The Politicians: William A. Richardson (1811-1875)

Kentucky-born attorney and politician whose political career was closely allied to that of Stephen A. Douglas – whom Richardson succeeded in the Quincy district of the U.S. House of Representatives and whom Richardson eventually succeeded in the U.S. Senate. While Douglas had been chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, Richardson had been chair of the comparable committee in the House and helped steer the Kansas-Nebraska Act through Congress in 1854. Opposition to that legislation was a hallmark of Abraham Lincoln’s career.

Richardson first met Lincoln during the Black Hawk War of 1832. They served together in the Illinois State House of Representatives in the mid-1830s. Richardson remained a Lincoln political opponent for the rest of Lincoln’s life. Like Douglas, Richardson had some rough edges combined with a love of conviviality and liquor. A Richardson contemporary observed: “His smiles are only skin deep, and there is something of sorrow, and weariness with unrequited to in every deep line that seams his face.”1

Sculptor L. W. Volk recalled that Lincoln and Richardson met at his Chicago studio in 1860: I remember also, that he paid a high compliment to the late Gen. William A. Richardson, and said: “I regard him as one of the truest men that ever lived; he sticks to Judge Douglas through thick and thin—never deserted him and never will. I admire such a man! By the by, Mr. Volk, he is now in town, and stopping at the Tremont. May I bring him with me tomorrow to see the bust?” Accordingly he brought him and two other old friends, ex-Lieut.Gov. McMurtry of Illinois and Ebenezer Peck, all of whom looked a moment at the clay model, saying it was “just like him!” Then they began to tell stories and rehearse reminiscences, one after another. I can imagine I now hear their hearty laughs, just as I can see, as if photographed, the tall figure of Lincoln striding across that stubble-field.”2

In the fall of 1854, Abraham Lincoln campaigned against the legislation and specifically for Congressman Richardson’s opponent, Whig Archibald Williams. A Lincoln friend urged Lincoln to come to Quincy: “We are in the midst of what will probably be the warmest contest for Congress that we have ever had in this district – if the election was near at hand – Williams, I think would be elected beyond a doubt– This district is to be the great battlefield, the defeat of Richardson at this time, would be the downfall of Douglas, standing and occupying the same position on the Nebraska humbug — every foul and unfair means will be brought to operate against Williams.”3 One Macomb Whig wrote Lincoln in September, urging him to come: “Williams is doing much good service, but it is certainly necessary for him to stick to the Col who you no is great for assertion and would at once (If Williams left him) commence his game of Bragg I think the Col is beaten.”4 Richardson defeated Williams.

In 1855, Richardson was unsuccessful in an attempt to be elected speaker of the House of Representatives. In 1856, Richardson ran unsuccessfully for governor of Illinois. Equally unsuccessfully, he was Douglas’s presidential campaign manager at the Democratic National Convention in Cincinnati. Despite his close relationship to Douglas (and support for Douglas in his fight with President James Buchanan in 1857-58 over the Lecompton Constitution in Kansas), President Buchanan chose Richardson to be governor of the Nebraska territory in 1858.

Richardson again represented Douglas’s interests at the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston. Richardson spoke for Douglas while campaigning throughout the North. Historian Robert D. Holt wrote for two decades Douglas “needed an assistant, a manager, to carry on his program in his home state. The position, when granted to Richardson, came to one who was naturally adapted to it. Richardson was not endowed with the faculty for proposing significant ideas. He was, however, a faithful, diligent worker, one who would execute the plans that had originated in the mind of another.”5

A Democratic state convention was held in Springfield in mid-January 1861. Richardson chaired the resolutions committee. Historian Robert D. Holt wrote: “The resolutions which were unanimously adopted denied the right of secession, but asserted that the military arm of the government should never be employed to enforce the laws in any state.”6

Richardson subsequently presented himself as a Unionist but also loyal Democrat. The Illinois delegation nominated several individuals for commissions as brigadier generals. Lincoln appointed some Democrats, but not Richardson, who wrote the President in August: “At your request the Senators and Representatives from the state of Illinois presented to you the names of several Gentlemen whom they considered competent for Brigadier Generals of the Army of the United States At your fu[r]ther request, as I understand it, they were named in the same order that they were to be appointed[.] The name of the undersigned was third upon that list, placed there by his colleagues who were previously informed by him that he did not seek the appointment — that the position was one of such magnitude and grave responsibility that no man should seek it, but if it was tendered him a sense of duty to the country demanded that he should accept it[.] The President of the United States having however nominated to the Senate the first second and fourth Gentlemen upon that list and having omitted or passed over the third, I deem it my duty to relieve the President from all embar[r]assment by withdrawing my name from the list.”7

When Douglas died in June 1861, Quincy attorney Orville H. Browning, a close Lincoln friend, was appointed to replace him in the U.S. Senate. Richardson and Browning also had a close relationship and Richardson had promised to support Browning if he contested Republican Senator Lyman Trumbull in 1861. The two men had been personal friends and political opponents for years; Richardson defeated Browning for Congress in 1850 and 1852. In late April 1861, however, Browning wrote Lincoln: “Richardson has not attended any of our meetings. A great crowd went to his house on Friday night and called for him, but he did not appear – He was loudly called for again at the meeting on Saturday night, but did not show himself. His influence is gone.”8
Senator Browning served only until December 1861 when the Legislature voted 67-37 to elect Richardson. By 1863, Senator Richardson had become a peace Democrat and an opponent of Lincoln’s war policies. Richardson took an active role in organizing an anti-Lincoln, antiwar rally in June 1863. That prompted Lincoln friend James Conkling to organize a pro-Lincoln Administration rally in Springfield for early September and invite Lincoln. Although the president did not attend, he sent Conkling a letter to read which is ranked among Lincoln’s greatest state papers.

In 1865, Richardson was replaced in the Senate by Illinois Governor Richard Yates. Richardson retired from politics and devoted himself to journalism.


  1. Richard Lawrence Miller, Lincoln and His World: The Rise to National Prominence, 1843-1853, p. 91.
  2. L.W. Volk, “The Lincoln Life-Mask and How it Was Made”, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 1915, .
  3. Knox, (Letter from Abraham Jonas to Abraham Lincoln, September 16, 1854).
  4. (Letter from William H. Randolph to Abraham Lincoln, Friday, September 29, 1854).
  5. Robert D. Holt, “The Political Career of William A. Richardson”, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 26 (October 1933), p. 263.
  6. Robert D. Holt, “The Political Career of William A. Richardson”, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 26 (October 1933), p. 252.
  7. (Letter from William A. Richardson to Abraham Lincoln, August 7, 1862).
  8. (Letter from Orville H. Browning to Abraham Lincoln, Monday, April 22, 1861).