Patronage and the Land Office

The concept of patronage was closely linked in Mr. Lincoln’s mind to the concept of friendship – as Mr. Lincoln’s abortive attempt to be named commissioner of public lands demonstrated. In 1848, Congressman Lincoln campaigned hard for General Zachary Taylor – both before and after the Whig National Convention that drafted him. In 1849 after Taylor election, outgoing Congressman Lincoln became tangled in a bitter patronage fight for the General Land Office.

Mr. Lincoln was deeply involved in trying to secure patronage positions for Illinois Whigs. The situation was complicated by a difference of opinion between Mr. Lincoln and his friend, newly-elected Whig Congressman Edward D. Baker. Don Seitz wrote that “Lincoln’s correspondence abounds in letters of endorsement for various citizens of his State. He was firm for weeding out diligent Democrats, but it is hard to learn his exact attitude toward gathering the land office plum.”1 Shortly before leaving Washington for Illinois, Congressman Lincoln wrote Secretary of War G. W. Crawford: “There is not now a sin[gle] Whig Clerk from Illinois in any of the D[epart]ments here unless it be J. M. Lucas, recen[tly] appointed by Judge Young in the Land Offic[e].” Mr. Lincoln then recommended three potential Whig clerks “of good habits and unimpeachable [mor]al character.”2 One of those he recommended was a fellow attorney and former editor of the Tazewell Whig.

In April 1849, Mr. Lincoln wrote Navy Secretary Preston: “I suppose Gen: Taylor, because both of his declarations, and his inclination, will not go the doctrine of removals very strongly; and hence the greater reason, when an office or a job is not already in democratic hands, that it should be given to a Whig. Even at this, full half the government patronage will still be in the hands of our opponents at the end of four years; and if still less than this is done for our friends, I think they will have just cause to complain, and I verily believe the administration can not be sustained. The enclosed paragraph is from the leading Whig paper in this state. I think it is injudicious, and should not have appeared; still there is no keeping men silent when they feel they are wronged by their friends. As the subject of this paragraph pertains to the War Department, I would have written Mr. Crawford, but that it might have appeared obtrusive, I have no personal acquaintance with him. I am sure you will not be offended.”3

Mr. Lincoln first pledged his support to attorney Cyrus Edwards, brother of Mr. Lincoln’s own brother-in-law, Ninian Edwards. (Cyrus was also the father of a daughter, Matilda, with whom both Mr. Lincoln and Joshua Speed had been in love in late 1840.) Mr. Lincoln maintained his support for Edwards until long after it was obvious that Edwards had no chance of getting the appointment. Then, at the urging of many friends, he sought the position himself and sought to block the nomination of Justin Butterfield, a Chicago attorney whom he felt did not deserve the post. The whole incident was a real test of friendship – as indicated in this letter to David Davis:

Your letter of the 24th. Jany. is received; and I have more cause to thank you for it, than you would suppose. Out of more than than [sic] three hundred letters received this session, yours is the second one manifesting the least interest for me personally. I do not much doubt that I could take the Land-office if I would. It would make me more money than I can otherwise make. Still, when I remember that taking the office would be a final surrender of the law, and that every man in the state, who wants it himself, would be snarling at me about it, I shrink from it.4

Mr. Lincoln tried to comport himself in a manner consistent with friendship. And yet he presumed upon friendship in the many letters he wrote seeking support for his own appointment. “It is now certain that either Mr. Butterfield or I will be commissioner of the general land office. If you are willing to give me the preference, please write me to that effect,” wrote Mr. Lincoln in a typical letter to Dr. Joseph B. Herrick.

He wrote attorney Josiah M. Lucas: “Like you, I fear the Land Office is not going as it should; but I know nothing I can do. In my letter written three days ago, I told you the Department understands my wishes. As to Butterfield, he is my personal friend, and is qualified to do the duties of the office; but of the quite one hundred Illinoisians, equally well qualified, I do not know one with less claims to it.”5 Mr. Lincoln wrote Indiana Congressman Elisha Embree for a “favor” which “I hope will not cost you much”. He said the potential appointment of Butterfield an “egregious political blunder. It will give offence to the whole whig party here, and be worse than a dead loss the administration, of so much of it’s patronage. Now, you can conscientiously do so, I wish you to write General Taylor at once, saying that either I, or the man I recommend, should, in your opinion, be appointed to that office, if any one from Illinois shall be.”6 He closed the letter “Your friend as ever.” He sent a nearly identical letter to Indiana Congressman Richard W. Thompson.

Mr. Lincoln wrote prominent Washington editor and financier Duff Green – pointing out that on grounds of loyalty, Butterfield did not deserve the nomination: “I learn from Washington that a man by the name of Butterfield will probably be appointed Commissioner of the General Land-Office. This ought not to be. That is about the only crumb of patronage which Illinois expects; and I am sure the mass of Gen: Taylor’s friends here, would quite as lief see it go East of the Alleghanies, or West of the Rocky mountains, as into that man’s hands. They are already sore on the subject of his getting office. In the great contest of 1840 he was not seen or heard of; but when the victory came, three or four old drones, including him, got all the valuable offices, through what influence no one has yet been able to tell. I believe the only time has been very active, was last spring a year [ago], in opposition to Gen: Taylor’s nomination.”7

With the support of friends, Mr. Lincoln tried to shift attention from Cyrus Edwards to himself. In a February letter to Kentucky resident Joshua Speed, Mr. Lincoln wrote:

I am flattered to learn that Mr. [John] Crittenden has any recollection of me which is not unfavorable; and for the manifestations of your kindness toward me, I sincerely thank you. …Still there is nothing about me which would authorize me to think of a first class office; and a second class one would not compensate me for being snarled at by others who want it for themselves. I believe that, so far as the whigs in congress, are concerned, I could have the Genl. Land office almost by common consent; but then Sweet, and Don: Morrison, and Browning, and Cyrus Edwards all want it. And what is worse, while I think I could easily take it myself, I fear I shall have trouble to get it for any other men in Illinois. The reason is, that McGaughey, an Indiana ex-member of congress is here after it; and being personally known, he will be hard to beat by any one who is not.8

“It is a delicate matter to oppose the wishes of a friend,” wrote Mr. Lincoln in a 1849 letter to Secretary of the Navy William B. Preston. “Last night I received letters from different persons at Washington assuring me it was not improbable that Justin Butterfield, of Chicago, Ills, would be appointed Commissioner of the Genl. Land-Office. It was to avert this very thing, that I called on you at your rooms one sunday evening shortly after you were installed, and besought you that, so far as in your power, no man from Illinois should be appointed to any high office, without my being at least heard on the question. You were kind enough to say you thought my request a reasonable one. Mr. Butterfield is my friend, is well qualified, and, I suppose, would be faithful in the office. So far, good. But now for the objections.”9

Judge David Davis contradicted friends who told Mr. Lincoln had that he would be sacrificing his legal career if he pursued the Land Office. “My advice is worth nothing. Still were I in your place, could I get it, I would take the Land Office.” He warned Mr. Lincoln that the practice of laws “at present promises you but poor remuneration for the labor.”10 When he finally decided to pursue the Land Office appointment, Mr. Lincoln employed friends like Davis to lobby on his behalf.

Some of Mr. Lincoln’s “friends” hedged their bets in the dispute. Illinois Judge Nathaniel Pope sent a letter of recommendation at Mr. Lincoln’s request: “It is said that the respective friends of my most valued friends, Justin Butterfield and Abraham Lincoln Esquires, are presented to the President for the office of Commissioner of the Land Department. Allow me Sir to bear my testimony in favor of both. They are just such men as should be selected for the office. They are honest and capable. The appointment of either would, I think, give general satisfaction.”11

Friends like David Davis were enlisted to write letters to other friends for Mr. Lincoln. In June 1849, Mr. Lincoln traveled back to Washington to lobby on his own behalf. Before he left, he wrote Moses Hampton, “At last I concluded to take the General Land-Office if I can get it. I have come to this conclusion, more to prevent what would be generally bad for the party here, and particularly bad for me, than a positive desire for the office. Will you please write old Zach (not Mr. Ewing, but old Zach) as pretty a letter for as you think the truth will permit? Time is important. What you do, do quickly.”12

Meanwhile, Cyrus Edwards, had first blamed Congressman Baker for his dwindling chances to get the post, writing Mr. Lincoln in mid-April there is “abundant reason to believe that Baker has taken the start of us and is making desperate exertions to defeat me. Now, with me the lure of office is nothing compared with the gratification of baffling his machinations.” He asked if he might “not then hope for the continuance of your friendly exertions in my behalf?”13 Later, Edwards became angered that Mr. Lincoln had abandoned his candidacy, gave his support to Butterfield. Mr. Lincoln wrote Secretary of the Interior Thomas Ewing in late June: “This morning, on my mentioning to you, I had information my old friend, Cyrus Edwards, had placed on file, something ill-natured against me, you had the kindness, as I remember, to volunteer the remark, in my defence, that but for my devotion to Mr. Edwards, manifested by withholding my own name for his benefit, I would not, in your opinion, be the commissioner. If, in this, my memory serves me correctly, you will greatly oblige me, by saying as much on paper, with anything additional to the same point, which may occur to you. It will enable me, I think, to remove from the mind of one of my most highly valued friends, a bad impression, which is now the only thing most painful to me personally, in this whole matter.”14

All of the influence of his friends in Illinois and neighboring states proved less influential than Butterfield’s friendship with Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster and the influence of Illinois Whigs who had grown estranged from Mr. Lincoln during his one term in Congress. Butterfield got the job. After his unsuccessful trip to Washington, Mr. Lincoln wrote to David Davis: “As to my Washington trip, you know the result. I can not give you particulars in a letter, but will tell you all when I see you. I will only say now, that I am less dissatisfied than I should have been, had I known less of the particulars; and that I hope my good friends every where will approve the appointment of Mr. B. in so far as they can, and be silent when they can not.”15

After losing the Land Office job, Mr. Lincoln was offered in August 1859 the territorial governorship of Oregon. He turned it down and wrote John Addison: “I can not but be grateful to you and all other friends who have interested themselves in having the governorship of Oregon offered to me; but on as much reflection as I have had time to give the subject, I cannot consent to accept it. I have an ever abiding wish to serve you; but as to the secretaryship, I have already recommended our friend Simeon Francis, of the ‘Journal.’ Please present my respects to G.T.M. Davis, generally, and my thanks especially for his kindness in the Oregon matter.”16 That hardly ended the matter. Mr. Lincoln was active in seeking unsuccessfully the appointment of Simeon Francis as Secretary of the Territory of Oregon and Anson Henry first for a position in Minnesota and later with “some Indian agency.”17

Mr. Lincoln regretted the alienation of Cyrus Edwards and worked hard to restore their friendship. He wrote Joseph Gillespie on July 13: “Mr. Edwards is unquestionably offended with me, in connection with the matter of the General Land-Office. He wrote a letter against me, which was filed at the Department. The better part of one’s life consists of his friendships; and, of these, mine with Mr. Edwards was one of the most cherished. I have not been false to it. At a word, I could I[sic] have had the office any time before the Department was committed to Mr. Butterfield – at least Mr. Ewing & the President say as much. That word I forebore to speak, partly for other reasons, but chiefly for Mr. Edwards’ sake. Losing the office that he might gain it, I was always for; but to lose his friendship by the effort for him, would oppress me very much, were I not sustained by the utmost consciousness of rectitude.”18 Still, Mr. Lincoln thought Edwards did “wrong me very much” with his letters. Mr. Lincoln wrote in a second letter to Gillespie that day he thought that his letters to Gillespie would help “defend me with him” but suspected that they might also make Edwards “angry with you too.”19 It was only with the election of 1860 that Gillespie was able to convince Cyrus Edwards to “bury the hatchet with Lincoln.”20

Mr. Lincoln concluded his explanatory letter to Gillespie: “You may wish to know how Butterfield finally beat me. I can not tell you particularly now, but will, when I see you. In the mean time let it be understood I am not greatly dissatisfied. I wish the office had been so bestowed as to encourage our friends in future contests, and I regret exceedingly Mr. Edwards’ feelings toward me. These two things away, I should have no regrets – at least I think I would not.” Typically, he concluded it: “Your friend, as ever.”21

Nor, apparently did Mr. Lincoln hold his defeat against Justin Butterfield. When a request for an army commission was presented to President Lincoln, he reportedly said: “Mr. Justin Butterfield once obtained an appointment I very much wanted, and in which my friends believed I could have been useful, and to which they thought I was fairly entitled; and I hardly ever felt so bad at any failure in my life. But I am glad of an opportunity of doing a service to his son.”22

Nor did he hold the defeat against President Zachary Taylor. When Taylor died suddenly in July 1850, Mr. Lincoln was asked to deliver a eulogy. He said: “In connection with Gen. Taylor’s military character, may be mentioned his relations with his brother officers, and his soldiers. Terrible as he was to his country’s enemies, no man was so little disposed to have difficulty with his friends.”23


  1. Don C. Seitz, Lincoln the Politician, p. 81.
  2. King V. Hostick, “Lincoln Seeks Patronage for Illinois Whigs: A New Letter”, The Lincoln Herald, Winter 1969, p. 144 (Letter to G.W. Crawford, March 11, 1849).
  3. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 42-43 (Letter to William B. Preston, April 20,1849).
  4. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, First Supplement, p. 14 (Letter to David Davis, February 12, 1849).
  5. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 43 (Letter to Josiah M. Lucas, April 25, 1849).
  6. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 51 (Letter to Elisha Embree, May 25, 1849).
  7. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 49-50 (Letter to Duff Green, May 18, 1849).
  8. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 28-29 (Letter to Joshua F. Speed, February 20, 1849).
  9. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 48 (Letter to William B. Preston, May 16, 1849).
  10. Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis, p. 64-65 (Letter of David Davis to Abraham Lincoln, February 2, 1859).
  11. William Lee Miller, Lincoln’s Virtues, p. 221.
  12. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Second Supplement, p. 1-2 (Letter to Moses Hampton, June 1, 1849).
  13. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Cyrus Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, April 15, 1849).
  14. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Second Supplement, p. 2-3 (Letter to Thomas Ewing, June 22, 1849).
  15. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, First Supplement, p. 15-16 (Letter to David Davis, July 6, 1846).
  16. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 65 (Letter to John Addison, September 27, 1849).
  17. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 78 (Letter to Thomas Ewing, March 22,1850).
  18. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 57-59 (Letter to Joseph Gillespie, July 13, 1849).
  19. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 57 (Letter to Joseph Gillespie, July 13, 1849).
  20. Ida M. Tarbell, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 231.
  21. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 57-59 (Letter to Joseph Gillespie, July 13, 1849).
  22. Francis Fisher Browne, The Every-day Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 198.
  23. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 83-90.