The Lawyers: Usher F. Linder (1809-1876)

Usher F. Linder Kentucky native and Illinois Whig with whom Lincoln was associated in law and politics although they split politically in the 1850s. They shared a common birth year and a common birth area in Kentucky. Lincoln once told Linder, who grew up knowing Lincoln’s Uncle Mordecai, that “I have often said that Uncle Mord had run off with all the talents of the family.”1

Fellow attorney John M. Palmer wrote that “Linder was the most remarkable man I have ever met. He combined all the qualities of a great man and great lawyer, except plain, common ‘horse sense.'”2 Lincoln law partner William H. Herndon referred to Linder as “an Old Line Whig, of much natural ability, who had sided with the Democrats on the break-up of his own party.”3 Fellow attorney Joseph Gillespie wrote that Linder was “a man of transcendent abilities in the forum and at the hustings; that he was remarkably candid and fair in his estimate of the characters of men; that he was genial in his disposition to the highest degree, and that he loved his country pre-eminently.”4

Gillespie recalled: “Mr. Lincoln admired him greatly as a speaker. He told me that he and Linder were once defending a man who was being tried on a criminal charge before Judge David Davis, who said at dinner time that the case must be disposed of that night. Linder suggested that the best thing they could do would be to run Benedict, the prosecuting attorney, as far into the night as possible, in hopes that he might, in his rage, commit some indiscretion that would help their case. Lincoln commenced, but to save his life he could not speak one hour, and the laboring oar fell into Linder’s hands; ‘but,’ said Lincoln, ‘he was equal to the occasion.’ He spoke most interestingly three mortal hours about everything in the world. He discussed Benedict from head to foot, and put in about three-quarters of an hour on the subject of Benedict’s whiskers. Lincoln said he never envied a man so much as he did Linder on that occasion. He thought he was inimitable in his capacity to talk interestingly about everything and nothing, by the hour.”5 Attorney Henry C. Whitney said that Linder was “then the greatest orator in the State.”6 The Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois noted that “Linder, in his best days, was a fluent speaker with some elements of eloquence which gave him a wide popularity as a campaign orator.”7

“The years 1836 and ’37 were a sort of formation period; the starting point of many great men who distinguished themselves in the subsequent history of Illinois,” recalled Linder of the legislative session in which he, Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas and others served. Linder remembered that Douglas “was a very ready and expert debater, even at that early period of his life. He and Lincoln were very frequently pitted against each other, being of. different politics. They both commanded marked attention and respect from the House.”8 Politics often separated Lincoln and Linder. Speaking of Usher Linder in a 1837 debate, Lincoln said: “In one faculty, at least, there can be no dispute of the gentleman’s superiority over me, and most other men; and that is, the faculty of entangling a subject, so that neither himself, or any other man, can find head or tail to it.”9 In the 1836-37session Linder led an effort to derail the move of the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield. He also led an effort to derail that shift by splitting up Sangamon County.10 Morever, January 1837 Lincoln and Linder faced off over the issue of the State Bank, which Linder attacked and Lincoln defended. Then a Democrat, Linder was elected state attorney general in 1837 and served until 1839.

Linder’s politics then shifted to the Whig Party. In the winter of 1839-1840, Linder gave a speech at the State Capitol that incensed Democrats – “which I think now, looking back at it from this point was the very best I ever made in my life; and while I was addressing the vast assembly some ruffian in the galleries flung at me a gross personal insult, accompanied with a threat. Lincoln and Col. Baker, who were both present, and warm personal and political friends of mine, anticipating that I might be attacked when I left the State House, came up upon the stand a little before I concluded my speech and took their station on each side of me, and when I was through, and after my audience had greeted me with three hearty cheers, each took one of my arms, and Lincoln said to me: “Baker and I are apprehensive that you may be attacked by some of those ruffians who insulted you from the galleries, and we have come up to escort you to your hotel. We both think we can do a little fighting, so we want you to walk between us until we get you to your hotel; your quarrel is our quarrel, and that of the great Whig party of this nation, and your speech upon this occasion is the greatest one that has been made by any of us, for which we wish to honor, love, and defend you.”11

Linder went on to state: “This I consider no ordinary compliment coming from Mr. Lincoln, for he was no flatterer, nor disposed to bestow praise where it was undeserved. Col. Baker heartily concurred in all he said, and between those two glorious men I left that stand, and we marched through our friends, out of the State House, who trooped after us, evidently anticipating what Lincoln and Baker had suggested to me, accompanying us to my hotel; but the anticipations of my friends were not realized, and after reaching my hotel, and receiving three more hearty cheers from the multitude, I made my bow and retired to my room.” Linder wrote later that “this was one of the proudest days of my life; not so much on account of the applause paid me by the multitude as on account of the devoted friendship shown by Lincoln and Baker.”12

After Lincoln’s duel with State Auditor James Shields was called off in September 1842, Lincoln told Linder: “To tell you the truth, Linder, I did not want to kill Shields and felt sure that I could disarm him, having had about a month to learn the broadsword exercise; and furthermore, I didn’t want the damned fellow to kill me, which I rather think he would have done if we had selected pistols.”13

Linder recalled that in 1847, when both were still Whigs, Congressman-elect Lincoln “went to Lexington to hear him make his speech. – Mr. Clay had written his speech and read it to his audience – a very unusual thing for him – and its delivery did not come up to Mr. Lincoln’s expectations – but, he made the proper allowance. – Mr. Clay invited Mr. L. – to dine with him as Ashland, – which he did. – They never saw each other afterward[.]”14

Once in Washington, Congressman Lincoln maintained an active correspondence with Linder, again a candidate for Illinois General Assembly, regarding the 1848 presidential nomination of General Zachary Taylor: “In law it is good policy to never plead what you need not, lest you oblige yourself to prove what you can not. Reflect on this well before you proceed. The application I mean to make of this rule is, that you should simply go for Genl. Taylor; because by this, you can take some democrats, and lose no whigs; but if you go also for Mr. Polk on the origin and mode of prossecuting [sic] the war, you will still take some democrats, but you will lose more whigs, so that in the sum of the opperation [sic] you will be loser.”15

The next month, Lincoln responded to a letter from Linder regarding the Taylor: “Your third question is “And have we as a party, ever gained any thing, by falling in company with abolitionists?” Yes. We gained our only national victory by falling in company with them in the election of Genl. Harrison. Not that we fell into abolition doctrines; but that we took up a man whose position induced them to join us in his election. But this question is not so significant as a question, as it is a charge of abolitionism against those who have chosen to speak their minds against the President.”16

In 1849 Lincoln returned to Springfield and resumed his law practice. In 1854 Linder and Lincoln split over the Kansas-Nebraska Act sponsored by U.S. Senator Douglas and strenuously opposed by Lincoln. Linder complained that the “the Whigs were merged with the Abolitionists” and became a Democrat again.17 Despite their political differences, Lincoln continued to practice law in Charleston with Linder and his law partner Henry P. H. Bromwell. Lincoln and Linder had great respect for each other’s legal ability. When one lawyer suggested that Lincoln’s practice of telling stories in front of juries was a “waste of time,” Linder responded: “Don’t lay that flattering unction to your soul. Lincoln is like Tansey’s horse, he ‘breaks to win.'”18 When Lincoln tried cases in Coles County, he used Linder’s law office in Charleston. Their frequent work together is reflected in a letter Lincoln wrote Linder in March 1853: “The change of circuits prevents my attending the Edgar court this Spring, and perhaps generally hereafter. There is a little Ejectment case from Bloomfield, in which the name of Davidson figures, but in which a couple of men by the name of Bailey are interested; and for defending which I have been paid a little fee. Now I dislike to keep their money without doing the service; & I also hate to disgorge; and I therefore request of you to defend the case for me; & I will, in due time, do as much or more for you. Write me whether you can do it.”19

In 1856 Linder’s son Dan was accused of murder. Linder’s daughter called: “My father was seriously ill was inflammatory rheumatism at the time, and could scarcely move hand or foot. He certainly could not defend Dan.”20 Lincoln offered to do, she remembered. Attorney Lambert Tree remembered the story differently: “It was at a period of great political excitement, and General Linder, as usual, was taking a prominent part in the campaign. There appeared to be a disposition in some quarters to secure the conviction of the son, with a view to the humiliation of the father. To this end, it was rumored that Lincoln had been retained to assist the prosecuting attorney fo the county. Linder soon after met Lincoln in the street, and, after saluting him, said:

“Lincoln, I hear that you have been retained to assist in the prosecution of my boy.
Lincoln looked at him with that far-away gaze in his eyes that at times was so marked a feature in his expression, and simply replied, “Linder, do you believe me capable of accepting a retainer to prosecute your son for murder?” and immediately walked away. On the trial, with which, of course, Lincoln had nothing to do, the young man walked away.” 21

Linder spent much of fall 1858 campaigning with Senator Douglas against Lincoln. Both candidates needed their friends in this contest, but it was a telegram from Douglas to former Lincoln ally Linder on August 25 1848 that best illustrated their neediness to the public. David Zarefsky observed: “On September 7, a correspondent wrote Lincoln that Linder was planning to come to the Jonesboro debate and intimated ‘that he will be hansomly renumerated or paid for his Services.'”22 As Linder recalled: “When he [Lincoln] was canvassing the Northern portion of the State, a great many of Mr. Lincoln’s friends followed him to his large meetings, which they would address at night, attacking Douglas when he would be in bed asleep, worn out by the fatigues of the day. He telegraphed me to meet him at Freeport, and travel around the State with him…” Douglas’s telegram read: “The hell-hounds are on my track. For God’s sake, Linder, come and help me fight them.” Linder was thereafter known as “For-God’s-sake-Linder.” Linder himself said he wore that “sobriquet…with great pride and distinction.”23

Their friendship continued during the Civil War. Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “Usher…handled much of the president’s legal business once he left Illinois for Washington.”24 Linder did not get a patronage job but he did receive the release his Confederate son from Union incarceration. On December 22, the president wrote the military commandant of Point Lookout, Maryland.: “If you have a prisoner by the name Linder-Daniel Linder, I think, and certainly the son of U[sher] F. Linder, of Illinois, please send him to me by an officer.”25 On December 24, 1863, Attorney General Edward Bates wrote in his diary that Lincoln wanted to release Linder in order “to gratify Linder, the father, who is an old friend.”26 The same day, he wrote Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton: “Please administer the oath of allegiance to him, discharge him, and send him to his father.”27

On December 26 Lincoln wrote the elder Linder: “Your son Dan. has just left me, with my order to the Sec. of War, to administer to him the oath of allegiance, discharge him & send him to you.”28 A friend remembered Lincoln writing Linder: “I am sending your boy to you to-day as a Christmas present. Keep him at home,” wrote the president to Linder.29

Linder had to be content with that presidential gift. In March 1864, Linder wrote President Lincoln: “I am constrained to beleeve [sic] friend Lincoln that you have ever cherished the kindest feelings for me, as I know I have for you, and although we have been often thrown in opposition to each other I think there has never been any thing said by either that has left a pang behind.” Linder, then 55, was seeking a government job which he never got: “In the revolutions of the wheel of fortune I have often been at the top — and as often at the bottom — but most unfortunately for me, when it ceased to revolve, I happened to be at the bottom – In other words I have been, now, four years at this place, and notwithstanding, I have exerted a diligence and prudence, hardly common to me, no pro[s]perous wind has as yet filled my sail — but the whole bag full have steadily set against — me. I have never before asked an office of any president — or any executive of a state — but taking into consideration the wants of myself and family — If the gover[n]ment of the U. S. has any thing to do which I am capable of performing — you may consider me as an humble applicant.” Linder argued that he was sure that Lincoln had forgiven as misdeeds he may have committed and ended: “I wish you in conclusion to pardon me if I have presumed too much upon old friendship and acquaintance — and act in obedience to your own honest instincts which I have trusted and am still willing to trust.”30 There is no known response.


  1. Usher Linder, Reminiscences of the Early Bar and Bench of Illinois, p. 38-39.
  2. John M. Palmer, The Bench and the Bar of Illinois, p. 33.
  3. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Lincoln, p. 407.
  4. Usher Linder, Reminiscences of the Early Bar and Bench of Illinois, p. 20.
  5. Newton Bateman and Paul Selby, editors, editor, Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois, Volume I, p. 339.
  6. Usher F. Linder, Reminiscences of the Early Bench and Bar of Illinois, p. 56.
  7. Usher Linder, Reminiscences of the Early Bar and Bench of Illinois, p. 248-249.
  8. Usher Linder, Reminiscences of the Early Bar and Bench of Illinois, p. 249-250.
  9. Usher Linder, Reminiscences of the Early Bar and Bench of Illinois, p. 66.
  10. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews and Statements About Abraham Lincoln, p. 569 (part of a statement for Josiah G. Holland).
  11. CWAL, Volume. I, p. 453 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Usher Linder, February 20, 1848).
  12. CWAL, Volume. I, p. 458 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Usher F.Linder, March 22 1848).
  13. CWAL, Volume I, p. Volume I.
  14. Emanuel Hertz, editor, Lincoln Talks, p. 22.
  15. CWAL, Volume II, p. 191 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Usher F. Linder, March 8, 1853).
  16. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, p. 127-128 (Lambert Tree, Century Magazine, February 1911).
  17. David Zarefsky, In the Crucible of Debate, p. 59.
  18. Usher F. Linder, Reminiscences of the Early Bar and Bench of Illinois, p. 78-79.
  19. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 459.
  20. CWAL, Volume VII, p. 87 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Gilman Marston, 22 December 1863).
  21. Howard Beale, editor, The Diary of Edward Bates, p. 324 (December 23, 1863).
  22. CWAL, Volume VII, p. 95 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Edwin M. Stanton, December 26, 1863).
  23. CWAL, Volume VII, p. 94 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Usher Linder, December 26, 1863).
  24. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends, p. 128 (Lambert Tree, Century Magazine, February 1911).
  25. Usher F. Linder, Reminiscences of the Early Bar and Bench of Illinois, p. 18.
  26. Henry Clay Whitney, Life and Works of Abraham Lincoln, p. 130.
  27. CWAL, Volume I, p. 64 (Speech in the Illinois Legislature Concerning the State Bank January 11, 1837).
  28. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, p. 61.
  29. Alexander K. McClure, Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories, p. 296.
  30. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress , “Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College.”, Galesburg, Illinois, (Letter from Usher Linder to Abraham Lincoln, March 24, 1865).