The Politicians: Archibald Williams (1801-1863)

Archibald Williams, a Quincy attorney, was a close political associate of Abraham Lincoln for three decades, dating from the time they met as Whig legislators in Vandalia in the mid-1830s. Lincoln said that listening to Williams would “be a gratification to any man to hear him tear in tatters the new democracy.'”1 Lincoln said that Williams was “the strongest minded and clearest-headed man he ever saw.”2

Fellow attorney Henry C. Whitney called Williams “one of Lincoln’s most cherished friends, and a man of no possible humor himself when I knew him.” Whitney wrote that “Lincoln pronounced [Williams] to be the most natural and most learned lawyer he ever knew.”3 John M. Palmer recalled that Williams “became known as profoundly skilled in the peculiar litigation of what was then known as the ‘Military Tract’ in western Illinois.”4 Whitney claimed that “Archie Williams” was one of the “men that [Lincoln] beleived [sic] in strongly.”5

Like Lincoln, Williams was a Kentucky native and veteran of the Black Hawk War in 1832. Neither Lincoln nor Williams was considered handsome or a careful dresser.6 Attorney Usher Linder wrote that Williams was “as angular and ungainly in his form as Mr. Lincoln himself and for homeliness of face and feature surpassed Mr. Lincoln. I think I never saw but one man uglier than Archie, and that was Patrick H. Darbey, of Kentucky, also a very great lawyer, who once had a brace of pistols presented to him by a traveler he met upon the road, both being on horseback, who suddenly stopped, and asked Darbey to stop also, and said to the latter gentleman: ‘Here is a brace of pistols which belong to you.’ ‘How do you make that out?’ said Darbey. ‘They were given to me a long time ago by a stranger, who requested me to keep them until I met an uglier man than myself, and I have carried them for over twenty years; and I had begun to think they would go to my heirs when I died, but you are the rightful owner of the pistols. I give them to you as they were given to me, to be kept until you meet an uglier man than you are, and then you will present them to him; but you will die the owner of the property, for I am confident there is not an uglier man than you in the world, and the Lord did his everlasting best when he created you.'”7

Historian Michael Burlingame wrote: “Like [onetime Lincoln law partner] Stephen T. Logan, Williams dressed shabbily, so much so that once a clerk at a hotel where he was stayed accosted him, mistakenly thinking he was a derelict, and asked: ‘Pardon me, sir, but are you a guest of this hotel?’ In reply, Williams exploded, ‘Hell, no! I am one of its victims. I am paying five dollars a day!’ The tall, angular and awkward Williams resembled Lincoln, according to Usher Linder, who said ‘for homeliness of face and feature,’ Williams surpassed Mr. Lincoln.”8

When the State legislature voted for U.S. Senator in 1836, Lincoln’s votes went to Williams – though he ran third in the balloting.9 In 1842, Williams was again the Whig candidate for the Senate against Democrat Sidney Breese, who had been designated by the Democratic legislative caucus over runner-up Stephen A. Douglas. Again Williams lost, but Lincoln was no longer in the legislature to vote.

In 1843, Williams chaired the statewide Whig convention at which Lincoln was chosen a Whig elector for 1844. Williams served as president of the mass Whig convention in Peoria in June 1844 where Lincoln made a major campaign speech in support of a high tariff. Twelve years later, Williams also played a major role in the Republican convention at Bloomington, at which Lincoln also gave a major speech, this time on slavery.

In September 1847, Williams and Lincoln were leaders of the Whig caucus in Springfield that supported the presidential nomination of General Zachary Taylor. Congressman Lincoln took an active role in the Taylor campaign when he moved to Washington in December. In April 1848, Lincoln wrote Williams to use his influence to get fellow Quincy attorney Orville H. Browning to switch his support from Henry Clay to Taylor: “I have not seen in the papers any evidence of a movement to send a delegate from your circuit to the June [Whig] convention [in Philadelphia]. I wish to say that I think it all-important that a delegate should be sent. Mr. Clay’s chance for an election is just no chance at all. He might get New York, and that would have elected in 1844, but it will not now, because he must now, at the least, lose Tennessee, which he had then, and in addition the fifteen new votes of Florida, Texas, Iowa, and Wisconsin. I know our good friend Browning is a great admirer of Mr. Clay, and I therefore fear he is favoring his nomination. If he is, ask him to discard feeling, and try if he can possibly, as a matter of judgment, count the votes necessary to elect him. In my judgment we can elect nobody but General Taylor; and we cannot elect him without a nomination. Therefore don’t fail to send a delegate.”10

In March 1849, Lincoln recommended Williams to be U.S. attorney for Illinois.11 Williams received the appointment and served until 1853.

In 1854, Williams challenged the reelection of Democratic Congressman William A. Richardson, a close ally of Senator Stephen A. Douglas in the fight for passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Late in the campaign at the request of Quincy attorney Abraham Jonas, Lincoln spoke at Quincy on Williams’ behalf. “I am here now going to Quincy, to try to give Mr. Williams a little life,” wrote Lincoln to Congressman Richard Yates.12 It was one of Lincoln’s last speeches in his concerted campaign against the Kansas-Nebraska Act that fall. Both Yates and Williams lost, but the anti-Nebraska coalition won control of the state legislature.

Williams was also politically active in 1858 in speaking on behalf of Lincoln’s candidacy against Senator Stephen A. Douglas. After the Galesburg debate in October 1858, Williams gave a speech to area Republicans at Dunn’s Hall in Galesburg. His powerful speech led one listener to comment: “There are more brains in his skillet than all the rest put together.”13

“Mr. Lincoln’s confidence in the justness of the antislavery battle never faltered through the years I knew him, recalled attorney Charles S. Zane. “In January, 1859, while the Democrats were celebrating the election of Stephen A. Douglas to the United States Senate, Archibald Williams…came into Lincoln’s office and finding him writing said: ‘Well, the Democrats are making a great noise over their victory.’ Looking up Lincoln replied: ‘Yes, Archie, Douglas has taken this trick, but the game is not played out.'”14

Whitney recalled that shortly after President Lincoln’s inauguration, Lincoln pointed out that Judge David “Davis, with that way of making a man do a thing whether he wants to or not, has forced me to appoint Archy Williams Judge in Kansas right off…”15 Lincoln said that I’ve got a hat full of dispatches already from Kansas cheifly [sic]: protesting against it, and asking if I was going to fill up all the offices from Illinois.”16 Nevertheless, the appointment was made only four days after Lincoln was inaugurated president. Judge Williams died in Quincy in 1863 – having returned home to die. Lincoln appointed another Illinois lawyer friend, Mark W. Delahay, to succeed Williams.


  1. John McAuley Palmer, The Bench and the Bar of Illinois, p. 2.
  2. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informant, p. 643 (Letter from Henry C. Whitney to William H. Herndon, September 17, 1887).
  3. Henry Clay Whitney, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, p. 197.
  4. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln The Prairie Years and War Years, p. 39.
  5. Usher F. Linder, Reminiscences of the Early Bench and Bar of Illinois, p. 239.
  6. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume I, p. 330.
  7. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln The Prairie and the War Years, p. 39.
  8. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (CWAL), Volume I, p. 467-468 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Archibald Williams, April 30, 1848).
  9. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 134 (Charles S. Zane, “A Young Lawyer’s Memories of Lincoln).
  10. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants, p. 620 (Letter from Henry C. Whitney to William H. Herndon, June 23, 1887).
  11. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants, p. 649 (Letter from Henry C. Whitney to William H. Herndon, ca. 1887).
  12. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume I, p. 111.
  13. Usher F. Linder, Reminiscences of the Early Bench and Bar of Illinois, p. 239.
  14. CWAL, Volume I, p. 31 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to John M. Clayton, March 8, 1849).
  15. CWAL, Volume II, p. 284 (Letters from Abraham Lincoln to Richard Yates, October 30, 1854).
  16. Herbert Mitgang, editor, Abraham Lincoln: A Press Portrait, p. 125 (Jason Sherman, Free Democrat, October 8, 1858).