The Politicians: Ninian W. Edwards (1809-1889)

President Lincoln’s patronage problems were compounded by his wife’s relatives – who were anxious for positions which they did not necessarily deserve as a measure of their political loyalty to Mr. Lincoln. An egregious example was the case of Ninian W. Edwards, the husband of Mary Todd Lincoln’s sister. When Mr. Lincoln first moved to Springfield, Edwards was a legislator and lawyer at the pinnacle of the city’s social mountain. But his political and economic condition slipped during the 1850s. He switched to the Democratic Party in 1851 and lived off his position as Superintendent of Public Instruction until the Republicans took control of the governorship in 1857.

With Lincoln, Ninian Edwards had constituted one of Whig “Long Nine” from Sangamon County who served in State Legislature in mid 1830s. Mr. Lincoln met Edwards when he first went to Vandalia for the State Legislature. Edwards, whose father was the state’s first governor, was seeking to be elected the state’s attorney general. He failed but returned in the next two sessions as a fellow member of the State House of Representatives. Together they worked successfully to move the State Capital to Springfield. In Springfield, the Edwards home was a center of social life and Mr. Lincoln was soon drawn there once he moved in 1836. Edwards later claimed “that when Lincoln first came to Springfield I assisted Lincoln – offered to buy him a good law library and send him to some law school and these offers he refused – said that he was too poor and did not wish to involve himself.”1

Aristocratic, vain, hot-tempered and egotistical, Edwards was not renominated by Whigs in 1840. He has sided with the Democratic governor against legislative support for a vast expansion of internal improvements in Illinois. Edwards later was elected as a state senator, again as a state representative and then state superintendent of instruction in 1854. He and his wife Elizabeth opposed the marriage between Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln. Nevertheless in November 1842, the Edwards home was the site of the Lincolns’ marriage to Mary Todd. “Mr. and Mrs. Edwards, knew nothing of the wedding until the morning of the day of the wedding,” reported Springfield resident William Jayne. “Only meager preparations could be made on so – short notice & only a few friends were present.” Eugenia Jones Hunt later recalled:

In the late ‘sixties, Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd’s wedding day was described to me in detail by Mary Todd Lincoln’s sister, Mrs. Frances Todd Wallace, who lived with her daughter Fanny on the corner of capitol Avenue and Seventh, in Springfield, Illinois. I termed her the saint of the Todd family. I enjoyed my visits with her, talking of olden times in her hospitable home.

Mr. Lincoln had known my sister Mary over three years, when he called to see her the night before their marriage. He served four terms in the state legislature. He advocated sobriety, morality, and was also instrumental in establishing free schools all over the state. In his conversation with Mary, he referred to his lack of means, his ambitions, and his love for her. ‘I now suggest and insist upon our marriage at once. We will live at the Globe Tavern for the present. Now we must go, very quietly without fuss and feathers, at ten o’clock tomorrow morning, before the magistrate, and ask him to marry us.’
The next morning at the breakfast table, Mary told our sister, Lizzie, and Mr. Edwards that she and Mr. Lincoln had decided to be married at ten o’clock that morning, very quietly by the magistrate. Our aristocratic sister, with an outburst, gave Mary a good scolding. ‘Do not forget that you are a Todd. But, Mary, if you insist on being married today, we will make merry, and have the wedding here this evening. I will not permit you to be married out of my house. Mr. Lincoln should ask the Reverend Dr. Dresser to officiate at the ceremony.’

Mr. Edwards said: ‘Mary, I agree with you – Mr. Lincoln is talented and will be an influential man, a leader among men. And now, ask all of your friends to be present at your wedding.’

Be assured, Eugenia, it was a hurly-burly day. How we hustled! I had a whole boiled ham which I took over for the wedding supper, and made the bride’s and groom’s cake. It was a very pretty and gay wedding. The ladies were in lovely evening gowns. Sister Mary was handsome in her beautiful bridal dress of white satin, with her pearl necklace, earrings, and brooch. Miss Lina Lamb and Julia Jayne were Mary’s bridesmaids. After the ceremony, congratulations, and the wedding supper, we danced until midnight in those spacious parlors of the Ninian Edwards home.”2

In 1851 Edwards had switched from the Whig to the Democratic Party, allegedly because he thought it was ticket to election to Congress. Judge David Davis said Lincoln “has talked to me on the subject, and is deeply mortified.”3 Edwards supported Stephen Douglas in both the 1858 senatorial election and the 1860 presidential campaign. Despite their political differences, he repeatedly sought Mr. Lincoln’s assistance He pestered Mr. Lincoln for both a loan and legal advice. He got the loan but not the advice. And he complained that he had been unfairly treated – before defaulting on the loan.

Edwards was one of several erstwhile Illinois friends whose official actions caused President Lincoln embarrassment. Just his appointment riled up Mr. Lincoln’s allies in state government. Biographer Paul Simon wrote of their tangled affairs: “Edwards wrote Lincoln for a job shortly after Lincoln’s inauguration as President. The apparent purpose of his letter was for permission to check something out in one of the departments. This request was made in a very vague sort of way, but then he added that he was really in a bad way financially. Lincoln replied with a ‘My dear Sir’ to his brother-in-law and added: ‘It pains me to hear you speak of being ruined in your pecuniary affairs. I still hope you are injured only and not ruined.’ He then suggested that Edwards come to Washington work out arrangements for getting the information he sought. Lincoln chose to ignore temporarily the not-so subtle pleas for the job.”4 Edwards persisted and Mr. Lincoln yielded – naming him as a commissary of subsistence – a position which Republicans charged, allowed him to enrich himself and become a public embarrassment to the President.

In July 1861, Secretary of State Ozias M. Hatch State Treasurer William Butler, and State Auditor Jesse K. Dubois wrote a blistering letter to President Lincoln: “It is reported in this city, that you have written a letter to Mr Ninian W. Edwards, in which you say, ‘that as soon as Congress passes the necessary laws, you will appoint him Quarter Master, to be assigned duty and attached to General Fremonts Division.’ We do not believe that you have written such a letter, although it comes to us upon what, under ordinary circumstances, would be good authority. For several years we have been ferriting out, and exposing, the most stupendous and unprecedented frauds ever perpetrated in this country, by men closely connected with Mr Edwards. The desperate character of this contest, and its results you know as well as we do. Knowing all this we cannot, as we have said, believe it to be true. We wish however to protest against such an appointment, in the most emphatic manner, and do most solemnly protest against it. If appointed we feel assured that he may be an instrument only, in the hands of these men, with Gov Matteson at their head.5

Three months later, the threesome was back complaining: “As we predicted, Joel A. Matteson, under a contract made with between Ninian W. Edwards commissary on the one part, and Dr Fowler and Mr Gooddell of the other part, is now, in person , furnishing subsistence to the troops at Camp Butler; and claims the right to do so at the other encampments in this state. We again insist that this outrage against common decency be corrected. We protest that Mr Edwards is not, or ought not to be permitted to make such contracts, and we respectfully ask that he be assigned to duty, elsewhere, and be required to contract directly with honest men, and not indirectly with thieves and scoundrels.”6

Presidential aide John Nicolay testified to the contretemps that Edwards had raised. “N.W. Edwards Esq, by virtue of his appointment as Brigade Commissary, has somehow obtained the superintendence of contracting for all the Commisary supplies in the State, and our men say that Gov. Matteson has contracts under him, and is personally engaged in delivering the supplies at the various camps,” wrote Nicolay to his boss in October 1861. “Mr. Edwards starts for Washington to-night to obtain further authority to make all contracts of all kinds for the State, and our friends say that the whole business of furnishing the State troops, will thus fall into Gov. Mattesons hands, and that this necessarily brings the Gov. into business relations with all our friends in the State, who will thus be bound to recognize and deal with him.”7

The same month, Edwards himself sent a detailed letter of explanation of his activities to Mr. Lincoln, saying “I am truly sorry to be the cause of adding to your perplexities, and to avoid giving any color for casting them on you, I think I had better make my arrangements to give up the office – I certainly should have never accepted it, but for my very great pecuniary embarrassment – Even with it a claim was sent to a lawyer to be sued on at the next Court- There is no man living who is more conscientious in the discharge of public business than I am. I would not let the Government lose a cent if I could help it for the best friend in the world.”8

Mr. Lincoln appeared to have retained his personal confidence in Edwards despite the continuing attack from the Springfield Republican establishment. Considering a proposal for colonization of freed slaves in Panama, President Lincoln, appointed Edwards ‘to review the prospectus and other legal documents submitted by the Chiriqui Improvement Company and learned that the claims of Thompson and the other entrepreneurs were fully verified,” according to historian David Donald.9 President Lincoln remained loyal to Edwards – to a point. He wrote editor Edward I. Baker: “No formal charges are preferred against them, so far as I know; nor do I expect any will be made; or, if made, will be substantiated. I certainly do not suppose Mr. Edwards has, at this time of his life, give up his old habits, and turned dishonest.”10

A barrage of complaints in May 1863 forced President Lincoln to act. Typical was a letter from Jesse Dubois: “I have been requested by many of your oldest and most influential friends to join them in representing to you the feelings which exist here about the manner in which the Quartermasters and Commissary’s Departments are conducted at this place. I can only say what I have said before that the present incumbents Mess. Edwards & Bailhache ought never have been appointed and after they were appointed should never have been Stationed here. They have given all their patronage to the enemies of your administration and have Contrived to amass fortunes with a rapidity which is a disgrace to the Government and a Scandal to its supporters They ought to be relieved from duty here and placed where they can do no harm. You cannot afford to keep them here at the risk of alienating the affections of your neighbors and life﷓long friends To allow them to hold their present positions can result in nothing but harm to you and your administration I have written this earnestly, because I feel so, and do not fear that you will believe me to be Actuated by any factious desire to cause you trouble or that I have any interest in this matter other than as I am your Friend and a friend of your Administration.”11

Rather than remove Edwards, Mr. Lincoln transferred him. And Edwards continued with protestations of loyalty to the President and allegations of the past political debts Mr. Lincoln owed him. On May 29, 1863, Mr. Lincoln sent a memorandum to 13 Springfield Republicans including Jesse K. Dubois, Ozias M Hatch, and Shelby M. Cullom – who had complained to Mr. Lincoln about the corrupt activities of Quartermaster [William H.] Bailhache and Commissary Edwards. Mr. Lincoln wrote: “Agree among yourselves upon any two of your own number, one of whom to be Quarter-Master, and the other be Commissary, to serve at Springfield, Illinois, and send me their names, and I will appoint them.”12

Mr. Lincoln replaced Edwards with George R. Weber and William H. Bailache with James Campbell in late June. Earlier that month, Edwards wrote President Lincoln a long letter which he pleaded for his job, defended his actions, reviewed a decade of political history and concluded: “If you write that this shall be done I believe it will satisfy all parties At all events can you not try it and allow me to remain here – I am a strong friend of the Union – I would also prefer not to make any Contracts – I assure you again that I shall not be dissatisfied with anything you may think for the best”.

Mr. [Edward L.] Baker has shown me your letter of the 15th – It pains me very much to hear that I give you any trouble – I know that I have not only kept my record correct, but I have taken extraordinary pains to avoid giving any cause for complaint – I have let all contracts strictly in accordance with law and have to swear that I have done so without favoring any one-
Will it not remove cause of complaint, if the contracts in future can be awarded by the Chief Commissary of this department at Cincinnati-? I would then only have to make payments under them- This Col. Kilburn Chief C S would be willing to do-
When I asked an office from you, (it was not this one) I needed it very much﷓﷓ I can now do without it – I dont wish to embarrass you – If I am removed from here it will be said that there is good cause for it-

Under my present orders, I can keep my office at Chicago – provided the arrangement that Col Kilburn may let the contracts is not satisfactory – or rather than give you further trouble I will resign -I will do what you think best-

You speak of your life long friends in Springfield – desiring a change – I would like to ask you, if when you were a young man I was not your most devoted friend in more ways than one – Let Joshua F Speed, your own conscience recollection, and a letter of yours written to me in 1842 before your marriage answer – Again who was it, when it was thought in 1840 that you would not be nominated for the Legislature publicly stated if any one was to be left out – he (I) should be – Who was your best friend when – Baker, John Hardin & yourself were candidates for nomination to a seat in Congress – Again which of the two Butler or myself was your best friend for years after that – At the last Presidential Election although I differed with you I made several speeches, with the approbation of your best political friends, in order to say what I thought of you – saying that if there was a man living without a fault I believed you were that man – This I can prove.

I know that you thought when you [Governor Joel] Matteson & [Lyman] Trumbull were candidates for the Senate, that I prefered Matteson to you – This was not true for I stated publicly, that if there was any chance for you, I prefered that you should be elected to either of them – and this too although I differed with you in Politics – I am sure you know me to well to think that I would tell you an untruth – I know that others made you believe otherwise – I mention these things to place myself right – I am thankful to you – for what you have already done – and in your present situation I do not wish to add to your embarrassment – I could mention some things to show that I was ready and willing, to furnish, when you were a young man, substantial evidence of my devoted attachment to you-

If I have done any thing improper I ought to be removed – I would court an investigation from Judge Davis (who is here) or any of your friends-

You have not a friend who is acquainted with the intricate relation existing between us in former times, who would not say that you did right and acted nobly in aiding me when I needed it – For proof of this I refer you to Mr. Brownings’ & Judge Daviss letters – All your old friends Joseph Gillespie, Uncle Cyrus [Edwards], A[rchibald] Williams Col. Servant and others, have told me that you did what was right – no man of heart would say otherwise[.]13

Relationships between the Edwards and Mary Todd Lincoln were rocky throughout her life, but they rescued her from the insane asylum to which she had been committed in 1875 and took her to their home in 1876. Mrs. Lincoln particularly disliked the Edwards’ daughter Julia, who was married to Illinois State Journal editor Edward L. Baker, but liked their son, Edward “Lewis” Baker, Jr.


  1. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 623 (William H. Herndon interview with Elizbeth and Ninian W. Edwards, July 27, 1887).
  2. Eugenia Jones Hunt, “My Personal Recollections of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln”, The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, March 1945, p. 236-237.
  3. Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis, p. 74.
  4. Paul Simon, Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years, p. 300.
  5. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Ozias M. Hatch, William Butler, and Jesse K. Dubois to Abraham Lincoln, July 22 1861).
  6. 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, William Butler, and Ozias M. Hatch to Abraham Lincoln, October 21, 1861).
  7. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 61 (Letter to President Lincoln, October 21, 1861).
  8. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Ninian W. Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, October 27, 1861).
  9. David Herbert Donald, Lincoln, p. 344.
  10. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 275-276 (Letter to Edward L. Baker, June 15, 1863).
  11. 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, May 23, 1863).
  12. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VI, p. 237 (Letter to Jesse K. Dubois and others, May 29, 1863).
  13. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Ninian W. Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, June 18, 1863).