The Politicians: Robert Boal (1806-1903)

Robert Boal was a doctor and politician who was a loyal political supporter of Abraham Lincoln. Boal was born in Pennsylvania and moved to Lacon, Illinois, in 1836 after studying and practicing medicine in Ohio. There, he became active in both medical professional societies and Whig politics. He twice served in the State Legislature – in the Senate from 1844-1848 and in the House of Representatives from 1854-1858. Boal was conscientious, personable, inquisitive, and an accomplished speaker. His long life naturally led him to be described as the “grand old man” of medicine in Peoria; he was one of the organizers in 1850 of the Illinois State Medical Society and later served as its president.

Boal met Lincoln in 1842 and became a strong supporter of Lincoln’s politics and political ambitions. When it appeared in 1846 that former Congressman John J. Hardin would seek reelection to Congress where he had already served one term, Lincoln sought State Senator Boal’s support for the Whig congressional nomination. Boal’s three-county district had the potential to be critical in putting together a majority of the delegates at the convention.1 Lincoln wrote Dr. Boal in early January: “Since I saw you last fall, I have often thought of writing you as it was then understood I would, but on reflection I have always found that I had nothing new to tell you. All has happened as I then told you I expected it would – [Congressman Edward D.] Baker’s declining, Hardin’s taking the tract, and so on.

If Hardin and I stood precisely equal – that is, if neither of us had been to congress, or if we both had – it would only accord with what I have always done, for the sake of peace, to give way to him; and I expect I should do it. That I can voluntarily postpone my pretentions, when they are no more than equal to those to which they are postponed, you have yourself seen. But to yield to Hardin under present circumstances, seems to me as nothing else than yielding to one who would gladly sacrifice me altogether. This, I would rather not submit to. That Hardin is talented, energetic, usually generous and magnanimous, I have, before this, affirmed to you, and do not now deny. You know that my only argument is that “turn about is fair play”. This he, practically at least, denies.
If it would not be taxing you too much, I wish you would write me, telling the aspect of things in your county, or rather your district; and also send the names of some of your whig neighbours, to whom I might, with propriety write. Unless I can get some one to do this, Hardin with his old franking list, will have the advantage of me. My reliance for a fair shake (and I want nothing more) in your county is chiefly on you, because of your position and standing, and because I am acquainted with so few others. Let this be strictly confidential, & any letter you may write me shall be the same if you desire. Let me hear from you soon.2

Dr. Boal told the future president that he believed it was Lincoln’s chance as determined by the 1843 convention. Boal supported him for the nomination on May 1 and the general election against Methodist minister Peter Cartwright. Lincoln relied on Boal’s support in Marshall County which was predominantly Democratic. During the campaign Lincoln wrote a political ally an analysis of his base of support: “At Lacon, in Marshall the very most active friend I have in the District (If I except yourself) is at work.”3

Mr. Lincoln’s religious orthodoxy became an issue in the campaign. Rev. Cartwright circulated a document suggesting that Lincoln was an “infidel.” Boal later wrote that “Cartwright sneaked through this part of the district after Lincoln, and grossly misrepresented him.”4 Historian Donald Riddle wrote that “Lincoln concluded, on the basis of the election returns, that because of Cartwright’s raising of the religious issue he had lost some votes in the localities where he was less well known. He was the more exasperated because Cartwright had made his charges in a ‘whispering campaign’ almost on the eve of the election, so that Lincoln could not effectively counter them.”5

Eight years later, Dr. Boal attended Lincoln’s speech at Peoria on October 16, 1854 in which Lincoln delivered a three-hour attack on the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Senator Stephen A. Douglas’s policy of popular sovereignty. Boal recalled: “I then resided at Lacon in Marshall County, – Mr Douglas had an appointment to speak there and Mr Lincoln’s friends having heard that he was to meet the Judge at Peoria the day previous, were anxious that he should also meet him at Lacon – accordingly Silas Ramsey Esqr and myself came to Peoria to see Mr Lincoln and obtain his Consent to Meet Judge Douglas, the following day – He agreed to accompany us to Lacon – Mr Lincoln[,] Mr Ramsay and Myself, went up in a Carriage, while Judge Douglas went by way of the River –

When we arrived at Lacon, we found Judge D, already there, and a large portion of the people of the County assembled to hear him and Mr Lincoln – The Circuit Court then in Session adjourned for the same purpose – Soon after our Arrival, Mr Lincoln saw Judge Douglas – who informed him that he was very hoarse and felt unable to speak – Mr Lincoln then informed his friends that he would not take advantage of the Judge’s indisposition, and would not address the people. His friends insisted upon a speech, but he refused to yield to their solicitations, and with his accumstomed [sic] magnanimity declared that it would be unfair and ungenerous in him to present his views to the people, unless Judge Douglas was able to reply – Consequently no discussion took place at Lacon. Mr Lincoln left that evening for Bloomington – On the following morning, Judge Douglas started with a gentleman in a Buggy, and went to Princeton, where he made a speech, to which either Mr. (now Chief Justice) Chase or Mr Lovejoy replied –
No agreement to my knowledge was ever entered into between Mr Lincoln and Judge Douglas with respect to any other discussion, than the one at Lacon – It is true, they did not meet afterwards in Public debate during that Canvass, but it was owing to the near approach of the election more than to any formal agreement to abandon the discussion of the Nebraska bill and its Kindred issues, I conversed freely with Mr Lincoln during our ride from Peoria to Lacon and subsequently, and I do not remember to have heard him allude to any agreement with Judge Douglas on that point – Had any such been made at that time I think I should have Known it –
It may not be improper to state that Judge Douglas was not aware that Mr Lincoln was to meet him at Lacon untill [sic] he was informed of the fact by a gentleman of Peoria (Hon E N. Powell) who was on the boat with him on the trip from Peoria to Lacon – Judge Douglas did not then allude to any agreement between Mr Lincoln and himself, to abandon the Canvass when he heard that Mr Lincoln would meet him at Lacon – Had it existed, he Certainly would have spoken of it to Judge Powell –6

Whatever actually happened at Lacon that day has long been in dispute, but Lincoln and Douglas did not again debate each other in the 1854 campaign. Anti-Nebraska candidates formed a majority in the new state legislature. Boal himself was elected to the State House of Representatives and supported Lincoln for election by the legislature to the U.S. Senate. In February 1855, Boal was one of Lincoln’s chief lieutenants in corralling votes for a race that Lincoln ultimately lost to Lyman Trumbull.

In 1856, Boal attended the first state convention of the new Republican Party. In September, Boal requested Lincoln to campaign in Marshall County. Lincoln replied: “Yours of the 8th. inviting me to be with [you] at Lacon on the 30th. Inst. is received. I feel that I owe you, and our friends of Marshall, a good deal; and I will come if I can; and if I do not get there, it will be because I shall think my efforts are more needed further South.”7 On September 30, Lincoln and abolitionist Owen Lovejoy addressed a large crowd of 2,000 Republicans at Lacon. It was part of an extensive campaign swing by Lincoln on behalf of presidential candidate John C. Frémont.

In December 1856, Lincoln encouraged Boal to run for speaker of the State House of Representatives. “I suppose the ‘Chenery House’ [in Springfield] is likely to be the Republican Head Quarters. I find the best that can be done there is to give you the room you had two years ago, or one like it, at $21 per week, with fire and light, for the two persons. I do not believe you can do better, at any of the Hotels. If you conclude to take it, Mr. Chenery wishes you to write him immediately.

When I was at Chicago two weeks ago I saw Mr. [Isaac] Arnold; and from a remark of his, I inferred he was thinking of the Speakership, though I think he was not anxious about it. He seemed most anxious for harmony generally, and particularly that the contested seats from Peoria and McDonough might be rightly determined.
Since I came home I had a talk with Cullom, one of our American [Party] representatives here; and he says he is for you for Speaker, and also that he thinks, all the Americans will be for you, unless it be Gorin of Macon, of whom he can not speak.
If you would like to be Speaker go right up and see Arnold. He is talented, a practiced debater; and, I think, would do himself more credit on the floor, than in the Speaker’s seat. Go and see him; and if you think fit, show him this letter.”8

Boal lost the Republican nomination for speaker to future Chicago Congressman Isaac N. Arnold who in turn lost to the Democratic candidate for the post.

In 1861, Boal asked to have his son James appointed to the American legation in Paris. President Lincoln wrote a note of support but the appointment apparently was not made. During the Civil War, however, Dr. Boal was appointed surgeon of the board of enrollment for the Army in Peoria and moved there to carry out his responsibilities.

During this period, Dr. Boal visited the White House and reported a story that Lincoln told: “Tom Corwin, of Ohio…met an old man at Alexandria who knew George Washington, and he told Tom that George Washington often swore. Now, Corwin’s father had always held the father of our country up as a faultless person and told his son to follow in his footsteps. ‘Well,’ said Corwin, ‘when I heard that George Washington was addicted to the vices and infirmities of man, I felt so relieved that I just shouted for joy.”9


  1. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, I, p. 231.
  2. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (CWAL), II, p. 375 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Robert Boal, September 14, 1856).
  3. Alexander McClure, Abe Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories, p. 309.
  4. CWAL, I, p. 352-353 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Robert Boal, January 7, 184).
  5. CWAL, I, p. 354 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Benjamin F. James, January 14, 1846).
  6. CWAL, I, p. 384.
  7. Donald W. Riddle, Lincoln Runs for Congress, p. 173.
  8. CWAL, II, p. 375 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Robert Boal, September 14, 1856).
  9. CWAL, II, p. 387 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Robert Boal, December 25, 1856).