The Politicians: Jesse K. Dubois (1811-1876)

Jesse Dubois
Jesse Dubois met Mr. Lincoln when they served together in the State Legislature in the 1830s and early 1840s. Mr. Lincoln helped persuade Dubois, then the state’s youngest legislator, to vote for moving the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield. “He made Webb and me vote for the removal though we belonged to the southern end of the State. We defended our vote before our constituents by saying that necessity would ultimately force the seat of government to a central position. But, in reality, we gave the vote to Lincoln because we liked him, because we wanted to oblige our friend, and because we recognized him as our leader.”1

Dubois was a conservative from southern Illinois who served four legislative terms with Mr. Lincoln. He was, however, a reluctant convert to the Republican Party in 1856. He was one of just two delegates to the Bloomington organizing convention from the lower part of Illinois. But Mr. Lincoln’s speech to the convention turned Dubois into a true believer. “Whitney,” Dubois said to attorney Henry Clay Whitney as the convention broke up, “that is the greatest speech ever made in Illinois and it puts Lincoln on the track for the President.”2

“Uncle Jesse.” grew closer to Mr. Lincoln during the 1850s. He became State Auditor in 1857 and served until 1864. In 1857, “Uncle Jesse” bought a house a few doors down the street from Mr. Lincoln’s home on Eighth Street in Springfield and became a regular visitor to the Lincoln household. One day, Mr. Lincoln told Dubois the story of how he had to drive the family oxen through an ice-clogged swamp on their trip from Indiana to Illinois in 1830. But the family dog fell out of the wagon into the water. Mr. Lincoln had to jump into the water to rescue him. When they finally reached land and the dog got out of the wagon “He cut up such antics as no dog Ever did before: he ran round and round Abe & laid down at his feet – got up and ran round and round again and again.” Mr. Lincoln told his friend: “Well, Jesse, I guess that I felt about as glad as the dog.”3

The Dubois and Lincoln families sometimes attended horse races together. “We used to go to the county fair, where they always had races, and also to racing meets, which were frequently held in those days,” recalled Jesse’s son, Fred T. Dubois. “Mr. Lincoln and my father and some other friends would get into the family carriage, accompanied always by some of us boys, and drive out to the grounds. Mr. Lincoln was a good judge of horses and he and his companions would often place a small wager on the result of the race.”4

Several months after Dubois assumed his new office as State Auditor, Mr. Lincoln wrote Dubois about the conduct of the state banking commissioners in enforcing banking laws. He was irritated that he did not understand laws: “Several persons here keep teasing me about you and the Bank commissioners not enforcing the banking laws. In my stupidity, I do not believe I quite understand what the ground of complaint is; but it appears to me to be this; that the stocks which the banks have on deposite have depreciated; that in such case, it is your duty to make the banks deposite additional stocks, or, in default, wind them up; and that you do not perform this duty. Now how is this? Write me plainly enough to make me understand; and write soon too, for I am annoyed about it a good deal. Your friend as ever.”5 Two years later, Mr. Lincoln’s understanding of the state’s financing seem to have improved and Mr. Lincoln wrote Dubois, Governor Richard Yates and State Treasurer James Miller a long letter about state bonds.

Just as Mr. Lincoln knew the limits of his financial knowledge, Mr. Lincoln also knew the limits of Dubois’ own political loyalty. Dubois visited the Lincoln & Herndon law Office when he was writing his “House Divided” speech for the 1858 Republican State Convention. He refused to show Dubois the speech. After the convention, Mr. Lincoln told Dubois “why I would not read that Speech to you. This passage in the Speech about the house divided against itself I would not read it to you because I Knew you would make me Change it – modify & molify. & I was determined to read it.”6

After the unsuccessful Senate campaign in 1858, Dubois joined Mr. Lincoln and Ozias M. Hatch writing fund-raising letters seeking to pay off the Republicans’ debt: “Our State Central Committee find itself considerably in debt, and there is a necessity, for meeting it promptly. We have been taxing ourselves, pretty freely, and are compelled, reluctantly, to call upon some of our friends for assistance. If you can without great inconvenience assist in liquidating this debt, please do so. N. B. Judd, Chicago, is the Chairman as you know. He writes that the committee owe about twenty five hundred dollars.”7

In May 1860, Dubois was one of Mr. Lincoln’s dedicated political team in Chicago. Dubois and David Davis telegraphed Lincoln before the Republican National Convention in May 1860: “We are quiet but moving heaven & Earth nothing will beat us but old fogy politicians the heart of the delegates are with us.”8 The next day Dubois telegraphed: “Prospects fair friends at work night & day tell my wife I am well”.9 Six months later, Dubois was present on election night . Samuel R. Weed reported: “A multitude of dispatches continued to arrive from all quarters including New York. They were all so favorable that once Mr. Dubois asked: ‘Well, Uncle Abe, are you satisfied now?’ Mr. Lincoln replied with a smile, ‘Well, the agony is most over, and you will soon be able to go to bed.”10

Dubois persistently and fruitlessly looked for a patronage position during the Civil War. No politician in Illinois had lived closer to Mr. Lincoln than Dubois – and few politicians received less from the President. At one point, he wrote Mr. Lincoln, complaining in 1861, “”I am still [mortified]. More from the fact that I placed too high estimate on my relations with you, and did not know my position….I did suppose I had a right to small share of the spoils, but let it pass…But my friend Lincoln they are cheating you. Do you know that you have not as yet appointed a single man from Illinois that was originally your friend…[You] crowd out your friends and put in soreheads and grumblers…Hoping still you have may have a successful administration,” Dubois wrote to Mr. Lincoln in 1861.11

Historian Michael Burlingame called Dubois “[a]mong the sorest of the soreheads … who tried to win posts for both himself and his son-in-law, James P. Luse, editor of the Lafayette, Indiana, Journal.”12 Dubois wrote Lincoln:” I am sorely disappointed in all my expectations from Washington. I made only two or three requests of you. One for the Northern Superintendency of Indian affairs for my Friend J. P. Luse. My heart was set on this . application for him. , as in his appointment I could have transferd my dying daughter from the Wabash Valley to the healthy climate of Minesotta and perhaps prolonged her life. I would not go to Washington as I did not wish to trouble you, more than I could possibly help. . I did feel as though I had some claims for the favors I asked for, but in all I have been disappointed. I think I appreciate the peculiar and embarrassing circumstances under which you are laboring It is your right to do as you have and still to do as you chose, and I do not desire any more to intrude upon it. Hoping you may have a happy and prosperous reign and the country saved.”13

Dubois was repeatedly disappointed by the President’s failure to appoint him to a patronage position; the President also refused to assist Dubois’ attempt to get the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1864. Dubois lost the nomination to Richard Oglesby. The state auditor did not run for reelection in 1864 and was succeeded by his chief clerk, Orlin H. Miner. Dubois also hoped to get the post of Secretary of the Interior that went in 1865 instead to James Harlan. Poet Walt Whitman may not be the most objective observer of the contest between Dubois and Harlan. Whitman had no inside sources in the White House and was ousted as a clerk at the Interior Department shortly after Harlan took over – so he may only have access to office scuttlebutt. But Whitman later wrote that “the choise was very close between Mr. Harlan and Col. Jesse K. Dubois of Illinois. The latter had many friends. He was competent, he was honest, and he was a man.” Whitman wrote that “The reason for appointing Co. Dubois were very strong, almost insuperable” but Harlan’s Methodist connections prevailed.14 Harlan’s daughter would wed Lincoln’s son.

One report suggests a blunt interchange between Dubois and Mr. Lincoln. President Lincoln is reported to have said to Dubois: “Uncle Jesse, there is no reason why I don’t want to appoint you, but there is one why I can’t – you are from the town I live in myself.” To that, [Ozias] Hatch supposedly said in reply: “Well, Abe, it’s all right. If I were President, I don’t think I’d give it to you, or any other man from Illinois.”15 Dubois, it seemed, remained bitter. He told contemporary biographer William Herndon that Mr. Lincoln was “selfish,” “ambitious,” had “no administrative capacities and was not in all things at all times perfectly honest.”16

Shortly before President Lincoln was assassinated, Dubois wrote Henry C. Whitney: “Lincoln is a singular man and I must Confess I never Knew him: he has for 30 years past just used me as a plaything to accomplish his own ends; but the moment he was elevated to his proud position he seemed all at once to have entirely changed his whole nature and become altogether a new being – Knows no one and the road to favor is always open to his Enemies whilst the door is hymetically sealed to his old friends. I was not as much disappointed as my friends were at my late defeat as I never did believe Lincoln would appoint me although he time and again urged I had more talent than any of them. But I was his old friend and I could afford to be disappointed.17 In an April 15, 1864 letter to President Lincoln, Dubois complained that was he “opposed by the whole military and official Patronage of the General Government.”18

Dubois had a handicap other than residence, according to one observer. Mrs. Lincoln opposed his appointment due to her “contempt for his manners.”19 Mrs. Lincoln certainly had opportunity to observe Dubois’ manners since he and his wife were occasional guests at the Springfield house: “Mr Dubois’ family and Mr [Ozias] Hatch, took tea, with us a few evenings since, & then & there, be sure you were remembered,” Mary wrote a friend in April 1859. “Mr & Mrs D[ubois] Mr H[atch] Mr L & myself are expecting to leave here in a little more than two weeks for Council Bluffs” Iowa.20

The President’s widow also took a very friendly tone in writing Dubois from Pennsylvania in 1868: “I am sure, you can obtain an important mission from Grant, if you will overcome you[r] diffidence & urge your claims. I have heard him, express great regard to you.” One reason for her solicitude was that Dubois served on the National Lincoln Monument Association. “I shall look to you my dear Mr. DuBois, to see all the promises made to me, fulfilled in regard to the vault connected with the Monument. Only great bodily suffering would make me consent to go ahead at present. Tell your wife, whom I have always loved so much, that I intend gathering together all the needles that are now running through my body, & send them to her, in a handsome, European pincushion.”21

Things were not always so easy in their acquaintance. One day, probably in the 1850s, Dubois walked home from Mr. Lincoln’s law office. Mr. Lincoln had been sent out to buy some meat for breakfast. When the two men arrived at the Lincoln home, Mrs. Lincoln became “enraged” at the meat Mr. Lincoln had purchased. Dubois reported that Mrs. Lincoln “abused [her husband] outrageously and finally was so made [sic] she struck him in the face.” Mr. Lincoln rubbed the blood off and walked out with Dubois.22


  1. Alonzo Rothschild, Lincoln, Master of Men: A Study in Character, p. 59.
  2. Henry C. Whitney, Life on the Circuit, p. 77-78.
  3. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 718-719 (William H. Herndon interview with Jesse K. Dubois, December 1, 1888).
  4. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 97 (Fred T. Dubois, New York Tribune, February 12, 1927).
  5. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 414 (Letter to Jesse K. Dubois, September 13, 1857).
  6. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 441-442 (William H. Herndon interview with Jesse K. Dubois, ca. 1865-1866).
  7. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume III, (Letter from Ozias M. Hatch, Abraham Lincoln and Jesse K. Dubois to Newton Bateman, November 20, 1858).
  8. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Telegram from Jesse K Dubois and David Davis, May 15, 1860).
  9. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Telegram from Jesse K Dubois, May 14, 1860).
  10. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 323 (Samuel R. Weed, New York Times, February 14, 1932).
  11. Paul Simon, Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness, p. 294.
  12. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 85.
  13. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois (Letter from Jesse K. Dubois to Abraham Lincoln, Wednesday, March 27, 1861).
  14. William E. Barton, Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman, p. 115-116.
  15. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 198.
  16. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 442 (Jesse Dubois interview with William H. Herndon, ca 1865-1866).
  17. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 620 (Letter from Jesse K. Dubois to Henry C. Whitney, April 6, 1865).
  18. Mark A. Plummer, Richard J. Oglesby, Lincoln’s Rail-Splitter, p. 94.
  19. Michael Burlingame, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, p. 284.
  20. Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, editor, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, p. 55 (Letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to Hannah Shearer, April 24, 1859).
  21. Thomas F. Schwartz and Kim M. Bauer, “Unpublished Mary Todd Lincoln”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Summer 1996, p. 15 (Letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to Jesse Kilgore Dubois, July 26, 1868).
  22. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 692 (Jesse Dubois interview with William H. Herndon, ca. 1883-89).