The Politicians: Orlando B. Ficklin (1808-1886)

Kentucky-born lawyer and politician who served in Congress from 1843-1849 and 1851-1853 as a Democrat. Ficklin served with Lincoln during his sole congressional term. A decade earlier, they served together as members of the State House of Representatives. They first met in 1835 at the legislative session in Vandalia. Later, Ficklin worked with Lincoln as a co-counsel on many cases and sometimes against him. “I knew him well as a Lawyer at Statesman & citizen, valued him highly & deeply deplored his death,” wrote Ficklin in 1866. “He was a case Lawyer but in a case where he felt that he had the right none could surpass him.”1

Fellow attorney Usher Linder recalled that Ficklin “was an ambitious young lawyer of limited education, but of great perseverance and determination; he had an iron will, which made him successful at the bar and in politics.”2 Linder wrote: “Ficklin had a considerable vein of dry drollery about him, accompanied by a look and a comical lifting up of his eyebrows that would provoke a laugh from an anchorite.”3 Ficklin himself wrote of Lincoln that their “friendship…remained unbroken by political differences or personal interests or otherwise, up to his death.”4

Lincoln and Ficklin debated in July 1843 – the year that Ficklin first joined Congress. The Illinois State Register, which supported Democrats, reported of Lincoln’s speech: “It was a little amusing to see how cautiously, this deputy and ‘spokesman’ of the whig candidate in this district, came into the doctrine of the assumption of the State debts; endeavoring first to show that all the whigs were not for it; that it was not a question at issue; that he never had heard a speech on it before? [sic] and finally, that it was not a bad thing at any rate, and the people had better go for it. It is impossible to follow through his answer – but all were amused at the speech.”5

Democrat Ficklin served with Whig Lincoln in Congress from 1847 to 1849. Shortly before Lincoln left Illinois to serve in Washington, he and Ficklin were opposing attorneys in the “Matson case” in which Lincoln was one of the lawyers for a slaveholder trying to retain custody of his slave in the free state of Illinois. As Ficklin remembered the case and Lincoln’s participation: “The fact that General Matson had at such time when he placed a slave on his Illinois farm, publicly declared that he was not placed there for a permanent settlement, and that no counter statement had ever been made publicly or privately by him, constituted the web and woof of the argument of Mr. Lincoln, and these facts were plausibly, ingeniously and forcibly presented to the court, so as to give them all the effect and significance to which they were entitled and more.”6 Lincoln lost the case – some observers thought because he did not really wish to win it.

Lincoln’s congressional term deepened his opposition to slavery. Ficklin wrote of Lincoln’s house-mates in his Washington boarding house: “In this company his views crystallized, and when he came out from such association he was fixed in his views on emancipation.”7 Lincoln told Usher Linder that Whigs in Congress “are compelled to speak and their only option is whether they will, when they do speak, tell the truth, or tell a foul, villainous, and bloody falsehood.” 8

Ten years later in the middle of the contentious Illinois Senate campaign of 1858, Ficklin was rudely called on by Lincoln as a witness to his congressional service. At the fourth Lincoln-Douglas debate in Ficklin’s hometown of Charleston, he was seated on the platform while Lincoln was defending his record on the Mexican-American war against Senator Stephen A. Douglas’s attack. One onlooker recalled that Lincoln said as he pulled Ficklin forward; “I am not going to hurt Colonel Ficklin; I only call him as a witness. Now, the Colonel and I were in Congress together, and I want him to tell the whole truth about this Mexican business.”9

According to the Chicago Tribune transcript of Lincoln’s speech, he said: “I do not mean to do anything with Mr. Error! Hyperlink reference not valid. Ficklin except to present his face and tell you that he personally knows it to be a lie! He was a member of Congress at the only time I was in Congress, and he (Ficklin) knows that whenever there was an attempt to procure a vote of mine which would indorse the origin and justice of the war, I refused to give such indorsement, and voted against it; but I never voted against the supplies for the army, and he knows, as well as Judge Douglas, that whenever a dollar was asked by way of compensation or otherwise, for the benefit of the soldiers, I gave all the votes that Ficklin or Douglas did, and perhaps more.”

After some applause for Lincoln, Ficklin stated: “My friends, I wish to say this in reference to the matter. Mr. Lincoln and myself are just as good personal friends as Judge Douglas and myself. In reference to this Mexican war, my recollection is that when [Congressman George] Ashmun’s resolution (amendment) was offered by Mr. Ashmun of Massachusetts, in which he declared that the Mexican war was unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced by the President—my recollection is that Mr. Lincoln voted for that resolution.”

Lincoln then stated: “That is the truth. Now you all remember that was a resolution censuring the President for the manner in which the war was begun. You know they have charged that I voted against the supplies, by which I starved the soldiers who were out fighting the battles of their country. I say that Ficklin knows it is false. When that charge was brought forward by the Chicago Times, the Springfield Register (Douglas organ) reminded the Times that the charge really applied to John Henry: and I do know that John Henry is now making speeches and fiercely battling for Judge Douglas.”10

Ficklin remained a loyal Democrat, serving as a delegate to several national Democratic conventions. He visited Washington in the summer of 1864 to seek release of 15 prisoners who had been imprisoned after a riot (in which nine men were killed) between anti-war Democrats and Union soldiers on March 28. Ficklin was urging that the men arrested, who he believed had no connection to the riot, be released to civilian authorities for trial. Lincoln wrote Ficklin on July 22, 1864: “I had about concluded to send the Coles county men home, turning over the indicted to the authorities, and discharging the others, when Col. [James] Oak[e]s’ report, with the evidence he had taken in the case was put in my hand. The evidence is very voluminous, and Col. Oaks says it fully implicates every one of the sixteen now held; and so far as I have been able to look into it, his statement is sustained. I can not now decide the case until I shall have fully examined this evidence.”11

Ficklin responded the same day: “I have received your note in reference to the Coles Co. prisoners & appreciate the embarrassment under which you are placed by the report of Col. Oaks. The evidence on which his report is based is not only wholly ex parte but was taken when the town was a military camp & the whole community was excited beyond description.”

If these men can be tried at home or if the testimony can be retaken before any fair minded man it will establish the innocence of those not indicted.
I deprecate & openly denounce all resistance to or violation of law as much as any one can or need do, but the community generally believe most of those men to be innocent & they have confidence that you will not allow them to be sacrificed for the sins of others. I leave this matter in your hands with the full confidence that you will deal justly with these men. 12

On September 10, Ficklin wrote Lincoln again: “I beg leave to enclose to you the letter of our mutual friend Thomas A. Marshall, than whom no more ultra Republican lives in this latitude. He tells you of the insignificance & want of influence & of consequence of the 15 Coles Co prisoners. Why keep them confined in Fort Delaware.
Powerless for good or evil, & wholly disconnected with the Coles Co. riot, their confinement is entirely without significance. It is a punishment to innocent men but furnish no warning to the guilty.” He added: “I have told the friends of these prisoners that I had known you long & well & that you would not keep them in prison when there is no proof of their guilt.”13

President Lincoln, in the middle of a reelection campaign, did not rush to act. Finally on November 4, four days before the election, President Lincoln issued an order: “Let these prisoners be sent back to Coles County, Ill., those indicted be surrendered to the sheriff of said county, and the others be discharged.”14


  1. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 58 (Letter from William H. Herndon to Orlando b. Ficklin, June 25, 186).
  2. Usher F. Linder, editor, Reminiscences of the Early Bench and Bar of Illinois, p. 111.
  3. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (CWAL), III, p. 182-183 (Lincoln Douglas Debates, Fourth Lincoln-Douglas Debate, September 18, 1858).
  4. CWAL, VII, p. 455 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Orlando Ficklin, July 22, 1864).
  5. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois, (Letter from Orlando B. Ficklin to Abraham Lincoln, September 10, 1864).
  6. CWAL, VIII, p. 90 (Order Concerning Prisoners from Coles County, Illinois, November 4, 1864).
  7. Usher F. Linder, editor, Reminiscences of the Early Bench and Bar of Illinois, p. 110.
  8. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 58 (Letter from William H. Herndon to Orlando B. Ficklin, June 25, 1865).
  9. CWAL, I, p. 327 (Illinois State Register, July 28, 1843).
  10. Anton-Hermann Chroust, “Abraham Lincoln Argues a Pro-Slavery Case”, American Journal of Legal History, October 1961, p. 304.
  11. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, I, p. 284.
  12. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, I, p. 269.
  13. Joseph G. Cannon later recalled. Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacher, editor, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 77.
  14. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, editor, Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois, Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois, (Letter from Orlando Ficklin to Abraham Lincoln, July 22, 1864).