The Lawyers: T. Lyle Dickey (1811-1885)

In November 1854, attorney T. Lyle Dickey wrote Mr. Lincoln: “I love you & want you to be a U. S. Senator from Illinois.”1 Early that spring, Mr. Lincoln had talked about the Kansas-Nebraska Act when word of its passage reached them on while working on the Eighth Judicial Circuit. The conversation lasted late. The next morning, Judge Dickey awoke to see his colleague sitting on the edge of the bed. “I tell you, Dickey, this nation cannot exist half slave and half free.”2 Dickey reportedly replied: “Oh, Lincoln, go to sleep.”3

Illinois Republican William Pitt Kellogg recalled: “During the canvass of 1860 I met, at Pekin, Judge T. Lyle Dickey, a prominent Democratic lawyer and judge. He related to me that as early as 1855 on one occasion when he was attending court, he and Mr. Lincoln slept in the same room, in which there were two beds, each near the other. He occupied one, and Mr. Lincoln the other. They argued a long time over the slavery question, Lincoln insisted that slavery could not continue to exist in the nation; Dickey contending that slavery was an institution recognized by the Constitution. Finally Dickey said: ‘Lincoln, let’s go to sleep.’ Early in the morning, before the sun had fairly risen, Dickey awoke, and to use his expression, there was Lincoln sitting on the edge of his bed, in his nightshirt, looking through the window at the rising sun, and he said: ‘I tell you, Dickey, I am right. It is not possible for slavery to continue to exist in the nation; it’s got to go.’4

Dickey’s enthusiasm for the emerging Republican principles of Mr. Lincoln seemed to weaken as Mr. Lincoln’s determination strengthened. Dickey recalled that after Mr. Lincoln supposedly previewed his “house divided” theme in a speech in Bloomington, Illinois in 1856, he vociferously argued that Mr. Lincoln should not continue the theme. “I don’t see any necessity for teaching this doctrine, and I don’t know but it might do harm. At all events, from respect for your judgment, Dickey, I’ll promise you I won’t say so again during this campaign.”5 But when Mr. Lincoln revived the theme in his House Divided speech in June 1858, it “constituted the final affront,” wrote historian Willard L. King. Dickey thought the speech showed that Mr. Lincoln “had apparently gone over completely to the abolitionists. To Davis’s and Lincoln’s grief, Dickey joined Douglas and traveled with him.”6

While drifting apart politically, Dickey and Mr. Lincoln maintained a warm professional relationship. Attorney Owen T. Reeves recalled: “In the year 1856 one Thompson was engaged in buying hogs in McLean County and depended for prices on telegrams from the firm to whom he shipped in Chicago. On a certain day he received over the Illinois & Mississippi Telegraph Company from his Chicago firm a telegram giving him the price for hogs. The telegram, as delivered, fixed the price at 50 cents per hundred pounds higher than the figure written in the original telegram by the firm, and in consequence Thompson suffered a loss of several hundred dollars. He employed Mr. Lincoln to bring suit, which he did in the circuit court in this city. Judge Dickey, of Ottawa, appeared for the telegraph company. The case was tried before a jury and the only defense which the company put up was a provision printed on the blank upon which the telegram was sent – only liable if there was a mistake when the receiver of the telegram should have it repeated back for verification and pay one-half the charge.”

When Mr. Lincoln came to reply to Judge Dickey’s defense, he told the jury that the judge’s argument reminded him of the story of an old farmer who was induced by his merchant to buy his first snuffers and when on his return home after candle lighting he called to his wife to bring him his new snuffers, that he wanted to snuff his candle. He took the new fangled snuffers in one hand and with the bare fingers of his other separated a section of the wick he had removed in them, turned to his wife and said, ‘you see, wife, these are very handy little things.’ Mr. Lincoln laughed and the jury also laughed and that was the end of Judge Dickey’s defense. The jury promptly brought in a verdict in favor of Mr. Lincoln’s client for the full amount of the demand.”7

Dickey began his political life as a Whig like Mr. Lincoln, but he grew closer to Senator Stephen A. Douglas’s position on slavery than he was to that of his Republican friend. Dickey was representative of a group of transplanted Kentucky Whigs whose loyalty Mr. Lincoln struggled to keep in the new Republican Party. In 1856 Dickey entered the race for Congress against abolitionist Owen Lovejoy, but Judge Davis prevailed on him to withdraw, arguing that Dickey’s candidacy could only ensure the election of a Democrat. Nevertheless, other old line Whigs including Lincoln’s former law partner, John Todd Stuart, moved to the Democrats in reaction to Lovejoy’s nomination. Dickey himself moved to the Democratic Party and supported Stephen Douglas over Mr. Lincoln in both 1858 and 1860. The defection hurt badly – both personally and politically. Mr. Lincoln told Henry C. Whitney that “he did not know of any of his friends he felt so badly about losing as Dickey.”4 Historian Michael Burlingame noted that “shortly after hearing of Dickey’s act, Mr. Lincoln erupted in anger.”5 Fellow attorney Henry C. Whitney noted that “when Dickey abandoned our political faith in 1858, Lincoln no longer had any faith in him. But Lincoln felt very much grieved when I informed him that Dickey was about to leave us.”8 After Dickey failed to showed for a scheduled court appearance in July 1858, Lincoln was greatly frustrated. “I have seen Lincoln angry only on, perhaps, three occasions. This was one of them,” recalled Whitney.9

It was not just Dickey’s defection that wounded Mr. Lincoln; it was the devastating impact of Dickey’s decision to seek an endorsement for Douglas from Kentucky Senator John Crittenden in the summer of 1858 – and then delay the release of the letter until just before the legislative elections in November 1858. Whitney recalled: “About a week before the election, T. Lyle Dickey, one of Lincoln’s long-time friends, who, however sympathized with the view of Greeley regarding Douglas, published a letter from Crittenden which he had been keeping for some time as an eleventh-hour document.”10 In a letter to Mr. Lincoln after the election, Senator Crittenden acknowledged that he had received letters from Illinois residents asking his position regarding Douglas “which I could not forbear replying without subjecting myself to imputations of insincerity or timidity.”11 Three days later, after receiving a letter from Dickey, Crittenden replied, but Dickey decided to hold the letter until the end of the Senate campaign in order to maximize its impact. In the letter, Crittenden repeated that Douglas had “the courage and patriotism to take an elevated, just, and independent position on the Lecompton question at the sacrifice of old party ties and in defiance of the power of an angry administration.”12 The letter diminished the number votes that Mr. Lincoln received from old-line Whigs.

Friends like attorney Whitney and Judge David Davis were furious with Dickey. Davis wrote Mr. Lincoln after the election: “The Pharisaical old Whigs in the Central counties, who are so much more righteous than other people, I cant talk about with any patience – The lever of Judge Dickeys influence has been felt – He drew the letter out of Mr. Crittenden & I think, in view of every thing, that it was perfectly outrageous in Mr Crittenden to have written any thing – Some of you may forgive him, & Gov Seward & Mr. Greeley but I cannot – It was very shameful in my opinion for Dickey, to have kept that letter from 1st Augt & then published it a week before the election – This portion of the state has been almost the only part doing well –“13

Despite their political disagreements, Mr. Lincoln continued to work with Dickey on federal legal matters in Chicago – particularly the Haines v. Rugg patent case in 1859 and 1860. Dickey’s support for Douglas did not diminish and he campaigned for the Democratic standard-bearer in the 1860 election. Mr. Lincoln told fellow attorney Henry C. Whitney that Dickey “can draw such fine [legal] distinctions where I can’t see any distinction; yet I have no doubt a distinction does exist.”14

In 1861, Dickey organized a Union cavalry company and became its colonel – serving under General Ulysses S. Grant in the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson. Dickey also continued to correspond with the President. But Dickey’s past betrayal was not forgotten by Lincoln loyalists like Congressman Elihu B. Washburne who wrote President Lincoln in mid-October 1862: “Some say Dickey is to be appointed a Brigadier General. You know he is running against [Republican Congressman] Jesse Norton and he wants the appointment to strengthen himself so as to beat Jesse. Now I hope that appointment will not be made at present. Dickey supports the whole Secession ticket and he ought not to have his hands strengthened in that work.”15 Dickey did not get his promotion. Nor did he defeat Norton in November – despite a Democratic sweep in Illinois.

Dickey was the father-in-law of General W. H. L. Wallace, a Lincoln friend who died as a result of wounds suffered at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. Under President Andrew Johnson, Dickey served as assistant attorney general. He also served as a judge on the Illinois Supreme Court.


  1. Frederick Trevor Hill, Lincoln as Lawyer, p. 264.
  2. Ida M. Tarbell, Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 82.
  3. Paul M. Angle, editor, “The Recollections of William Pitt Kellogg”, The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, September 1945, p. 326.
  4. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, “Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln”, p. 140 (The Fehrenbachers wrote that this recollection lacks credibility).
  5. Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager: David Davis, p. 120.
  6. Michael Burlingame, Walter B. Stevens, A Reporter’s Lincoln, p. 259.
  7. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from T. Lyle Dickey to Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1854).
  8. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 182 (Letter from Henry C. Whitney to William H. Herndon, September 1887).
  9. Henry Clay Whitney, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, p. 407.
  10. Mrs. Coleman Chapman, The Life of John J. Crittenden, p. 162-163.
  11. Saul Sigelschiffer, The American Conscience: The Drama of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, p. 210.
  12. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 491.
  13. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois.(Letter from Joshua F. Speed to Abraham Lincoln, October 11, 1862).
  14. William E. Barton, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 397.
  15. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from David Davis to Abraham Lincoln, November 7, 1858).