The Politicians: Joseph Gillespie (1809-1885)

Joseph Gillespie
In 1839, the Illinois House of Representatives was meeting in the Second Presbyterian Church in a special session. State Representative Joseph Gillespie and Mr. Lincoln jumped out of a window in an unsuccessful attempt to deprive the Democrats of a quorum. According Gillespie, the Whigs learned of a Democrat plot to injure the Whig-dominated state banks. The Democrats decided on a complicated legislative maneuver that required them to adjourn a special session of the Legislature just before a regular session of the State Legislature was about to begin. The Whigs “instantly resolved that they would absent themselves and thus break up a quorum, but, as the Constitution of 1818 would allow such a vote to be taken without a call of the ayes and noes, it was necessary that two Whigs should be in the House to call for them.” Gillespie and Lincoln were detailed to attend the session while the other Whigs dispersed. “When the motion was put, we called for the ayes and noes, and there was no quorum voting.”1

Contemporary biographer William H. Herndon wrote: “Outnumbered as they were in the House, the Whigs determined to prevent a quorum on the afternoon of the 5th, so that the House could not concur in the resolution of adjournment which the Senate had already passed. Accordingly, only Lincoln and a few trusted friends appeared. The Democrats discovered the ruse, and sent the sergeant at arms to bring in the missing members. He returned without the necessary number, whereupon the doors were locked to prevent the escape of the Whigs already present. However, while Lincoln and his friends were enjoying the discomfiture of their angry opponents, several sick Democrats appeared and a quorum was unexpectedly announced. Caught unawares, the Whigs lost their heads and recorded their votes, and then attempted to escape. Finding the doors locked, Lincoln, Joseph Gillespie and one or two others raised a window and jumped out – too late, of course, to have any effect other than to provide the Democrats with capital material for ridicule.”2

Indeed, Democrats gleefully made sport of the incident. The Belleville Advocate reported of the Whig escape: “Their leader then made an assault upon unoffending window, through which he broke his way and made his escape, followed by two of his faithful adherents (Gillespie and Gridley) who slipt gracefully out of the window, and piled themselves beneath it upon the body of their chivalrous leader.”3 In later life, Herndon called that incident one of “two things Mr. Lincoln always seemed willing to forget.”4

Gillespie was a Whig member of the Illinois Assembly in 1840-41 and then served in the State Senate from 1847 to 1859. He was a Know-Nothing before he joined the Republicans in 1856. Gillespie chaired the Illinois Republican State Convention in 1860 and served as circuit court judge in Southern Illinois from 1861 to 1873.

He and Mr. Lincoln went through many scrapes – starting with the Black Hawk War in which both served. Gillespie often accompanied Mr. Lincoln on much less controversial excursions. When former President Martin Van Buren visited Rochester, Illinois in 1842 the once and future President exchanged stories. “The fun continued until after midnight, and until the distinguished traveller insisted that his sides were sore from laughing,” recalled Gillespie.5

Gillespie recalled a meeting in 1850 in Shelbyville where Mr. Lincoln “remarked that something must be done, or slavery would overrun the whole country. He said there were about six hundred thousand non-slaveholding whites in Kentucky to about thirty-three thousand slaveholders; that in the convention then recently held it was expected that the delegates would represent these classes about in proportion to their respective numbers; but when the convention assembled, there was not a single representative of the non-slaveholding class; every one was in the interest of the slaveholders.”

Mr Lincoln told Gillespie that slavery was “spreading like wildfire over the country. In a few years we will be ready to accept the institution in Illinois, and the whole country will adopt it.” Mr. Lincoln told Gillespie that slave ownership “betokened, not only the possession of wealth, but indicated the gentleman of leisure, who was above and scorned labor. These things Mr. Lincoln regarded as highly seductive to the thoughtless and giddy-headed young men who looked upon work as vulgar and ungentlemanly. Mr. Lincoln was really excited, and said, with great earnestness, that this spirit ought to be met, and, if possible, checked; that slavery was a great and crying injustice, an enormous national crime, and we could not expect to escape punishment for it.”6

Gillespie came from southern Illinois where Democratic, pro-slavery sentiments predominated. Gillespie’s frequent service in the State Legislature put him in repeated contact with Mr. Lincoln – as did their regular correspondence. In September 1858 Mr. Lincoln came to Gillespie’s home town of Edwardsville, on his way to Jonesboro. He spoke that day to an enthusiastic gathering of Republicans in Edwardsville, and Judge Gillespie presided. Chicago Tribune staffer Horace White recalled: “At Edwardsville I was greatly impressed with Mr. Lincoln’s speech….I took down passages which as I read them now, after the lapse of thirty-one years, bring back the whole scene with vividness before me – the quiet autumn day in the quaint old town; the serious people clustered around the platform; Judge Joseph Gillespie acting as chairman; and the tall, gaunt, earnest man….appealing to his old Whig friends, and seeking to lift them up to his own level.'”7

Local resident Samuel Colcord later said “that as a boy of nine years, he listened very attentively to Lincoln’s speech in Greenville and that Lincoln came to him after the speaking was over and shook hands, patted him and told him he was a good listener. Dr. Colcord stated that as Lincoln and Judge Gillespie approached Highland, the Judge said to Lincoln, ‘These people are Germans, but mighty fine people and good citizens. They might ask you to take a drink with them. I am giving you warning in time.’ Mr. Lincoln was quiet for a while and said, ‘I will not do so.'”8

During his political career, Gillespie often acted as a sounding board for Mr. Lincoln’s political views and aspirations. He was particularly critical in 1849 when Mr. Lincoln was struggling to arrange to get the Land Office job – first for Cyrus Edwards and then for himself. Gillespie was close to Edwards, his legal mentor. Sometimes, Mr. Lincoln seems to be talking to Edwards in his letters to Gillespie.

Mr. Lincoln was sensitive to Gillespie’s own political aspirations. He wrote to him in December 1854: “I have really got it into my head to try to be United States Senator; and if I could have your support my chances would be reasonably good. But I know, and acknowledge, that you have as just claims to the place as I have; and therefore I do not ask you to yield to me, if you are thinking of becoming a candidate yourself. If, however, you are not, then I should like to be remembered affectionately by you; and also, to have you make a mark for me with the Anti-Nebraska members, down your way. If you know, and have no objection to tell, let me know whether Trumbull intends to make a push. If he does, I suppose the two men in St. Clair, and one or both in Madison will be for him.”9 Gillespie replied that he found bound to support his legal mentor Cyrus Edwards, but acknowledged: “I would say to you that your claims are equal to those of any man in the State So I have felt and so our People feel I regard the present as a crisis in our political affairs in which forbearance and perhaps a self sacrificing spirit should be prominently displayed by us all By the adoption of judicious councils we may and will be likely to permanently triumph; by the reverse course we must signally fail I shall have more to say when we meet In the mean time receive assurances of my continued regard.”10 Gillespie first voted for hisfriend Cyrus Edwards – before switching to Mr. Lincoln.

Gillespie himself told Herndon: “He was very sensitive…where he thought he had failed to meet the expectations of his friends. I remember a case. He was pitted by the Whigs in 1840 to debate with Mr. Douglas, the Democratic champion. Lincoln did not come up to the requirements of the occasion. He was conscious of his failure, and I never saw any man so much distressed. He begged to be permitted to try it again, and was reluctantly indulged; and in the next effort he transcended our highest expectations. I never heard and never expect to hear such a triumphant vindication as he then gave of Whig measures or policy. He never after, to my knowledge, fell below himself.”11 Mr. Lincoln reflected those sentiments when he wrote Gillespie in 1858: “I shall take the stump and do all that lies in my power,”12 He also did all in his power to help Gillespie. Mr. Lincoln had to pick up some of the slack in the Gillespie’s law practice in 1859 when Gillespie was bed-ridden.

Gillespie visited President-elect Lincoln in Springfield in January 1861. “Stay with me tonight,” Mr. Lincoln said to him. “I can take no refusal. I have learned the value of old friends by making many new ones.” After visitors left around midnight, Mr. Lincoln settled down for a chat with his old friend: “I attempted to draw him into conversation relating to the past, hoping to divert him from the thoughts which were evidently distracting him. ‘Yes, yes, I remember,’ he would say to my references to old scenes and associations; but the old-time zest was not only lacking, but in its place was a gloom and despondency entirely foreign to Lincoln’s character as I had learned to know it.”

After talking of serious matters facing the country, Gillespie said Mr. Lincoln returned “to talk of scenes and incidents in which he had taken part, and to laugh over my reminders of some of our professional experiences. When I retired it was the master of the house and chosen rule of the country who saw me to my room. ‘Joe,’ he said, as he was about to leave me, ‘I suppose you will never forget that triad down in Montgomery County, where the lawyer associated with you gave away the whole case in his opening speech. I saw you signaling to him, but you couldn’t stop him. Now, that’s just the way with me and [President James] Buchanan. He is giving away the case, and I have nothing to say, and can’t stop him. Good-night.'”13

Gillespie was “one of Mr. Lincoln’s most trusted and intimate friends,” according to Joshua F. Speed.14 Gillespie occasionally went to Washington to see Mr. Lincoln and informed him about the political situation in western states. Rufus Rockwell Wilson wrote “Judge Gillespie resolutely refused federal office, but his shrewdness and sagacity, charged with wit and humor, made him a man after Mr. Lincoln’s own heart and one of the latter’s trusted advisors.” Wanting no office, he was always welcome. Gillespie told a story from one visit: “I asked him once what was to be done with the South after the rebellion was put down. He said some thought their heads ought to come off; but, said he, if it was left to me, I could not tell where to draw the line between those whose heads should come off, and those whose heads should stay on.”15 Gillespie also kept President Lincoln advised of Illinois politics, writing him in December 1863 after he returned from Washington He used his customary, period-free prose:

We shall have nice work to make choice of a candidate for Governor Uncle Jesse Dick Oglesby John A Logan John A McClernand Gen Fuller are spoken of I have concluded that so between the military & civil list the latter must give way Logan is strong from the fact that he has served with distinction in the army and is thought to have strengthened us in Southern Ills As an offset to this he is considered as the only man who can certainly beat Josh Allen for Congress and many desire him for that purpose McClernand is under a cloud at present On the whole it seems to me that Oglesby will be very strong Our People to a man are opposed to the repeal of the $300 clause in the conscript act They say that the North has had the benefit of it and now it should not be replaced before the draft takes place in the west some copperheads who perhaps desire to change front say that they will not go for McClellan That if they are to be in war they want the regular war party in power and no half & half measures Our Governor is said to be striking for Senator Dick [Yates] is very popular as Governor but he is suspected of having rather a weakness for wine & woman which may shear him of strength for Senator John M Palmer may have some claims in that direction if the war is over by the time the election comes off There are surmises that [Norman] Judd was looking senatorward during his recent visit I dont think so He is too cunning to run a muck with gentlemen who wear epoulettes I think you are overworking yourself Cant you go off and recruit a little God dont make men of indestructible materials The best constitutions yield to incessant labor It would not be amiss to come out west and spend a month or so.16

Gillespie visited with President Lincoln at the Soldiers Home in mid-1864 and witnessed the President deal with a group of petitioners who were seeking pardons for Union army deserters. Mr. Lincoln delayed his response to the following morning at the White House. “Before retiring, I told Mr. Lincoln I could not sleep unless I had some inkling as to how he was going to decide in regard to these poor fellows. I can’t tell you; but I will say this, that I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.’”17

According to Gillespie, “As a boon companion, Mr. Lincoln, although he never drank liquor or used tobacco in any form, was without a rival….He could illustrate any subject, it seemed to me, with an appropriate and amusing anecdote. He did not tell stories merely for the sake of telling them, but rather by way of illustration of something that had happened or been said. There seemed to be no end to his fund of stories.'”18 Gillespie said that Mr. Lincoln “was contemplative rather than speculative. He wanted something solid to rest upon, and hence his bias for mathematics and the physical sciences. He bestowed more attention on them than upon metaphysical speculations. I have heard him descant upon the problem whether a ball discharged from a gun in a horizontal position would be longer in reaching the ground than one dropped at the instant of discharge from the muzzle. He said it always appeared to him that they would both reach the ground at the same time, even before he had read the philosophical explanation.”19

Gillespie testified that Mr. Lincoln was “wonderfully kind, careful and just. He had an immense stock of commonsense, and he had faith enough in it to trust it in every emergency.”20 Later in life, Gillespie said: ‘Sometimes I feel that my life has been a mere delusion; that I could have personally known and been on terms of intimacy with one who fills so large a measure of space in the world’s estimation appears impossible and unreal.”21


  1. Joseph Gillespie, Recollections of 40 years, p. 28.
  2. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 161-162.
  3. Paul Simon, Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years, p. 223.
  4. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 183.
  5. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 208.
  6. Francis Fisher Browne, The Every-day Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 241-242.
  7. George W. Smith, When Lincoln Came to Egypt, p. 88-90.
  8. George W. Smith, When Lincoln Came to Egypt, p. 99.
  9. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 290 (Letter to Joseph Gillespie, December 1, 1854).
  10. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Joseph Gillespie to Abraham Lincoln1, December 20, 1854).
  11. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 160.
  12. Paul Simon, Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years, p. 308.
  13. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 333-334 (Cincinnati Commercial Gazette, 1888).
  14. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, .
  15. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 22-23 (Joshua F. Speed).
  16. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter fFrom Joseph Gillespie to Abraham Lincoln, December 29, 1863).
  17. Francis Fisher Browne, The Every-day Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 168.
  18. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 277.
  19. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 351-352.
  20. George W. Smith, When Lincoln Came to Egypt, p. 42.
  21. Matthew Pinsker, Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldier’s Home, p. 152.