The Politicians: Mark W. Delahay (1817 -1879)

In 1860, Mark W. Delahay sought Mr. Lincoln’s support to attend the Chicago Republican convention as a Lincoln delegate from Kansas. Mr. Lincoln replied: “I can not enter the ring on the money basis – first, because, in the main, it is wrong; and secondly, I have not, and can not get, the money. I say, in the main, the use of money is wrong; but for certain objects, in a political contest, the use of some, is both right, and indispensable. With me, as with yourself, this long struggle has been one of great pecuniary loss. I now distinctly say this – If you shall be appointed a delegate to Chicago, I will furnish one hundred dollars to bear the expenses of the trips.”1

Delahay failed to gain a place on the Kansas Republican delegation, which was pledged to William H. Seward. Mr. Lincoln urged him to come to Chicago anyway: “Don’t stir them up to anger, but come along to the convention, & I will do as I said about expenses.”2 On May 12, Mr. Lincoln wrote Delahay, again urging him to keep his emotions in check: “Yours informing me of your arrival in Chicago was duly received. Dubois, our A[uditor, goes] to Chicago to-day; and he will hand you $[. The] remainder will come before you leave the s[tate.] Look to Minnesota and Iowa rather esp[ecially Iowa. Be] careful to give no offence, and keep cool under all circumstances.’3 He was not optimistic about Mr. Lincoln’s chances and allegedly telegraphed Mr. Lincoln asking if he would accept the vice presidential nomination.

No friend of Mr. Lincoln’s perhaps raised so many questions about Mr. Lincoln’s judgment as did his relationship with Delahay. “On the surface, it might seem that Lincoln miscalculated his man, an instance where Lincoln’s judgment as a shrewd reader of men failed,” wrote biographer Carl Sandburg.4 It was “the most disastrous of Lincoln’s personal appointments,” according to Harry J. Carman and Reinhard H. Luthin in Lincoln and Patronage.5 Indeed, Delahay seemed to be a case study in ineffectiveness. “Whether Delahay performed political service worth naming in support of Lincoln in the stormy Kansas area did not appear; he was in bad odor, stood forth not merely lacking distinction but rather as a drag and a hindrance to the Lincoln cause in Kansas,” Sandburg observed – noting that the “Delahay case was not typical [of] Lincoln’s political methods.”6

There were more charitable explanations of Mr. Lincoln’s behavior. Paying Delahay’s convention expenses, wrote Lincoln biographer Emanuel Hertz, “illustrates Lincoln’s gratitude and loyalty better than any other incident – and his determination to accomplish what he considered of importance by means which he considered proper.” Hertz noted: “Another man in Lincoln’s place would have dropped the unsuccessful candidate for delegate, for by the law of politics, he who fails is not to be considered ‘successful politicians have no conscience,’ they say”.7

Delahay’s advice to Mr. Lincoln from the Chicago convention was that his Illinois friends were too nice and “too honest” to win the contest: “But this will not be done as your men (for this purpose) are straw men; I know that you have no relish for such a Game; But it is an old maxium [sic] that you must fight the devil with fire, The contest is clearly between you & Seward, neither of the States I have named above realy care any thing for Seward certainly none except Mass & probably Iowa – We are still hopeful but it is only because we have the man of acknowledged merit – it is not on account of superior skill and management; if we are beat this will be the last time I shall ever be heard of in Polatics [sic].”8

No thanks to Delahay, Mr. Lincoln did win – and Delahay was unfortunately heard from again. Delahay “corresponded much with Lincoln during the war,” said one fellow Kansan who noted that Delahay was “not famous for hard sense,”9 Delahay was controversial, even among Mr. Lincoln’s friends. Fellow attorney Henry Clay Whitney called him “distressingly impecunious and awfully bibulous.”10 Visiting Springfield in October 1863, presidential aide John Hay reported that Shelby Cullom and his uncle Milton Hay were “in a terrible miff about the appointment of Mark Delahay to the Judgeship in Kansas. They had recommended Jack Grimshaw who is outraged at being beaten by Delahay.”11 Grimshaw had been one of the original and respectable Illinois backers of Mr. Lincoln’s presidential ambitions.

Jesse Dubois had a much more favorable impression of Delahay. He wrote Whitney that “Delahay had [Mr. Lincoln’s] whole Confidence for Mr Delahay was Lincolns friend long ago: and to my certain Knowledge he L. trusted in 1860. his destiny so far as Kansas was Concerned to his hands and since being made President has made him 1st Surveyor General and upon the death of Hon. A. Williams District Judge…” Dubois added that he knew of “no gentleman of all my acquaintance who I think is more trustworthy and reliable and who never in adversity or prosperity stands more steadfast to his friends than Delahay.” Dubois’s praise for Delahay came in the same letter in which Dubois attacked Mr. Lincoln for using him as a “plaything.”12

Delahay was something of an opportunist whose political grasp was greater than his political ability. But he managed to retain Mr. Lincoln’s loyalty for over two decades and despite moving between two states – Illinois and Kansas. He moved from Illinois to Alabama in 1853 and then to Kansas in 1854. He quickly became involved in politics on the side of opponents to slavery. He worked as a lawyer and founded the anti-slavery Kansas Territorial Register in Leavenworth in 1855 and the Wyandotte Register in 1857. He was involved in the state political and constitutional conventions in 1855 and the founding convention of the Kansas Republican Party in 1859. He won election to Congress in 1856 but was never seated. He repeatedly sought the state’s Senate seat and sought Mr. Lincoln’s help to get it.

Because the of the split between Administration Democrats and Douglas Democrats and between pro-Douglas Whigs and Republicans, Illinois politics in 1858 had a conspiratorial twist. Nevertheless, Delahay’s behavior sometimes seemed a bit sleazy. Douglas biographer Robert W. Johannsen wrote: “One means of preventing the Democrats from uniting was to provide public evidence to the charge that Douglas was leaning toward the Republicans. Certain radical Republicans publicly endorsed Douglas, albeit temporarily, and some even made speeches in his behalf. One of these was Mark Delahay, an Illinoisan who had recently returned from Kansas to assist Lincoln in his canvass. In April, Delahay had congratulated Douglas upon the defeat of the Lecompton constitution in the House and offered his services ‘in doing honor to the champion of the rights of the People.’ Douglas did not respond, however, and Delahay apparently had a change of heart. In May, he joined Lincoln on the stump but deliberately conveyed the impression that he supported Douglas. ‘My speech did not please the Republicans,’ he revealed to Trumbull, ‘[but] by…Lincoln, it was understood what I should say beforehand; my policy to back up Douglass [sic]until after the Buckhanan [sic] convention nominate their state ticket, then I am for Lincoln.”13

During the 1858 campaign, “Mr. Delahay made Douglas speeches apparently with the consent of Lincoln. It seemed to be agreed that he should do this till all the counties and congressional districts had put out their Buchanan, or national Democratic tickets, then he would return to the Republican field,” wrote Illinois historian George W. Smith. “”On May 18, 1858, Delahay and Lincoln went from Alton to Edwardsville where Lincoln made a rousing Republican speech. It is presumed that Delahay spoke for Douglas on that occasion. ‘He remained in the field until the Buchanan convention nominated its state ticket; then according to arrangement, he came out for Lincoln.’ Mr. Delahay moved to Kansas and was responsible for Lincoln’s visit to that state on a shorting speaking tour in December 1859.”14

Delahay’s wife was a distant relative and Mr. Lincoln stayed with them in Leavenworth on his six-day trip in 1859. “On December 8 Mr. Lincoln was back in his Springfield law office well satisfied with the results, present and prospective, of his visit to Kansas,” wrote Lincoln scholar Rufus Rockwell Wilson. “Delahay had assured him that he had made a most favorable impression on those who heard him, and that when chosen the Kansas delegation to the coming Republican national convention of which Delahay expected to be a member, would be for him.”15

Mr. Lincoln remained steadfastly loyal to Delahay – despite his limited political usefulness. In March 1860, Mr. Lincoln wrote Senator Trumbull: “Our friend Delahay wants to be one of the Senators from Kansas. Certainly it is not for outsider to obtrude their interference. Delahay has suffered a great deal in our cause, and been very faithful to it, as I understand. He writes me that some of the members of the Kansas Legislature have written you in a way that your simple answer might help him. I wish you would consider whether you can not assist him that far, without impropriety. I know it is a delicate matter; and I do not wish to press you beyond your own judgment.16

The same day, he wrote Delahay: “I sincerely wish you could be elected one of the first Senators for Kansas; but how to help you I do not know. If it were permissable for me to interfere, I am not personally acquainted with a single member of your Legislature. If my known friendship for you could be of any advantage, that friendship was abundantly manifested by me last December while in Kansas. If any member had written me, as you say some have Trumbull, I would very readily answer him. I shall write Trumbull on the subject at this sitting.”17

During the Civil War, Delahay worked with Senator Jim Lane, an eccentric and erratic Kansas politician, in stirring up trouble on the border with the Indian Territory. Delahay was appointed as surveyor general for Kansas and Nebraska in 1861 and U.S. District Judge in 1863. The appointment raised many complaints in Illinois, Kansas and Washington. Quincy attorney Jackson Grimshaw, who wanted the appointment, wrote Senator Lyman Trumbull: “Will the Senate confirm that miserable man Delahay for Judge in Kansas. The appointment is disgraceful to the President who knew Delahay and all his faults, but the disgrace will be greater if the Senate confirms him. He is no lawyer, could not try a case properly even in a Justice’s Court, and has no character.”18

Referring to Delahay, Massachusetts Congressman John B. Alley later complained: “One of Mr. Lincoln’s greatest weaknesses seemed to be in being more or less oblivious to the faults of dear friends. Once he made an exceedingly obnoxious nomination for a United States Judgeship. A large majority of the Senate were indignant and opposed to the nomination. The nominee was a very old friend of the President and he was determined to have him confirmed. A distinguished senator told me that the Senate would never vote to confirm. I replied. ‘You do not know Mr. Lincoln. He greatly desires the confirmation, and it will be done.’ ‘Never, never,’ said he. But he was confirmed, and Senator [Charles] Sumner was the only one who spoke against it.”19

According to Rufus Rockwell Wilson, “Delahay was often in his cups, and his conduct both on and off the bench compelled his resignation at the end of a decade.”20


  1. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 32 (Letter to Mark W. Delahay, March 16,1860).
  2. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 44 (Letter to Mark W. Delahay, April 14, 1860).
  3. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 49 (Letter to Mark W. Delahay, May 12, 1860).
  4. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume III, p. 451.
  5. Harry J. Carman and Reinhard H. Luthin, Lincoln and the Patronage, p. 118.
  6. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume III, p. 451.
  7. Emanuel Hertz, Abraham Lincoln: A New Portrait, p. 127.
  8. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Mark W. Delahay to Abraham Lincoln, May 17, 1860).
  9. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 419 (Letter from Daniel W. Wilder to William H. Herndon, November 24, 1866).
  10. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, .
  11. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editor, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 91-92 (October 13, 1863 – this entry was crossed out).
  12. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 60 (Letter from Jesse K. Dubois to Henry C. Whitney, April 6, 1865).
  13. Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas, p. 636-637.
  14. George W. Smith, When Lincoln Came to Egypt, p. 88.
  15. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 199.
  16. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 32 (Letter to Lyman Trumbull, March 16, 1860).
  17. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 31-32 (Letter to Mark Delahay, March 16, 1860).
  18. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editor, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, p. 317 (Letter from Jackson Grimshaw to Lyman Trumbull, November 16, 1863).
  19. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 586-587 (John B. Alley).
  20. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 199.