and all good Union-men.”10

Republicans “planned a record-breaking turnout on September 3 to counteract the influence of the previous Copperhead meeting,” wrote historian Benjamin Thomas.11 Mr. Lincoln sent a very carefully prepared letter to be read by Conkling at the event – a speech which to President Lincoln’s great chagrin was leaked to the press in advance of its presentation in Springfield. The Conkling letter began:

Your letter inviting me to attend a mass-meeting of unconditional Union-men, to be held at the Capital of Illinois, on the 3d day of September, has been received.
It would be very agreeable to me, to thus meet my old friends, at my own home; but I can not, just now, be absent from here, so long as a visit there, would require.
The meeting is to be of all those who maintain unconditional devotion to the Union; and I am sure my old political friends will thank me for tendering, as I do, the nation’s gratitude to those other noble men, whom no partizan malice, or partizan hope, can make false to the nation’s life.
There are those who are dissatisfied with me. To such I would say: You desire peace; and you blame me that we do not have it. But how can attain it? There are but three conceivable ways.12

The advance publication of the Conkling letter in northern newspapers made Mr. Lincoln “mad enough to cry,” according to friend Ward Hill Lamon. President Lincoln complained to Conkling: “I am mortified this morning to find the letter to you, botched up, in the Eastern papers, telegraphed from Chicago. How did this happen?”13 Conkling explained: “In order that the St Louis Chicago and Springfield papers might publish your Letter simultaneously and at the earliest period after the meeting, so as to gratify the intense anxiety which existed with regard to your views, copies were sent to the two former places with strict injunctions not to permit it to be published before the meeting or make any improper use of it But it appears that a part of it was telegraphed from Chicago to New York contrary to my express directions. I do not know what particular individual is chargeable with this breach of faith, but I presume it was some one connected with the Chicago Tribune. I was very much mortified at the occurrence, but hope that no prejudicial results have been experienced as the whole Letter was published the next day”.14

But the letter had its desired effect, noted the New York Times: “Even the Copperhead gnaws upon it as vainly as a viper upon a file. The most consummate rhetorician never used language more pat and to the purpose, and still there is not a word not familiar to the plainest plowman.”15 John G. Nicolay wrote Conkling in September 1863: “I think our friend need be under no apprehension that any other than he will be our Presidential candidate.”

Conkling reported that “The Letter was received by the Convention with the greatest enthusiasm and its sentiments heartily endorsed It is a document that will occupy an important position in the history of our country, and one that will make a favorable impression in Europe at this particular period.” He added: “Our Mass Meeting was a magnificent success. I should judge there were 50000 to 75000 present, and the largest meeting by far that ever assembled together in the State. [James R.] Doolittle, [Henry S.] Lane [Zachariah] Chandler and [Richard] Oglesby delivered splendid speeches. Seven stands were used during the day and on the most of them speaking continued without intermission from 11 oclock to 5 PM. The most unbounded enthusiasm prevailed. The speeches were of the most earnest, radical and progressive character and the people applauded most vociferously every sentiment in favor of the vigorous prosecution of the war until the rebellion was subdued – the Proclamation of Emancipation and the arming of negro soldiers and every allusion to yourself and your policy”.16

A few days later, Conkling wrote Mr. Lincoln about a New York-based effort by Horace Greeley and other Republican editors to hold a convention in Cincinnati to replace him as the Republican candidate: “Cant something be done to check this proceeding and prevent the Convention? If it shall be held and any request shall be made through a committee or by the passage of resolutions, I hope that a firm emphatic refusal will be the only reply and that an appeal will be made to the people in opposition to the demands of a parcel of sore headed, disappointed, impracticable politicians If any change shall be made we are irretrievably ruined and I would rather see ten thousand Greelys crushed than any alteration in our programme as arranged at Baltimore That is the universal feeling here The campaign in Illinois is opening finely and our prospects are encouraging We shall carry the State by a large majority, if we can keep clear of these faint hearted, weakkneed politicians who are afraid of the popularity of McClellan.”17

There were strains in the Conkling-Lincoln relationship. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote that “Conkling lost his bid to become a U.S. district attorney and was convinced that Lincoln had betrayed him. Conkling wrote: “Our people feel disheartened, discouraged & disgraced and are ready to curse the administration and all that belong to it for its ill advised and outrageous appointments.”18 Conkling wanted but never received the diplomatic post that he sought from President Lincoln in 1864 and 1865. He later suffered financial reverses and needed to be appointed as Springfield’s postmaster in 1990. A decade before his death, Conkling wrote that “Mr. Lincoln was a slow thinker. It seemed as if every proposition submitted to his mind was subjected to the regular process of a syllogism, with its major proposition and its minor proposition and conclusion. Whatever could not stand the test of sound reasoning he rejected. Though honest by instinctive impulse, he became still more so by the logical operation of his mind. He would not accept a fee in a bad cause. He would not argue a case before a jury for the sake of argument, when he believed it was wrong. No man was stronger than he when on the right side, and no man weaker when on the opposite.”19

Mary Lincoln kept up her friendship with Mercy Levering Conkling through letters. She wrote her in November 1864: “Whilst we were sojourning, in the Green Mountains last summer, your kind letter, was sent me from Washington & Knowing my feelings of friendship, I am sure you will attribute my silence to any motive, save indifference.” Mary also wrote Mrs. Conkling that Robert was expecting a visit from Clinton Conkling – “do not fail, my dear friend to send him…”20 Mary had written Mercy in late July: “Mr Lincoln informed me last evening, that you had accompanied Mr Conkling to Washington. As we are contemplating going down to Fortress Monroe to day, about 3 or 4 o’clock, it will afford us great pleasure, to have you join us.” The excursion was postponed two days and the Conklings apparently went along.21


  1. Paul M. Angle, Here I Have Lived: A History of Lincoln’s Springfield, p. 96.
  2. Harry E. Pratt, Concerning Mr. Lincoln, p. 29-30 (Letter from Mercy Conkling to Clinton Conkling, November 13, 1860).
  3. Harry E. Pratt, Concerning Mr. Lincoln, p. 33 (Letter from James C. Conkling to Clinton L. Conkling, December 10, 1861).
  4. Paul M. Angle, “The Recollections of William Pitt Kellogg”, The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, Volume III, No. 7, September 1945, p. 328.
  5. Harry E. Pratt, Concerning Mr. Lincoln, p. 49 (Letter to Clinton Conkling, February 12, 1861).
  6. Harry E. Pratt, Concerning Mr. Lincoln, p. 90-91 (Letter to Clinton Conkling, April 2, 1862).
  7. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 85 (Letter to Montgomery C. Meigs, January 31, 1863).
  8. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 709 (Letter from James C. Conkling to Jesse W. Weik, January 11, 1889).
  9. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 399 (Letter to James C. Conkling, August 20, 1863).
  10. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 414 (Letter to James C. Conkling , August 27, 1863).
  11. Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln, p. 396.
  12. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 406 (Letter to James C. Conkling, August 26, 1863).
  13. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 430 (Letter to James C. Conkling, September 3, 1863).
  14. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter From James C. Conkling to Abraham Lincoln, September 4, 1863).
  15. Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln, p. 398 (New York Times, September 1863).
  16. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter From James C. Conkling to Abraham Lincoln, September 4, 1863).
  17. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from James C. Conkling to Abraham Lincoln, September 6, 1864).
  18. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 87 (Letter from James Conkling to Lyman Trumbull, May 31, 1862).
  19. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 107 (James Cook Conkling, speech to Chicago Bar Association, January 12, 1881).
  20. Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, editors, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, p. 178 (Letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to Mercy Levering, July, 1864).
  21. Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, editors, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, p. 187-188 (Letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to Mercy Levering, November 19, 1864).