The Lawyers: Leonard Swett (1825-1899)

< Leonard Swett

Leonard Swett

“In the autumn of 1849, I was sitting with Judge David Davis in a small country hotel in Mt. Pulaski, Illinois, when a tall man, with a circular blue cloak thrown over his shoulders, entered one door of the room, and passing through without speaking went out another. I was struck by his appearance,” wrote Leonard Swett. “It was the first time I had ever seen him, and I said to Judge Davis, when he had gone, ‘Who is that?’ ‘Why, don’t you know him? That is Lincoln.’ In a few moments he returned, and, for the first time, I shook the hand and made the acquaintance of that man who since then has so wonderfully impressed himself upon the hearts and affections of mankind.”1 Swett was a veteran of the Mexican-American War. He settled in Illinois and began his practice of law because he suffered a medical relapse there while on his way back to his home in Maine.

Later in his life, Swett told another, more elaborate story of his first meeting with Mr. Lincoln, one which perhaps came closer to the naked truth: “I shall never forget,” said Swett, “the first time I saw Mr. Lincoln. I had expected to encounter him Springfield, but he was absent from home, nor did our meeting occur till later. It was at the town of Danville. When I called at the hotel it was after dark, and I was told that he was upstairs in Judge Davis’s room. In the region where I had been brought up, the judge of the court was usually a man of more or less gravity so that he could not be approached save with some degree of deference. I was not a little abashed, therefore, after I had climbed the unbanistered stairway, to find myself so near the presence and dignity of Judge Davis in whose room I was told I could find Mr. Lincoln. In response to my timid knock two voices responded almost simultaneously, ‘Come in.’ Imagine my surprise when the door opened to find two men undressed or rather dressed for bed, engaged in a lively battle with pillows, tossing them at each other’s heads. One, a low, heavy-set man who leaned against the foot of the bed and puffed like a lizard, answered to the description of Judge Davis. The other was a man of tremendous stature; compared to Davis he looked as if he were eight feet tall. He was encased in a long, indescribable garment, yellow as saffron, which reached to his heels, and from beneath which protruded two of the largest feet I had, up to that time, been in the habit of seeing.”

Swett concluded the story: “I cannot describe my sensations as this apparition, with modest announcement, ‘My name is Lincoln,’ strode across the room to shake my trembling hand. I will not say he reminded me of Satan, but he was certainly the ungodliest figure I have ever seen.”2 For the next decade and a half, the two attorneys had a close relationship. “We were then attending the circuit court, which circuit embraced fourteen counties. These courts commenced about the first of September and closed about Christmas, and commenced again about February and closed about June. The time allotted for holding court was from two to three days to a week at a place. Mr. Lincoln had, just before that time, closed his only term in Congress, and had, when I met him, returned to his former life as a lawyer upon this, the Eighth Judicial Circuit. For eleven years thereafter we traversed this circuit together, the size of the circuit being diminished by the Legislature as the country increased in settlement; staying at the same little country hotel, riding and driving together over the country, and trying suits together, or more frequently, opposed to each other.”3

“Originally, most of the lawyers did this, but latterly one by one they have abandoned the circuit, and for perhaps five years Lincoln and myself have been the only ones who have habitually passed over the whole circuit,” wrote Swett in 1860 shortly after Mr. Lincoln received the Republican nomination for President. “I know him as intimately as I have ever known any man in my life…”4

As they travelled the circuit, Mr. Lincoln had the opportunity to tell Swett about events in his early life. He related to Swett what happened when he came back from the Black Hawk War. “As he returned home, found his old partner had been his own best customer at that whiskey barrel, and that all the goods were gone, but having failed to pay the debts, there were eleven hundred dollars for which Lincoln was jointly liable. I cannot forget his face of seriousness as he turned to me and said, ‘That debt was the greatest obstacle I have ever met in life; I had no way of speculating, and could not earn money except by labor, and to earn by labor eleven hundred dollars, besides my living, seemed the work of a lifetime. There was, however, but one way. I went to the creditors and told them that if they would let me alone, I would give them all I could earn, over my living, as fast as I could earn it.’5

Swett also had ample time to observe Mr. Lincoln’s legal procedures and ethics. In one Champaign County case, Leonard Swett and Mr. Lincoln were co-counsels on a murder case. “Swett, the man is guilty. You defend him. I can’t.”6 Swett defended the murder defendant and won an acquittal.7

Swett had great political ambition but very limited political success. In 1856 “Davis and Lincoln at once agreed on the importance of nominating Swett rather than Lovejoy as the Republican candidate for Congress in the Bloomington district,” wrote Davis biographer Willard King.9 “They thought Swett’s nomination to be crucial to the success of the state and national tickets in Illinois. The southern half of the state would vote Democratic, the north, Republican. The result would be determined by a few old Whig counties in the center. Bloomington’s congressional district consisted of thirteen counties running north from these central Whig counties into the Abolitionist territory. Four of these central counties, at the southern end of the district, had nominated Swett as their candidate for Congress. [Owen] Lovejoy lived at Princeton, in the northern part of the district, and his reputation as a rabid Abolitionist made him unacceptable to many Henry Clay Whigs.”9 When Swett was defeated for the 1856 congressional nomination by Lovejoy, Mr. Lincoln wrote fellow attorney Henry C. Whitney: “It turned me blind when I first heard Swett was beaten, and Lovejoy nominated; but after much anxious reflection, I really believe it is best to let it stand. This, of course, I wish to be confidential.”10

In 1858 Swett lowered his sights. He “acceded to Lincoln’s request that he seek election as a member of the state legislature, so as to assure his friend of another vote. Swett was elected by an unprecedented majority for his district, and became a leader in the legislature in Lincoln’s behalf,” wrote Lincoln legal scholar Albert Woldman11

In 1860, Swett raised his sights again and sought the Republican nomination for governor – in competition with fellow Republicans Richard Yates and Norman B. Judd. Mr. Lincoln had a difficult time balancing the competing ambitions of his friends – particularly at a time when his own presidential ambitions were at stake. Swett claimed that he had a slight advantage among Republican convention delegates but in an attempt to block former Democrat Judd, Swett threw his support to former Whig Yates, who won the nomination and election. Fellow attorney Henry Clay Whitney concluded that Swett lost the 1860 gubernatorial nomination because he was missing in political action. “When the delegates and outsiders were assembling at Decatur, the inquiry went all around, ‘Where’s Swett?’ In that supreme movement of Fate: he was where he should not have been: and was not where he should he should have been; for the sequel disclosed that he had gone to Danville just before the convention sat; and, true to his inability to say No, and got into a murder case, which took longer to try, than he had thought; and when his presence at the opening chapter of the convention was indispensable and would have achieved success: his absence demoralized and disintegrated his own friends: and enabled the opposition to prevail against him: and thus did his Nemesis thrust aside his destiny.”12

Swett was active in Mr. Lincoln’s nomination in Chicago in May 1860 and even more active in helping establish links with defeated candidate William H. Seward. After the 1860 presidential election, the President asked Swett to set up a meeting with Thurlow Weed, the political manager and confidante of Senator Seward. “I did so, and the result was that Judge Davis, Thurlow Weed and myself spent a whole day with him in discussing the men and measures of his administration. At that meeting, which took place in less than a month after Mr. Lincoln’s election, on about December 1, 1860, Mr. Lincoln became convinced that war was imminent between the North and South. Mr. Weed was a very astute man, and had a wonderful knowledge of what was going on. He told Mr. Lincoln of preparations being made in the Southern States that could mean nothing less than war. It was a serious time with all of us, of course, but Mr. Lincoln took it with the imperturbability that always distinguished him.”13

In the next four years, Swett often visited the White House – to give advice, seek favors, talk to his friend and gain political leverage for his financial interests. On one occasion prior to the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Swett arrived early one morning. The President engaged him in discussion of a variety of articles, some of which dealt with emancipation. As the time for a Cabinet meeting arrived, Mr. Lincoln said that he had intended to show him a document he had written but there was no longer enough time.” Swett thought over the conversation that night and determined that the document the president wanted to show him might be related to emancipation. He suggested the same the next morning to Mr. Lincoln. “Am I doing anything wrong,” asked the President. “No. I can’t say that you are,” replied Swett. “Well then, get out of here,” said the President.14

It wasn’t the only time Swett was dismissed in such an offhand manner. He testified that the President once said: “Get out of the way, Swett; tomorrow is butcher day, and I must go through these papers and see if I cannot find some excuse to let these poor fellows off.”15 On another occasion after a night of discussing the feuds and conflicts in Kentucky and Missouri, Swett recalled being told by President Lincoln as he left the Soldiers Home at 11 P.M.: “I may not have made as great a President as some other men, but I believe I have kept these discordant elements together as well as anyone could.”16

Swett’s influence was critical in the appointment of his friend and mentor, David Davis, to the U.S. Supreme Court in the summer of 1862. The question of an Illinois appointment to the court had lingered for more than a year when Swett, Davis and their fellow Bloomington attorneys received information that Orville H. Browning was likely to get the appointment – despite all the lobbying of friends who claimed that Mr. Lincoln owed the appointment to Davis for his work in getting him the Republican nomination. Swett went immediately to Washington to lay Davis’ case before the President.

It was persuasive but not conclusive for Mr. Lincoln, Swett decided. Swett determined that in order to promote Davis’s chances to be win the vacancy, he needed to renounce any claims he had for presidential patronage. “I left him and went to Willard’s Hotel to think over the interview, and there a new thought struck me. I therefore wrote a letter to Mr. Lincoln and returned to the White House. Getting in, I read it to him and left it with him. It was, in substance, that he might think if he gave Davis this place the latter when he got to Washington would not give him any peace until he gave me a place equally as good; that I recognized the fact that he could not give this place to Davis, which would be charged to the Bloomington faction in our State politics, and then give me anything I would have and be just to the party there; that this appointment, if made should kill ‘two birds with one stone;’ that I would accept it as one-half for me and one-half for the Judge; and that thereafter, if I or any of my friends ever troubled him, he could draw that letter as a plea in bar on that subject.”17

Mr. Lincoln agreed to appoint Davis, gratifying Swett. “Judge Davis was about fifteen years my senior. I had come to his circuit at the age of twenty-four, and between him and Lincoln I had grown up leaning in hours of weakness on their own great arms for support. I was glad of the opportunity to put in the mite of my claims upon Lincoln and give it to Davis, and have been glad I did it every day since.”18 There were limits to the influence of the Davis-Swett wing of the party. David Davis promoted Swett for the consul’s post in Liverpool – without success.

As the 1864 election approached, Swett often offered his political counsel. But by the summer of 1864, the political situation looked bleak. Swett visited the President’s office and asked “Do you expect to be reelected?” Responded the President, “Well, I don’t think I ever heard of any man being elected to an office unless some one was for him.”19 But Swett maintained that Mr. Lincoln did little himself to procure the Republican nomination in the preceding months: “I believe he earnestly desired that nomination. He was much more eager for it, than he was for the first one, and yet from the first he discouraged all efforts on the part of his friends to obtain it.” Swett maintained President Lincoln declined to interfere with his potential opponents or to promote his own candidacy.20

Swett also suffered a rebuff when he tried to manage the selection of a replacement to Vice President Hannibal Hamlin. Presidential secretary John Nicolay wrote his colleague John Hay from his vantage point at the Republican National Convention in Baltimore: “What transpired at home, and what he has heard from several sources, have made [Illinois Republican State Chairman Burton C.] Cook suspicious that Swett may be untrue to Lincoln. One of the straws which lead him to this belief is that Swett has telegraphed here urging the Illinois delegation to go for [Joseph] Holt for Vice President.”21 The President noted on this letter: “Swett is unquestionably all right. Mr. Holt is a good man, but I had not heard or thought of him for V.P. Wish not to interfere about V.P. Can not interfere about platform – Convention must judge for itself —”22

In 1862, Swett had suffered a more personal rebuff – this time losing a congressional campaign to Mr. Lincoln’s first law partner, John Todd Stuart. Illinois House speaker Shelby M. Cullom had shaped the Springfield district to accommodate his own candidacy, but Swett contested the Republican nomination. Swett’s friends attempted to pressure Cullom to withdraw from the race, and he reluctantly did so after a conversation with Swett. Judge Davis reported to Swett a few weeks after the election that Mr. Lincoln “spoke of you affectionately and in high terms and spoke of your defeat in a way that satisfied me that he regretted it more than the defeat of any other person in the State.”23 Stuart turned away Swett’s challenge to debate. He gave his debate correspondence to Republican newspaper who suggested that Stuart was afraid of Swett. “Smarting under this ridicule, Stuart suddenly appeared on day at the court house in Lincoln where Swett was scheduled to speak, and asked his opponent to divide the time with him. In his speech Stuart did not come out either for or against the Emancipation Proclamation but made a most eloquent and effective speech. Swett, like Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, planted himself squarely on the Proclamation and maintained it was a military necessity.”24 Pratt wrote: “Upon hearing the news of the election, General William W. Orme, Swett’s law partner stationed at Springfield, Missouri, wrote: ‘Swett’s beaten! The democracy have carried everything, and I think the country is ruined. The result of these elections will palsy the arm of the President….I can scarcely foresee the effects of this election. It will nerve the rebels to redoubled energy.”25

Two years later, Cullom won the nomination (although another Lincoln friend, James Conkling, also desired it) and the election. Swett meanwhile moved on to Chicago and retired his electoral ambitions.

Although Mr. Lincoln and Swett generally agreed in political affairs affairs, Swett admitted they differed Mr. Lincoln’s “ideas of money were always far from lavish. I never knew him to refuse to spend for anything he needed. Yet he was always rigidly frugal and in no way indulged, in himself or others idleness or wastefulness. I think he always gave to meritorious objects but I don’t think he would in anyone, continence thoughtlessness.”26 Swett was not so careful.

In 1863 and 1864, Swett suffered financial reverses. Writing about their financial speculations, presidential aide John Hay recorded in his diary: “Tonight came in Swett and [Ward Hill] Lamon anxious about their line of stocks. Well might they be.”27 Swett had been appointed as the government’s representative to investigate. However, Swett was also acting as the representative of a company that was trying to take over the company. His conduct in attempting to use government military resources to take over the mine infuriated Army Chief of Staff Henry Halleck and embarrassed President Lincoln.

Lincoln scholar Robert S. Eckley wrote in 1864, “Swett continued to seek work. In late June 1864, he had asked Lincoln to appoint him as a commissioner for the Pacific Railroad under a bill awaiting passage…Concurrently, Swett attempted to get involved in cotton trading, seeking permission under an act of Congress from July 1861 making controlled trade in Southern cotton lawful by the Union under Treasury Department supervision.”28 He went into a partnership with Thurlow Weed but the end of the war and the collapse of cotton prices limited its success. The death of President Lincoln and the concomitant deterioration of Swett’s professional life led him to relocate from Bloomington to Chicago, according to Eckley: “Swett was still in Memphis on April 14 when Lincoln attended Ford’s theater, where he had gone with Lincoln occasion. Within little more than a month, he had returned to Bloomington and found things had changed: his law partner’s health was broken, the legal practice had been neglected, and the traveling circuit no longer existed. His loyalty to Lincoln had yielded no position and no financial rewards.”29

Henry Clay Whitney wrote of Swett: “Although his friends were greatly disappointed that he barely missed a brilliant political career, he took his disappointments with nonchalance, and said to me, one day: ‘You have heard of reformed gamblers – well, I am a reformed politician.’ His adhesiveness to his friends, and his inability to say No! was the rock on which the bark which contained his political aspirations foundered. He was the prey and sport of adventurers, who used his transcendent talents for their narrow and selfish ends.”30

After the Civil War, Swett was one of those who attempted to censor portions of Ward Hill Lamon’s biography of Abraham Lincoln – particularly the section alleging Mr. Lincoln had been born illegitimately.


  1. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 455 (Leonard Swett).
  2. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 731-732 (Jesse W. Weik interview with Leonard Swett, ca. 1887-1889).
  3. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 456 (Leonard Swett).
  4. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 293-294 (Letter from Leonard Swett to Josiah H. Drummond, May 27, 1860).
  5. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 465-466 (Leonard Swett).
  6. Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis, p. 89-90.
  7. William O. Stoddard, p. 134.
  8. Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis, .
  9. Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis, .
  10. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 347 (Letter to Henry Whitney, July 9, 1856).
  11. Albert A. Woldman, Lawyer Lincoln, p. 104.
  12. Henry Clay Whitney, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, pp. 86-87
  13. Francis Fisher Browne, The Every-day Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 364.
  14. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 58-59 (Conversation with Leonard Swett, March 14, 1878).
  15. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editor, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 441.
  16. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 165 (Leonard Swett’s 1877 revision of a January 17, 1866 letter to William H. Herndon).
  17. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 711 (Letter from Leonard Swett to William H. Herndon, August 29, 1887).
  18. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 711 (Letter from Leonard Swett to William H. Herndon, August 29, 1887).
  19. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 58 (Conversation with Leonard Swett, October 16, 1878).
  20. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 165 (Leonard Swett’s letter to William H. Herndon, January 17, 1866).
  21. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 143 (Letter to John Hay, June 5, 1864).
  22. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 247.
  23. Harry E. Pratt, Concerning Mr. Lincoln, p. 95 (David Davis to Leonard Swett, November 26, 1862).
  24. Harry E. Pratt, “The Repudiation of Lincoln’s War Policy in 1862 – Stuart-Swett Congressional Campaign,” pp. 10 from the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, April 1931.
  25. Harry E. Pratt, “The Repudiation of Lincoln’s War Policy in 1862 – Stuart-Swett Congressional Campaign,” pp. 14 from the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, April 1931.
  26. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 159 (Letter from Leonard Swett to William H. Herndon, January 15, 1866).
  27. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editor, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 193 (April 30, 1864).
  28. Robert S. Eckley, Lincoln’s Forgotten Friend, Leonard Swett, p. 152-153.
  29. Robert S. Eckley, “Leonard Swett: Lincoln’s Legacy to the Chicago Bar,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Spring 1999, p. 33.
  30. Henry Clay Whitney, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, p. 88.