The Politicians: Newton Bateman (1822-1897)

Newman Bateman was an educator who was elected Illinois superintendent of public instruction in 1858 – in the same election in which Abraham Lincoln unsuccessfully challenged Senator Stephen A. Douglas. Lincoln referred to Bateman as “my little friend, the big schoolmaster of Illinois.”1 Born poor in New Jersey, Bateman’s family had immigrated to Illinois when he was 11. As a child, he set as a goal attending and graduating from the Illinois College in Jacksonville. He put his education to good use.

At 23, Bateman started his teaching career in a private school he started. He went on to teach mathematics at St. Charles College in Missouri for several years. He became a school principal in Jacksonville when he moved back to Illinois. In 1858 he was elected Illinois state superintendent of instruction over former Governor Augustus C. French; the margin of victory was provided by votes siphoned away by a Buchanan Democrat. Bateman held the post for the next 14 years. After the election, Lincoln and two other office holders wrote Bateman: “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[s] about twenty five hundred dollars.”2

Bateman recalled : “Mr. Lincoln was very fond of children. His surviving friends in Springfield will never forget the long-familiar spectacle of his towering form in the street with Rob or Will or Tad, or all three, perhaps, at his side — nor his exhaustless imperturbability and goodhumored patience at the pranks and antics of his boys. They would sometimes be sent to hasten his steps homeward to dinner or tea. Promptly sallying forth from his office, he was sure to be stopped by some friend or neighbor at nearly every street corner, for a little chat — for somehow, the very streets seemed brighter when Abraham Lincoln appeared in them, and the moodiest face lightened up as his gaunt figure and pleasant face were seen approaching. But these detentions were not appreciated by the boys, whose keen appetites stirred them on to get Paterfamilias home as soon as possible. In the course of these efforts by the youngsters, the future President of the United States was very often placed in very amusing positions and attitudes. The spectacle of two little chaps tugging and pulling at his coat-tails, while the third pushed in front, was often beheld — while Mr. Lincoln, talking and laughing, and pretending to scold, but all the while backing under the steady pressure of the above-mentioned forces, raised his voice louder and louder as he receded, till it died away in the distance and further conversation became impossible. He then faced about, and the little fellows hurried him off in triumph towards home.”3

Francis Fisher Browne wrote: “When Mr. Lincoln desired to consult Dr. Bateman, or introduce him to some friend, as he did almost daily, he often called out to him in such terms as these: “I say, you Big Schoolmaster, just come here, won’t you?”-an invitation to which the person addressed always responded with alacrity. It is necessary to mention that the adjective “Big” was intended to have a double reference,-directly to Dr. Bateman’s official position, and ironically to his physical stature, which, judged by Mr. Lincoln’s standards, would doubtless appear inconsiderable. Mr. Lincoln sometimes introduced the good Doctor to some rural acquaintance in the following terms: ‘This is my little friend, the Big Schoolmaster of Illinois.'”4 Lincoln scholar William Barton noted that Bateman “was, perhaps, the last man to shake hands with Abraham Lincoln as Lincoln was leaving Springfield, and he was one of the pallbearers at Lincoln’s funeral.”5

After Lincoln received the Republican presidential nomination in May 1860, Bateman was one of those who escorted the official convention delegation to the Lincoln house in Springfield to meet with him and inform him of his selection. Bateman was asked by the nominee to review his remarks for linguistic correctness. He responded that language “was all strictly correct, with one very slight exception –almost too trivial for mention. ‘Well, what is it?’ said he. ‘I wish to be correct without any exception, however trivial.’ Well, then, Mr. Lincoln, I replied, it would, perhaps be as well to transpose the ‘to’ and ‘not’ in that sentence,” pointing out a split infinitive. “Mr. Lincoln looked at it a moment and said: ‘Oh, you think I’d better turn those two little fellows end for end, eh?'”6

Lincoln chronicler Francis Fisher Browne wrote: “During the Presidential campaign of 1860, Mr. Lincoln’s reception-room in the State House adjoined the office of Dr. Bateman, who was then State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Between the two rooms there was an inner door, which, at Mr. Lincoln’s special request, was generally left open, for the sake of a better circulation of air; and through this door the large deputations that frequently waited upon the Presidential candidate, sometimes overflowed into Dr. Bateman’s office.7 One day, Lincoln spoke to Bateman about the likely political leanings of ministers in Springfield. Early Lincoln biographer Joseph Holland interviewed Bateman and reported a controversial story that Bateman related to him about Lincoln’s relationships to clergy and his faith: “Mr. Newton Bateman, Superintendent of Public Instruction for the State of Illinois, occupied a room adjoining surprise on receiving an affirmative answer. In that manner they went through the book, and then he closed it and sat silently and for some minutes regarding a memorandum in pencil which lay before him. At length he turned to Mr. Bateman with a face full of sadness, and said: ‘Here are twenty-three, ministers, of different denominations, and all of them are against me but three; and here are a great many prominent members of the churches, a very large majority of whom are against me. Mr. Bateman, I am not a Christian- God knows I would be one-but I have carefully read the Bible, and I do not so understand this book’; and he drew from his bosom a pocket New Testament. ‘These men well know,’ he continued, ‘that I am for freedom in the territories, freedom everywhere as far as the Constitution and laws will permit, and that my opponents are for slavery. They know this, and yet, with this book in their hands, in the light of which human bondage cannot live a moment, they are going to vote against me. I do not understand it at all.'”

“Here Mr. Lincoln paused-paused for long minutes, his features surcharged with emotion. Then he rose and walked up and down the room in the effort to retain or regain his self-possession. Stopping at last, he said, with a trembling voice and his cheeks wet with tears: ‘I know there is a God, and that He hates injustice and slavery. I see the storm coming, and I know that His hand is in it. If He has a place and work for me-and I think He has-I believe I am ready. I am nothing, but truth is everything. I know I am right because I know that liberty is right, for Christ teaches it, and Christ is God. I have told them that a house divided against itself cannot stand, and Christ and reason say the same; and they will find it so. Douglas don’t care whether slavery is voted up or voted down, but God cares, and humanity cares, and I care; and with God’s help I shall not fail. I may not see the end; but it will come, and I shall be vindicated; and these men will find that they have not read their Bibles aright.’
“Much of this was uttered as if he were speaking to himself, and with a sad and earnest solemnity of manner impossible to be described. After a pause, he resumed: ‘ Doesn’t it appear strange that men can ignore the moral aspects of this contest? A revelation could not make it plainer to me that slavery or the government must be destroyed. The future would be something awful, as I look at it, but for this rock on which I stand [alluding to the Testament which he still held in his hand] especially with the knowledge of how these ministers are going to vote. It seems as if God had borne with this thing [slavery] until the very teachers of religion have come to defend it from the Bible, and to claim for it a divine character and sanction; and now the cup of iniquity is full, and the vials of wrath will be poured out.'”8

Don E. Fehrenbacher and many other Lincoln scholars have doubted the veracity of this recollection attributed to Bateman: “This well-known contribution to the apotheosis of Lincoln must be regarded as dubious biographical material, although it is not inconceivable that Lincoln had some kind of discussion with Bateman in which he revealed more religious feeling than had been his custom.”9 Lincoln’s law partner, William H. Herndon, took particular umbrage at the Bateman story. According to William Barton: “Herndon had awaited the publication of Holland’s book with great eagerness, and he was pleased with it as a whole. But the Bateman incident roused his wrath. To him it made Lincoln a hypocrite, dissembling a Christian faith, which he had no good reason to conceal, beneath a pretense of infidelity, which was not, as Herndon believed, a profession that would have helped him.

Herndon promptly walked over to the State House and interviewed Mr. Bateman. ” I instantly sought Mr. Bateman,” he said, ” and found him in his office. I spoke to him politely and kindly, and he spoke to me in the same manner. I said substantially to him that Mr. Holland, in order to make Mr. Lincoln a technical Christian, had made him a hypocrite.”
What Bateman said to Herndon he was forbidden to publish, but the inference is ineluctable that he repudiated, in part, the interview with Holland, but did it on condition that Herndon should not publish the statement in a way that would raise the issue of veracity between himself and Holland.10

Herndon later wrote: “From what I know of Bateman and from what I know of Lincoln I give it on my opinion that the whole story about his religion is false and stands on about the same foundation as the story of Gulliver. I will admit that Mr. Bateman is a gentleman and a Christian. The story is told to Holland by Bateman in ’65 or ’66, five years after the conversation, and how correct it is no one will ever know till Mr. Bateman shall truthfully rewrite it. The idea of Lincoln’s ‘sublime religious passion’ is to me ridiculous, utterly ridiculous. Had Bateman or Holland said ‘his sublime political passion,’ it would have been correct….Lincoln believe in a Providence that ruled matter and mind and all ultimate substances by law, general, universal, and eternal. By those laws things were fated and doomed and this is Lincoln’s belief and his philosophy.”11 Lincoln scholar Barton defended Bateman “as a man of probity and upright character. He never willfully misrepresented. But he had a rhetorical mind; not only his style, but his mind, was rhetorical. He embellished his narratives because it was in him to do so.”12 Historian Allen Guelzo noted: “Others who knew Bateman tended to follow Herndon’s judgment: Julian Sturtevant, who had known both Lincoln and Bateman, thought Bateman ‘naturally sly.'”13

Bateman undeniably had special access to Lincoln in 1860-61 and was a generally respected figure in Springfield. He noted that President-elect Lincoln’s receptions in the State Capitol provided “for the study of the general situation, and of those intricate and delicate questions which would inevitably confront his administration at its very opening. That room was a school to him, and to the uttermost did he improve its advantages.”14

Bateman recalled that on the day President-elect Lincoln left Springfield, February 10, 1861: “I accompanied him to the railroad station, and stood by his side on the platform of the care, when he delivered that memorable farewell to his friends and neighbors.”15 The next day, Bateman wrote Lincoln: “You cannot know how I have desired an occasion to testify my respect and affection for you. Perhaps such an opportunity will never be afforded. I have never felt towards any other living man, as I do towards you – for no other have I ever felt, in my very soul that it would be a pleasure to suffer, to fight, if need be. I believe I can truly say that an insult offered to your name, or an aspersion cast upon your honor, would kindle my indignation and resentment more quickly and deeply than if offered to myself. With my whole soul I believe in you, good, honest, noble Abraham Lincoln. This may seem strange language, but I cannot help it – it is true, and as you are about to leave us for the duties and anxieties of Washington, I must tell you so – it does me good. I have sometimes thought that I understood your real nature better than many of your other friends – that beneath the statesman, the politician, and the man absorbed in public affairs, I could see another life as a man — In respect to your administration, I have but one fear — that the policy dictated by the clear deductions of your own reason & the promptings of your own heart, may, at times, be modified by the deference which you may deem it proper to yield to the opinions of others. I would far sooner trust the Government to your clear & logical perception of moral, political & historical truth, & to your (as I believe) constitutional loyalty to conviction, than to the subtlest diplomacy of the wisest & wiliest cabinet that ever was formed.”16

Bateman became president of Knox College in Galena in 1875. Along with Paul Selby, Bateman edited The Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois – an important source of information about Lincoln’s contemporaries.


  1. Harold Holzer, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861, p. 19.
  2. CWAL, III, p. 341 (Letter from O.M. Hatch, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesse K. Dubois to Newton Bateman, November 20, 1858).
  3. Francis Fisher Browne, The Every-Day Life of Abraham Lincoln, .
  4. Joseph Holland, Life of Lincoln, p. 236-38.
  5. William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln, p. 124.
  6. Josiah Gilbert Holland, Holland’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. xxi.
  7. Newton Bateman, Abraham Lincoln: An Address, p. 23.
  8. Newton Bateman, Abraham Lincoln, p. 35.
  9. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress., “Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois.”, (Letter from Newton Bateman to Abraham Lincoln, February 11, 1861).
  10. Newton Bateman, Abraham Lincoln An Address, p. 25-27.
  11. Francis Fisher Browne, The Every-Day Life of Abraham Lincol, p. 350.
  12. William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln, p. 114.
  13. Newton Bateman, Abraham Lincoln An Address, p. 31.
  14. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, The Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 26.
  15. William E. Barton, The Soul of Abraham Lincoln, p. 121.
  16. Emanuel Hertz, editor, The Hidden Lincoln from the Letters and Papers of William H. Herndon, p. 404.