Opponents and Enemies

“He used to say to me when I talked to him about Chase & those who did him Evil – Do good to those who hate you and turn their ill will to friendship,” Mrs. Lincoln said of Mr. Lincoln.1 “We must never sell old friends to buy old enemies,.” Mr. Lincoln once wrote.2 Mr. Lincoln “was certainly a very poor hater,” recalled friend Leonard Swett. “He never judged men by his like, or dislike for them. If any given act was to be performed, he could understand that his enemy could do it just as well as any one. If a man had maligned him, or been guilty of personal ill-treatment and abuse, and was the fittest man for the place, he would put him in his Cabinet just as soon as he would his friend.”3

Friends like Edwin D. Baker and John J. Hardin were his opponents for the Congress. Old legal colleagues like John T. Stuart, Usher Linder, and T. Lyle Dickey opposed his Senate ambitions in 1858. People with whom he tried to make friendly relations – like New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley and Senator Charles Sumner – fought him over key emancipation and reconstruction policies. Few people in Missouri gave Mr. Lincoln more trouble than B. Gratz Brown, but President Lincoln sent a telegram to Brown in January 1863: “The administration takes no part between its friends in Mo, of whom I, at least, consider you one; and I have never before had an intimation that appointees there, were interfering, or were inclined to interfere.”4

When Democratic attorney Usher Linder’s son Daniel enlisted in the Confederate Army and was captured by Union troops, President Lincoln sought his release. Attorney General Edwin Bates wrote that “the Prest: is anxious to gratify, the father, who is his old friend…”5 In his April 1865 eulogy of Mr. Lincoln, Linder remembered: “Mr. Lincoln did so, without any hesitation, and he took the pains – it was the day before Christmas a year ago, and it made my home happy – to telegraph me of the fact….He said to me: “Your son has just left me with my order to the Secretary of War to administer the oath of allegiance. I send him home to you and his mother.”6

In the 1850s, young Dan Linder had been arrested in a shooting. One version of the story held that his father confronted Mr. Lincoln with a rumor that he was to join in the “prosecution of my boy.” Mr. Lincoln reportedly “looked at him with that far-away gaze in his eyes that at times was so marked a feature in his expression, and simply replied, ‘Linder do you believe me capable of accepting a retainer to prosecute your son for murder?’ and immediately walked away.”7

According to Lincoln legal scholar Albert A. Woldman, “The elder Mr. Linder was then seriously ill and confined to his bed. He appealed to Lincoln to handle his son’s case. The Springfield lawyer gave the matter his immediate attention and was instrumental in procuring Dan’s release without a trial. When the happy father offered him a fee for his services, Lincoln naturally refused it and expressed his happiness at having been able to serve a friend.”8

Mr. Lincoln, “it can be fairly said, never held a grudge,” noted psychobiographer Charles B. Strozier. Like most lawyers, he could leave a bitter courtroom battle without an ounce of enmity. He never seemed to feel petty anger toward anyone, tolerating even Mary’s lifelong hatreds.”9 Linder recognized the irony of the situation in which he found himself when he wrote President Lincoln:

“In the revolutions of the wheel of fortune I have often been at the top – and as often at the bottom – In other words I have been, now, four years at this place, and notwithstanding I have exerted a dilligence and prudence, hardly common to me, no prosperous wind has yet filled my sail – but the whole bag full have steadily set against me. I have never before asked an office of any president, or any executive of a state but taking into consideration the wants of myself and family – If the government of the U.S. has anything to do which I am capable of performing – you may consider me as an humble applicant – I am seeking no sinsecure; my health is good thank God – and I am only 55 years old the 20h inst.
I am constrained to believe friend Lincoln that you have ever cherished the kindest feelings for me as I know I have for you and although we have been often thrown in opposition to each other I think there has never been anything said by either that has left a pang behind –
If there had been, you, I know are too magnanimous to remember it now, considering the vast distance which fame fortune and distinction have made between us, and I make these remarks simply to place myself outside of the category of your personal enemies – If you should think me loyal, competent and worthy – and upon these considerations offer me a place where I can be of service to the country, I will accept it however humble or insignificant it may be – and bring to the discharge of the duties thereof all the zeal and talents I have, be they great or small – Now – I suppose you have thousands of just such letters as these written to you very day, well this is the first of the kind I have written and I assure you, I shall not trouble you with another – I don’t ask you to prepare a feather bed for me for I had just as soon have a hard bed as a soft one.10

Linder, who had served with Mr. Lincoln in the Legislature, apologized “if I have presumed too much upon old friendship and acquaintance.” He signed the letter “Your friend.” Historian Charles H. Coleman noted: “Despite this eloquent plea, Linder did not get a Federal appointment. This did not embitter him, however, for his references to Lincoln in his reminiscences are sympathetic without exception.”11

Mr. Lincoln’s ties of friendship seem to have been difficult to break – at least from Mr. Lincoln’s side of the relationship. Springfield friend Thomas Kidd wrote: “Innocent to a fault himself, he would join hands with all in friendship, believing, as I have often heard him say, that the world would be a better place for all of us if suspicion was less cultivated as one of the characteristics of our nature.”12 Mr. Lincoln “shrank from any controversy with friends,” wrote Joshua F. Speed. “Being in a minority in the state he was forced to the front, because his friends thought he was the only man with whom they could win. In a canvass his friends had to do all the management. He knew nothing of how to reach the people except by addressing their reason. If the situation had been reversed, Lincoln representing the majority, and Douglas the minority, I think it most likely Lincoln would never had had a place. He had no heart for a fight with friends.”13

“For all their deadly enmity in politics, Stephen A. Douglas…never made an unkind personal reference to Lincoln,” wrote Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg.14 Douglas and Mr. Lincoln were better friends than they appeared to be, argued Douglas biographer Gerald M. Capers. “In political fights they hit each other with all they had, but they actually held a genuine regard and respect for one another. ‘I shall have my hands full,’ the Senator told Forney when he heard that Lincoln had been nominated. ‘He is the strong man of his party – full of wit, facts, dates – and the best stump speaker, with his droll ways and dry jokes, in the West. He is as honest as he is shrewd, and if I beat him, my victory will be hardly won.” Lincoln reciprocated this feeling. The rumor arose at one point that Douglas wanted to fight but over the Dred Scott conspiracy charges. The Republican candidate told an audience that the Senator was just excited: ‘He and I are about the best friends in the world, and when we get together he would no more think of fighting me than of fighting his wife.’ Right after the debates the victor wrote a personal letter to President Walker of Harvard, which Lincoln’s son Robert had just entered, recommending the lad as the son of his friend Abraham Lincoln ‘with whom I have lately been canvassing the State of Illinois.'”15

One Illinois contemporary recalled Senator Douglas saying “Of all the —— Whig rascals about Springfield, Abe Lincoln is the ablest and most honest.”16 Capers quoted Douglas refuting a friend who criticized Mr. Lincoln as weak: “No, he is not that, Sir. But he is eminently a man of the atmosphere which surrounds him. He has not yet got out of Springfield…He does not know that he is President-elect of the United States. He does not see that the shadow he casts is any bigger now than it was last year. It will not take him long when he has got established in the White House. But he has not found it out yet.'”17

Mr. Lincoln returned the compliment to Douglas’s loyal friends. He said of Democratic Congressman William A. Richardson: “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!”18

The distinction between friends and enemies, however, was not always clear cut for Mr. Lincoln. “You are ready to say I apply to friends what is due only to enemies. I distrust the wisdom if the sincerity of friends, who would hold my hands while my enemies stab me,” President Lincoln wrote in July 182 Reverdy Johnson, who had gone to New Orleans to investigate disputes between Union General Benjamin Butler and foreign diplomats there. Johnson, a Democratic attorney from Maryland, had objected to the policies of General [John] Phelps to emancipate slaves in the area. “This appeal of professed friends has paralyzed me more in this struggle than any other one thing. You remember telling me the day after Baltimore mob in April 1861, that it would crush all Union feeling in Maryland for me to attempt bringing troops over Maryland soil to Washington. I brought the troops notwithstanding, and yet there was Union feeling enough left to elect a Legislature the next autumn which in turn elected a very excellent Union U.S. Senator!”

President Lincoln concluded the letter: “I am a patient man – always willing to forgive on the Christian terms of repentance; and also to give ample time for repentance. Still I must save this government if possible. What I cannot do, of course, I will not do; but it may as well be understood, once for all, that I shall not surrender this game leaving any available card unplayed.”19 Mr. Lincoln’s determination was matched by a notable absence of “malice.” He closed one letter that summer saying “I have acted upon my best convictions without selfishness or malice…” and another saying, ‘I shall do nothing in malice.”20

Mr. Lincoln understood that he spoke to multiple audiences whenever he wrote privately or spoke publicly. “Any reader of Lincoln’s wartime letters must be struck by one fact: the extent to which they are addressed, not to his friends, but to his opponents and critics. All readers must be struck by another characteristic: the refusal in these letters to assert that he had been right, or his critics wrong, or in any way to address himself to posterity,” wrote historian Allan Nevins. “Readers of the letters must also note that, while not neglecting appeals to the sympathy, the pride, and even the fears of recipients, they emphasized cool persuasion and objective argument. As Nicolay and Hay wrote: ‘To still the quarrels of actions, to allay the jealousies of statesmen, to compose the rivalries of generals, to soothe the vanity of officials, to prompt the laggard, to curb the ardent, to sustain the faltering, was a substratum of daily routine underlying the great events of campaigns, battles, and high questions of state.'”21

The President-elect was also worried about the effect his election would have on the South. Mr. Lincoln prepared a speech – never given – for residents of his native state of Kentucky in which he said: “No man can be elected President without some opponents, as well as supporters; and if when elected, he can not be installed, till he first appeases his enemies, by breaking his pledges, and and [sic] betraying his friends, this government, and all popular government, is already at an end.”22

Mr. Lincoln was indulgent with criticism and tended to reverse the actions of generals who shuttered troublesome northern newspapers. J. T. Duryea recalled visiting the White House with the Christian Commission and telling the President that “we were pained to find that beside the open enemies of the cause there were those whose course was hostile though professedly friendly, who covered their actual disaffection, by pretending that they were loyal to the government but opposed to the administration…” Mr. Lincoln replied that “I should regret to see the day in which the people should cease to express intelligent, honest generous criticism upon the policy of their rulers.”23

On November 8, 1865 President Lincoln closed a response to a serenade at the White House by saying: “I do not impugn the motives of any one opposed to me. It is no pleasure to me to triumph over any one; but I give thanks to the Almighty for this evidence of the people’s resolution to stand by free government and the rights of humanity.”24 President Lincoln told a post-election serenade on November 10, 1864: “So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.” He added: “May I ask those who have not differed with me, to join with me, in this same spirit towards those who have?”25

“The hour of triumph called out the characteristic impulses of his nature,” wrote Republican politician Carl Schurz of President Lincoln’s reaction to his reelection. “The opposition within the Union party had stung him to the quick. Now he had his opponents before, baffled and humiliated. Not a moment did he lose to stretch out the hand of friendship to all,” wrote Schurz several decades after the Civil War.26

Enemies seem to be potential friends to Abraham Lincoln. “I was introduced to the President as ‘one of his enemies.'” British writer Edward Dicey wrote in the June issue of Macmillan’s. “‘I did not know I had any enemies,’ was the answer; and I can still feel, as I write, the grip of that great boney hand held out to me in token of friendship. In my life I have seen a good number of men distinguished by their talents or their station, but I never saw any one, so apparently unconscious that this distinction conferred upon him any superiority, as Abraham Lincoln.”27

Mr. Lincoln “hated” quarrels, according to Judge David Davis. He “hated to say hard & sharp things of any man and never [stepped] beyond this Except that his duty – his honor obligations – principles demanded it.”28 Another attorney, Joseph Gillespie said that Mr. Lincoln “Never manifested any bitter hatred towards his enemies. It was enough for him in a controversy to get the better of his adversary in argument without descending to personal abuse.”29 Noah Brooks wrote: “If Mr. Lincoln cherished any personal resentments, they were never apparent in his official conduct. A Washington office-holder, who had zealously advocated the claims of Mr. Chase to succeed Mr. Lincoln, was subsequently an applicant for a promotion in office. He got what he asked for, and the President, when remonstrated with by a friend who was not so magnanimous, said:

‘Well, I suppose Judge E., having been disappointed before, did behave pretty ugly, but that wouldn’t make him any less fit for this place; and I have Scriptural authority for appointing him. You remember that when the Lord was on Mount Sinai getting out a commission for Aaron, that same Aaron was at the foot of the mountain making a false god for the people to worship. Yet Aaron got his commission, you know.”30

No one in his Cabinet gave President Lincoln more trouble than did Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, who overtly challenged Mr. Lincoln’s reelection in the late winter of 1864. Fellow Illinois Republican Shelby M. Cullom thought Chase should have been dismissed, but Mr. Lincoln refused. President Lincoln “was of too kindly a disposition, too great a man to punish any one for being against him, but at the same time he was more farseeing than others. He knew that to remove Chase would only make a martyr of him; to send him back to Ohio would only place him in a position to make trouble for the administration, and so he simply let him alone, which was by far the wisest thing to do, until Mr. Chase resigned once too often, and then, one day, much to the chagrin of his Secretary of the Treasury, he accepted his resignation.”31

Mr. Lincoln refused to hold the friendships of others against them. He ordered the reinstatement of Army Captain Edward W. Andrews, who was a political supporter of George B. McClellan in the 1864 election. “Supporting General McClellan for the Presidency is no violation of army regulations, and as a question of taste of choosing between him and me, well, I’m the longest, but he’s better looking.”32 The general of whom Mr. Lincoln spoke about so benignly had once written a telegram to his superiors at the height of the Peninsula campaign: “If I save this army now, I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or to any other persons in Washington. You have done your best to sacrifice this army.”33 Yet when a few weeks later, Mr. Lincoln needed a general to pull together the Army of the Potomac after the Second Battle of Bull Run, he went to McClellan. A general didn’t need to be President Lincoln’s friend if he could advance and protect the Union cause.

Nor did he hold the enemies of his friends against them. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was frequently assailed for his obstinacy by Mr. Lincoln’s friends inside and outside of government. “Go home, my friend,” Mr. Lincoln sometimes told such callers, “and read attentively the tenth verse of the thirtieth chapter of Proverbs.” The biblical text read: “Accuse not a servant unto his master, lest he curse thee, and thou be found guilty.” The President on another occasion said: “Mr. Stanton has excellent qualities, and he has his defects. Folks come up here and tell me that there are a great many men in the country who have all Stanton’s excellent qualities without his defects. All I have to say is, I haven’t met ’em. I don’t know ’em! I wish I did!”34

But even if Mr. Lincoln could embrace his enemies, he sometimes had difficulty embracing tiresome bores. On such occasions President Lincoln might use the following story: “You three gentlemen remind me of a story I once heard of a poor little boy out West who had lost his mother. His father wanted to give him a religious education, and so placed him in the family of a clergyman, whom he directed to instruct the little fellow carefully in the Scriptures. Every day the boy was required to commit to memory and recite one chapter of the Bible. Things proceeded smoothly until they reached that chapter which details the story of the trials of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace. The boy got on well until he was asked to repeat these three names, but he had forgotten them His teacher told him he must learn them, and gave him another day to do so. Next day the boy again forgot them. ‘Now, said the teacher, ‘you have again failed to remember those names, and you can go no further till you have learned them. I will give you another day on this lesson, and if you don’t repeat the names I will punish you.’ A third time the boy came to recite, and got down to the stumbling-block, when the clergyman said: ‘Now tell me the names of the men in the fiery furnace.’ ‘Oh,’ said the boy, ‘here come those three infernal bores! I wish the devil had them!'”35

Once in October 1862, Mr. Lincoln visited a hospital where Confederate soldiers wounded from the Battle of Antietam. He asked a soldier whose leg had been amputated, “Would you shake hands with me if I were to tell you who I am.” When the Confederate said yes, Mr. Lincoln told him: “I am Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States.” The eyes of both men filled with tears.36

A Confederate colonel recalled being visited by the President: “He halted beside my bed and held out his hand. I was lying on my back, my knees drawn up, my hands folded across my breast. Looking him in the face, as he stood with extended hand, ‘Mr. President,’ I said, ‘do you know to whom you offer your hand?’ ‘I do not,’ he replied. ‘Well,’ said I, ‘you offer it to a Confederate colonel who has fought you as hard as he could for four years.’ ‘Well,’ said he, ‘I hope a Confederate colonel will not refuse me his hand.’ ‘No, sir,’ I replied, ‘I will not,’ and I clasped his hand in both of mine.”37

Because animosity in Mr. Lincoln was so easily dissipated, he had difficulty taking the legitimate security concerns of his friends seriously. “In reply to the remonstrances of friends, who were afraid of his constant exposure to danger, he had but one answer,” wrote journalist Noah Brooks: “If they kill me, the next man will be just as bad for them; and in a country like this, where our habits are simple, and must be, assassination is always possible, and will come if they are determined upon it.”38

Clearly, President Lincoln saw the fall of the Confederacy as an opportunity to restore friendships. The perhaps apocryphal story was told by Confederate General George Pickett’s wife that President Lincoln knocked on her door when he visited Richmond after it fell to Union soldiers in April 1865. Mrs. Pickett said her husband wasn’t home. Mr. Lincoln started to talk about Pickett’s boyhood and his appointment to West Point before admitting who he was.39

Mr. Lincoln believed in keeping “cool” to preserve friendship. “I appreciate your desire to keep down excitement; and I promise you to ‘keep cool’ under all circumstances,” he wrote John J. Hardin on January 19, 1845.40 His language in a letter to Mark W. Delahay on May 12, 1860 was virtually identical: “Be careful to give no offence, and keep cool under all circumstances.”41


  1. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 358 (Mary Todd Lincoln interview with William H. Herndon, September 1866).
  2. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Second Supplement, p. 29 (Letter to Ozias M. Hatch, March 24, 1858).
  3. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 166 (Leonard Swett’s letter to William H. Herndon, January 17, 1866).
  4. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 42 (Letter to B. Gratz Brown, January 7, 1863).
  5. Howard K. Beale, editor, The Diary of Edward Bates, p. 324 (December 24, 1863).
  6. Charles H. Coleman, Abraham Lincoln and Coles County, Illinois, p. 121.
  7. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, p. 128 (Lambert Tree, Century Magazine, February 1991).
  8. Albert A. Woldman, Lawyer Lincoln, p. 109.
  9. Charles B. Strozier, Lincoln’s Quest for Union: Public and Private Meanings, p. 223.
  10. Charles H. Coleman, Abraham Lincoln and Coles County, Illinois, p. 122.
  11. Charles H. Coleman, Abraham Lincoln and Coles County, Illinois, p. 123.
  12. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 91 (Thomas W. S. Kidd, speech to Bar Association of Sangamon County, April 25, 1903).
  13. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 24 (Joshua F. Speed).
  14. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume II, p. 285.
  15. Gerald M. Capers, Stephen A. Douglas Defender of the Union, p. 182-183.
  16. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 148 (William Martin Dickson Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, June, 1884).
  17. Gerald M. Capers, Stephen A. Douglas Defender of the Union, p. 219.
  18. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 243 (Leonard Wells Volk, Century Magazine, December 1881).
  19. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 342-343 (Letter to Reverdy Johnson, July 26, 1862).
  20. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, p. 346, 356 (Letters to Agénor-Etienne de Gasparin, August 4, 1862 and Cthbert Bullitt, July 28, 1862).
  21. Allan Nevins, The Statesmanship of the Civil War, p. 125.
  22. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 200 (Fragment of Speech intended for Kentuckians, circa February 12, 1861).
  23. Allen C. Guelzo, “Holland’s Informants: The Construction of Josiah Holland’s ‘Life of Abraham Lincoln’”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 23, Number 1, Winter 2002, p. 50-51 (Letter from J. T. Duryea to Josiah G. Holland, July 13, 1865).
  24. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VIII, p. 96 (Response to a Serenade, November 8, 1864).
  25. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VIII, p. 101 (Response to a Serenade, November 10, 1864).
  26. Abraham Lincoln, Complete Abraham Lincoln Writings, (http://books.google.com).
  27. David Chambers Mearns, Largely Lincoln, p. 93.
  28. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 351 (David Davis interview with William H. Herndon, September 20, 1866).
  29. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 186 (Letter from Joseph Gillespie to William H. Herndon, January 31, 1866).
  30. Noah Brooks, Abraham Lincoln: The Nation’s Leader in the Great Struggle Through Which was Maintained the Existence of the United States, p. 423.
  31. Nathan William MacChesney, editor, Shelby M. Cullom, Abraham Lincoln: The Tribute of a Century, 1808-1909, “Lincoln and His Relations with Congress”, p. 503-504.
  32. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 518 (Edward W. Andrews).
  33. Stephen W. Sears, editor,The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860-1865, p. 323.
  34. James F. Rhodes, History of the United States, p. 181-182.
  35. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 237-238.
  36. Charles M. Segal, editor, Conversations with Lincoln, p. 210.
  37. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume IV, p. 171.
  38. Michael Burlingame, editor, Noah Brooks, Lincoln Observed: The Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, p. 205 (from Noah Brooks, “Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln” first published in The Harper’s Monthly Magazine, May 1865).
  39. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume IV, p. 179.
  40. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Supplement, p. 356 (Letter to John J. Hardin, January 19, 1845).
  41. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 49 (Letter to Mark Delahay, May 12, 1860).