The Preachers: Peter Cartwright (1785-1872)

Mr. Lincoln and the Rev. Peter Cartwright first met in 1830. “Before the Black Hawk war Lincoln was driving prairie team for Reuben Brown, who was breaking prairie for me on my farm at Island Grove. Peter Cartwright who was then running for Governor again Kinney, came along by the field electioneering,” recalled William Butler. “Lincoln at this time was not prepossessing – he was awkward and very shabbily dressed, and Cartwright being already then a presiding elder in the Methodist Church, and dressed as became his station,” said Butler. “Cartwright and Brown agreed in politics – and Cartwright laid down his doctrines in a way which undoubtedly seemed to Lincoln a little too dogmatical. A discussion soon arose between him and Cartwright, and my first special attention was attracted to Lincoln by the way in which he met the great preacher in his arguments, and the extensive acquaintance he showed with the politics of the State – in fact he quite beat him in the argument.”1 Cartwright had been born in Virginia, honed his preaching skills in Kentucky and Tennessee and moved to Illinois in 1824. He combined interests in religion and politics with a strong interest Methodist college education. “He had a ready wit, dealt with deriders at his meetings with force, and was widely admired and respected,” wrote Paul Findley in A. Lincoln: The Crucible of Congress.2

Mr. Lincoln and Cartwright, a chaplain in the War of 1812, confronted each other in the legislative elections of 1832. Democrat Cartwright won and Whig Lincoln lost. It was Cartwright’s second and last term in the state legislature. Their paths of older and younger man were to cross again on several occasions – in politics, law, and religion. “Cartwright was the “foremost Methodist circuit rider in pioneer Illinois. In a fearless frontier ministry, preaching the gospel to a farflung constituency unreached and unreachable by conventional, college-trained minister, Cartwright was a legend in his time,” wrote historian Douglas L. Wilson. “A powerful man who could not be intimated by frontier roughs and who could intimidate those who opposed him, Cartwright had engaged his conspicuous talents as a speaker and activist as freely in politics as in religion.”3

Mr. Lincoln could be equally fearless, but Wilson has concluded that in a political-religious newspaper exchange in the summer of 1834, Mr. Lincoln hid behind the signature of New Salem merchant Samuel Hill. The Beardstown Chronicle published a stinging attack on Peter Cartwright’s politics and character – comparing two different letters which Cartwright had authored. “Mr. Lincoln wrote a first rate Notice of the Revd Peter Cartwright, before he left here,” wrote John McNamar, Mr. Lincoln’s rival for Anne Rutledge’s affection. He maintained that “the article alluding to Mr Cartwright obtained a good deal of notoriety from the fact that Mr Hill rather innocently I should think, signed the article with his own name and published it and consequently Received the Skinning that old Peter administered in a public speech at Salem shortly after.”4 At the end of the letter, the author wrote: “[T]the sum totum of this matter is this: None has a greater thirst for political distinction than Peter Cartwright. When he wrote his Advocate letter he had no intention that any western man, save probably a few of his militia should see it: but, unfortunately, it was discovered. This was a trying time with Peter. He saw, as any man might have seen, that the effect of this letter was fastening itself upon his political prospects with the benumbing embrace of an incubus, and weighing them down with the weight of a mountain. Then came his ‘Moral Waste,’ which is nothing more nor less than an effort to shake off the effect of the Advocate letter. But it is a failure. He will have to shake again.”5

“The attack on Peter Cartwright in the Beardstown Chronicle in November 1834, although signed and paid for by Samuel Hill, is far more likely to have come from the pen of young Abraham Lincoln,” wrote Douglas L. Wilson. “Hill had motive and opportunity, but there is no indication that he had the requisite literary facility. Lincoln had all three, plus experience, and there seems little reason to doubt that he was acknowledged as the author by certain of his New Salem friends.”6 According to local resident Caleb Carman, editor “Simeon Francis would not publish [it] in the Sangamon Journal.”7

Cartwright was a persuasive and combative preacher. Lincoln biographer Richard Lawrence Miller conjectured that Lincoln and Cartwright tangled in the 1830s over their respective views of religion and its role in public life. “I suspect Rev. Peter Cartwright contributed to those whispers about Lincoln, and evidence that Lincoln possessed similar suspicions exists in the form of robust verbal attacks he made on Cartwright after the election was over, in which Lincoln hid behind false names. Cartwright was known to question his opponents’ religious faith. Cartwright could be contentious and early in his career. Lincoln frequently villified Cartwright, usually without identifying himself. Miller wrote: “Abe’s little war against Peter Cartwright reveals several things. Lincoln was angry at Cartwright, and Lincoln didn’t get angry because a person differed with him on a public policy question. Cartwright had done something else to irk Lincoln, something beyond normal politics. We see that Lincoln thought the people of Illinois were oppressed by preachers, and he wanted people to see Cartwright’s common school scheme as threatening the separation of church and state.”8

“Cartwright was an oddity in his way, quite as original as Lincoln himself,” wrote Ward Hill Lamon. “He was a foeman worthy of Spartan steel, and Mr. Lincoln’s fame was greatly enhanced by his victory over the famous preacher.”9 “Cartwright was not only a able pioneer preacher, but he was a loyal Democrat, too. He believed in Democracy, and was ready to run on the Democratic ticket, or to advance the party’s cause in any other way,” wrote Shelby M. Cullom.10 According to one Illinois contemporary, Cartwright “was not so tall as Lincoln by some inches…but was much more muscular. His face expressed along with geniality and kindness something of the disposition of both the lion and the mastiff. His head was large and round. His hair was curly. He had a wen on one of his temples and usually wore his spectacles elevated on his forehead. His eyes were black and not very large, but twinkling with humor and brilliant.”11 Cartwright was described in 1832 as “not tall, but burly, massive, and seemed to be even more than gigantic, from its crowning foliage of luxuriant, coal black hair, wreathed into long, but rough and curling ringlets. And a head that looked as large as a half-bushel; beetling brows, rough and craggy of fragmentary granite, irradiated at the base by eyes of dark fire, small and twinkling like diamonds in a sea.”12

Contemporary Thomas G. Onstott recalled that the generally outspoken, friendly Cartright “lived all his life about six miles southwest of Salem and used to often come to Salem to trade, as it was a great deal nearer to him than Springfield. He lived on the same farm and was well fixed, though in early days; his salary for preaching would now be considered very small for the work done. He was a man of great force of character and whether as a preacher or politician, generally carried his point; of medium height, but of gigantic build, with a forehead covered with a shaggy coat of hair, a broad chest, and small eyes deeply set, heavy eyebrows. He had great conversational powers, coupled with keen wit.” Onstott recalled that Cartright “was nothing if not friendly; no man or boy escaped his attention. Full of wit and good humor, he could entertain a crowd of one or one hundred. When he thought he was right no earthly power could persuade Cartright to abandon a principle.”13

Mr. Lincoln and Rev. Cartwright faced off again in the Congressional election of 1846. By then, Mr. Lincoln was 37 and Cartwright was 62. “In one of his early races for Congress I heard him debate with Peter Cartwright, who was the terror of every local orator, as his opponent. He asked Cartwright if General Jackson did right in the removal – I believe it was -of the bank deposits. Cartwright evaded the question and gave a very indefinite answer. Lincoln remarked that Cartwright reminded him of a hunter he once knew who recognized the fact that in summer the deer were red and in winter gray, and at one season therefore a deer might resemble a calf. The hunter had brought down one at long range when it was hard to see the difference, and boasting of his own marksmanship had said: ‘I shot at it so as to hit it if it was a deer and miss it if it was a calf.’ This convulsed the audience, and carried them with Lincoln.”14

Don Seitz wrote in Lincoln the Politician that during the 1846 campaign: “Cartwright was unsparing in his limning of Lincoln as he stumped the district. ‘This Lincoln,’ he said on one occasion, ‘is a man six feet four inches tall, but so angular that if you should drop a plummet from the center of his head it would cut him three times before it touched his feet.’ He was uncompromising in his denunciation of his rival that he bred ill feeling that sometimes threatened his personal safety. Once, in crossing a ferry, he heard himself denounced as a ‘Methodist horse thief’ by a man who promised him a good licking should they ever meet. ‘Come,’ said the preacher, making himself know, ‘I am the man you propose to thrash. Either whip me as you threaten, or quit cursing me, else I will put you in the river and baptise you in the name of the devil.’ The sinner quailed, and became converted both to Methodism and Democracy, under the grip of the compelling Cartwright.”15

Historian Donald W. Riddle noted that slavery was not an issue in the race, but Mr. Lincoln’s religious orthodoxy was. “Peter Cartwright allowed his professional zeal to mislead him into making use of a campaign argument of questionable propriety, when he alleged that Lincoln was an ‘infidel,’ and no fit representative ov Christian people. Report of Cartwright’s campaign tactic was made to Lincoln, who took it seriously enough to cause a small handbill to be printed in which he refuted the charge. This was circulated in the northern part of the district, where Cartwright’s charge appeared to be having some effect. Lincoln’s friend, Dr. Boal, some years later wrote to Richard Yates, recalling that ‘Cartwright sneaked through this part of the district after Lincoln, and grossly misrepresented him.’ 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.”16

“Cartwright’s principal accusation against Lincoln was that he was a Deist and too lacking in faith to make an acceptable representative for that electorate. This was an incident, by the way, in which Cartwright afterwards took so little pride that he made no mention of it in his autobiography,” wrote M. L. Houser.17 But there were those like Federal Judge Samuel Treat were affronted by Cartwright’s mixture of religion and politics. Judge Treat offered to help Mr. Lincoln in the 1846 campaign, but Mr. Lincoln decided he didn’t need the assistance. Spying the judge across the street one day, Mr. Lincoln shouted: “Judge, I won’t need your help. I have got the better of the old Methodist preacher, and I will beat him; so I will not have to call upon you for help.” According to Shelby M. Cullom, “This so embarrassed the judge, lest some one should hear what was being said, that he almost ran, in his hurry to get into his house.”18 Lincoln scholar Michael Burkhimer wrote: “As a popular and effective circuit-riding preacher, Cartwright was in a unique position; nobody would be authoritative when it came to the subject of Christian orthodoxy. Toward the end of the campaign, he charged that Lincoln was an infidel. One observer remembered that ‘Cartwright sneaked through this part of the district after Lincoln, and grossly misrepresented him.’”19

Cartwright was not as anti-slavery as Mr. Lincoln. He wrote that “the moral evils that have been produced by slavery…is legion….I have never seen a rabid abolitionist or free-soil society that I could join, because they resort to unjustifiable legislation, and the means they employ are generally unchristian. According to biographer Helen Hardie Grant, “He detested slavery but he abhorred anti-slavery agitation and underground railroads. Yet here too, unsatisfactory as he was to both parties, he was again thirty years ahead of his time, believing in 1826 in the tenets of the Republican party organized in 1856, ‘Non-interference with slavery where it exists, and its restriction from free territory.’”20

Cullom served as co-counsel with Mr. Lincoln and Stephen Logan in the defense of Cartwright’s grandson, Quinn “Peachie” Harrison in 1859. The young man was charged with murder and acquitted in a case which law partner William H. Herdon called “one of interest interest all over the county. The case was opened and ably conducted on both sides; every inch of ground was contested, hotly fought. All the points of the law, the evidence, practice, and general procedure were raised and discussed with feeling, fervor, eloquence. Lincoln felt an unusual interest in young Harrison, as the old man, Peyton Harrison, his father, had often accommodated Lincoln when helped was needed.”21 A witness at the trial, Thomas W. Kidd, recalled how Mr. Lincoln pulled out all the emotional stops in his arguments:

In the Harrison murder case, young Crafton had been slapped by Harrison, and after Lincoln had argued quite at length in regard to the evidence on both sides, he reverted to the fact that young Crafton had been a student in his office; and gathering up the coat that lay on the table, with the gashes made in it by the knife, arrayed the robes of his dead student, as did Anthony those of the dead Caesar, pouring forth such eloquence, fired by his sympathetic soul, that he forced the jury to shed with him a tear over the grave of his buried student, and then for the victim of a violated law, whose innocence, as he contended, of all murderous intent had left him as spotless of the stain of blood as the most innocent of the twelve. He closed by picturing to the jury the sad consequences of the homicide to his old friend and neighbor, Harrison, and his son and the relatives of his former student, so vividly and full of feeling that one after the other of those twelve different natures seemed to join with him in sympathy, the briny messengers stealing over the furrowed cheeks of the old and the health-flushed cheeks of the younger members of the jury, each fortelling in tearful signs the nature of their verdict. Burst after burst of eloquence followed, until not an eye could be seen without a glistening telltale standing at the portal of the soul, having been enticed there from the niche of sorrowful affection to witness the earnest gesture and listen to the burning, soul-stirring eloquence of Abraham Lincoln, when his judgement and moral nature dictated that his cause was just and right.”22

Cartwright’s testimony was the key to Harrison’s acquittal. With considerable effort and near effrontery, Mr. Lincoln forced the presiding judge to allow Carwright’s testimony of the deceased’s deathbed comments. Historian Julie Fenster wrote: “Accounts written long after the trial invariably describe the way that Lincoln tenderly guided the shattered old minister through his testimony. According to a transcript of the trial discovered in 1989 though, Lincoln only had to ask one simple question and Cartwright was off and running. That didn’t matter. Far more important than the interaction between the two was the image of the longtime rivals helping each other, almost huddling together, to help Peachy Harrison. Some writers depicted Lincoln as holding Cartwright’s hand to console him; whether or not that happened, the atmosphere of conciliation was no less dramatic.”23 William B. Thompson, who lived as a boy near Mr. Lincoln recalled: “Mr. Lincoln saved Quinn Harrison, but it was a very hard fight. We boys followed it throughout. All of us who were able climbed to the windows. The others hung around the doors of the old courthouse. We listened with most careful attention to everything Lincoln said. His argument to the jury for Quinn Harrison made a lasting impression upon us. At that time Lincoln had not become famous as a debater. Harrison was acquitted. We boys agreed that Lincoln’s speech and earnest manner did it, rather than the evidence.”24

In the 1850s, Cartwright continued on the fringes of politics, backing Senator Stephen Douglas, in the election of 1858. He was in Springfield for the Illinois State Democratic Convention on April 21, 1858. Lincoln biographer Albert Beveridge wrote: “The old Methodist Circuit Rider was strong for Douglas, and to the charge that his hero had joined the black Republicans, the white-haired preacher exclaimed in a speech almost incoherent in its wrath: he gone to the black Republicans! ‘Gone to Halifax!'”25

But Cartwright’s attitude toward Mr. Lincoln mellowed with age. In 1862, Cartwright visited New York where he spoke before a dinner of New Yorkers unfriendly to the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln: “Once we were opposing candidates for a seat in Congress, and, measured up in the ballot-box, I went down in defeat. But it was defeat by a gentleman and a patriot. I stand here tonight to commend to you the Christian character, sterling integrity, and far-seeing sagacity of the President of the United States, whose official acts you have, in your blind money-madness, so critically assailed tonight. I am confident that he is the man to meet and go forward in this crisis to lead his countrymen amid and through the terrible strife in which we are now engaged. He has a cool-headed, God-fearing, and unselfish love of his country, and knows from top to bottom the life and spirit of men both North and South.”

“When you go from here to your homes tonight I want you to bear with you the assurances of his neighbour and once-political opponent that the country will be safe in his hands. I wish to have you understand that back of him will stand an unflinching host of Western men, who have no financial ghosts that terrify them and who are destined to rescue this nation from the perils now before us. We have got the men who have got the right kind of grit in them out West. Why stand ye here idle critics? May God send patriotic light into your stingy souls!”26


  1. Michael Burlingame, editor, An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln, John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, p. 20 (Conversation with William Butler, June 13, 1875).
  2. Paul Findley, A. Lincoln: The Crucible of Congress, p. 32.
  3. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln Before Washington: New Perspectives on The Illinois Years, p. 57.
  4. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 493 (Letter from John McNamar to William H. Herndon, December 1, 1866).
  5. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln Before Washington: New Perspectives on The Illinois Years, p. 66.
  6. Douglas L. Wilson, Lincoln Before Washington: New Perspectives on The Illinois Years, p. 70.
  7. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 430 (Letter from Caleb Carman to William H. Herndon, November 30, 1866).
  8. Richard Lawrence Miller, Lincoln and His World: The Early Years, Birth to the Illinois Legislature, p. 249-250, 309.
  9. Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, p. 15-16.
  10. Shelby M. Cullom, Fifty Years of Public Service, p. 48.
  11. Helen Hardie Grant, Peter Cartwright: Pioneer, p. 149.
  12. Richard Lawrence Miller, Lincoln and His World: The Early Years, Birth to Illinois Legislature, p. 185.
  13. Thomas G. Onstott, Pioneers of Menard & Mason Counties, p. 103, 115-116.
  14. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, .
  15. Don C. Seitz, Lincoln the Politician, p. 61.
  16. Donald W. Riddle, Lincoln Runs for Congress, p. 173.
  17. M. L. Houser, Lincoln’s Education and Other Essays, p. 165.
  18. Shelby M. Cullom, Fifty Years of Public Service, p. 49.
  19. Michael Burkhimer, Lincoln’s Christianity, p. 23.
  20. Helen Hardie Grant, Peter Cartwright: Pioneer, p. 155-156.
  21. Emanuel Hertz, The Hidden Lincoln, p. 134 (Letter from William H. Herndon to Jesse W. Weik, November 20, 1885).
  22. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 89-90 (Thomas W. S. Kidd, speech to Bar Association of Sangamon County, April 25, 1903).
  23. Julie M. Fenster, “Lawyer Lincoln’s Winning Way,” American History, October 2003, p. 65.
  24. Walter B. Stevens, (edited by Michael Burlingame), A Reporter’s Lincoln, p. 99.
  25. Albert J. Beveridge, Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1858, Volume II, p. 558.
  26. Henry Rankin, Abraham Lincoln, The First American, p. 281-282.