The Lawyers: John Todd Stuart (1807-1885)

John Todd Stuart

John Todd Stuart

John Todd Stuart

John Todd Stuart

“John T. Stuart and A. Lincoln, Attorneys and Counselors at Law, will practice conjointly in the courts of this judicial circuit. Office. No. 4 Hoffman Row, upstairs,” read the notice in the Sangamon Journal on April 15, 1837.1 It was the third incarnation of the relationship of the two men who had first met when “Major” Stuart and “Captain” Lincoln were both serving in the Black Hawk War. The second stage of their relationship began when both men were candidates for the Illinois House of Representatives from Sangamon County. Although only two years older than Mr. Lincoln Stuart had taken a somewhat paternal attitude toward him – encouraging both his political career and his study of law. Later when Mr. Lincoln outdistanced him in law and politics, Stuart’s paternalism seemed to turn to political envy.

Mr. Lincoln lost his first legislative race shortly after the conclusion of the Black Hawk War in 1832 – but Stuart was elected. In 1834, Mr. Lincoln was approached by Democrats who sought to support him, hoping to knock off Stuart. Although both were Whigs, Stuart approved of Mr. Lincoln’s political negotiations. According to historian Benjamin Thomas: “Stuart, confident of his own invulnerability, told Lincoln to go ahead and dicker with the Democrats. Then Stuart directed the Whig strategy against a lone Democrat, Richard Quinton, with the result that Lincoln and John Dawson, another Whig, won handily; William Carpenter, a Democrat, ran third; and Stuart nosed out Quinton for the fourth and last winning place.”2

Studying law, moving to Springfield, and becoming Stuart’s partner three years later were major steps for the backwoods young man from New Salem. “While handsome, debonair Stuart enjoyed numerous friendly connections in Springfield’s aristocratic society, his slouchy young partner found life lonely and discouraging. He had become a social lion in New Salem only to find himself neglected in Springfield, where he had expected to be well received after working so effectively in making it the state capital,” wrote psychobiographer Edward J. Kempf.3

“At the time of Lincoln’s entry into the office, Stuart was just recovering from the effects of a congressional race in which he had been the loser,” wrote William H. Herndon, who became Mr. Lincoln’s third and final law partner. “He was still deeply absorbed in politics, and was preparing for the next canvass, in which he was finally successful – defeating the wily and ambitious Stephen A. Douglas. In consequence of the political allurements, Stuart did not give to the law his undivided time or the full force of his energy and intellect. Thus more or less responsibility in the management of business and the conduct of cases soon devolved on Lincoln.”4

“In the spring and summer of 1838, Stuart and Douglas rode together from town to town, all over this great district, speaking six days a week,” wrote Lincoln biographer William E. Barton. “The election occurred in August, 1838. Stuart, the Whig candidate, won by a majority of fourteen. The total vote cast was thirty-six thousand. This election foretokened the coming power of Illinois as a possible Whig state. The growth of the northern end in population bid fair in time to transfer the state from the Democratic to the Whig column. This campaign was far more interesting to Stuart than the routine business of his law office.”5 Indeed, “Stuart was too absorbed in his political future to give the law his undivided time,” wrote Lincoln legal biographer Albert A. Woldman. “It became Lincoln’s duty to prepare the pleadings and briefs in long hand, attend to trial work, and make the entries in the firm account book…”6

While Mr. Lincoln had managed the office, he also campaigned hard for his partner. It was a difficult and vicious campaign. “Lincoln and Davis dropped everything to battle for Stuart,” wrote David Davis’s biographer, Willard L. King. “After joint debates all over the district, the campaign closed in Bloomington on the Saturday preceding the Monday election. Stuart was at home nursing an injured or poisoned thumb – Douglas had bitten him in the thumb in a fracas a day or so before. According to Bloomington tradition, Lincoln was present on this memorable Saturday.”7 The actual biting took place in Springfield, according to Douglas biographer Gerald M. Capers: “Major Stuart began their canvass in 1838 in friendly fashion, but towards its close in a debate in Springfield, Stuart seized his little opponent by the neck and carried him around the square. Both candidates sought to portray themselves as the genuine “Irish” candidate in order to attract the immigrant vote. The Little Giant retaliated by biting his assailant’s thumb until it was half-severed.”8 Of more than 36,000 votes cast, Stuart triumphed by just 35 votes.

John Todd Stuart told an early biographical researcher that Mr. Lincoln’s growth was “steady, gradual and constant,” adding that Mr. Lincoln did “not believe in reforming so much as perfecting.”9 With Stuart gone to Washington, Mr. Lincoln had plenty of room for growth and even more responsibilities – both in law and in planning the Whigs’ 1840 campaign. But in January 1841 with Congressman Stuart in Washington, Mr. Lincoln underwent a more personal crisis after his engagement with Mary Todd was broken. Mr. Lincoln wrote Stuart: “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forbode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”10 Just three days earlier, Mr. Lincoln had written Stuart asking that Anson Henry be appointed postmaster. “You know I desired Dr. Henry to have that place when you left; I now desired it more than ever. I have, within the last few days, been making a most discreditable exhibition of myself in the way of hypochondriaism and thereby got an impression that Dr. Henry is necessary to my existence. Unless he gets that place he leaves Springfield. You therefore see how much I am interested in the matter.”11 Although Dr. Henry didn’t get the post, Mr. Lincoln recovered. Despite his evident depression, Mr. Lincoln had the presence of mind to write Congressman Stuart earlier in the same letter about his prospects for reelection: “On last evening there was a meeting of our friends at Butler’s; and I submitted the question to them & found them unananously [sic] in favour of having you announced as a candidate. A few of us this morning, however, concluded, that as you were already being announced in the papers, we would delay announcing you, as by your own authority for a week or two. We thought that to appear too keen about it might spur our opponents on about their Genl. Ticket project. Upon the whole, I think I may say with certainty, that your reelection is sure, if it be in the power of the whigs to make it so.”12

Mr. Lincoln grew apart politically from his law partner over the next two decades, but they remained friendly. Mr. Lincoln had told Stuart in 1850 “The time will come when we must all be Democrats or Abolitionists.”13 Their own political split came as the Republican Party developed in Illinois – although William H. Herndon asserted that Stuart was also envious: “As Lincoln grew into public favor and achieved such marked success in the [legal] profession, half the bar of Springfield began to be envious of his growing popularity. I believe there is less jealousy and bitter feeling among lawyers than professional men of any other class; but it should be borne in mind that in that early day a portion of the bar in every county seat, if not a majority of the lawyers everywhere, were politicians. Stuart frequently differed from Lincoln on political questions, and was full of envy.”14

In 1856 Stuart and Mr. Lincoln came to a parting of their political ways – at Herndon’s instigation. There was a call for a Republican convention to which Herndon signed his law partner’s name and had it published without Mr. Lincoln’s authority or knowledge in the Springfield Journal. “John T. Stuart was keeping his eye on Lincoln, with the view of keeping him on his side – the totally dead conservative side. Mr. Stuart saw the published call and grew mad; rushed into my office. Seemed mad and horrified, and said to me, ‘Sir, did Mr. Lincoln sign that Abolition call which is published this morning?’ I answered, ‘Mr. Lincoln did not sign that call.’ ‘Did Mr. Lincoln authorize you to sign it?’ said Mr. Stuart. ‘No, he never authorized me to sign it.’ ‘Then do you know that you have ruined Mr. Lincoln?’ ‘I did not know that I had ruined Mr. Lincoln; did not intend to do so; thought he was a made man by it; that the time had come when conservatism was a crime and a blunder.’ ‘You, then, take the responsibility of your acts, do you?’ ‘I do, most emphatically.'” Herndon then wrote Mr. Lincoln and got his authority for the actions he had already taken.15 Herndon wrote: “Stuart subsided, and the conservative spirits who hovered around Springfield no longer held control of the political fortunes of Abraham Lincoln.”16

Stuart had a law partnership with Benjamin Edwards from 1843 to 1885. He continued to be active in politics – as a Constitutional Union Party candidate for governor in 1860 and later as a Democratic candidate for Congress. In the Democratic tide in Illinois of 1862, Stuart defeated Republican Leonard Swett in what Democrats liked to portray as a repudiation of President Lincoln’s policies. While declining to debate Swett, Stuart declared: “It is my desire to give the President a frank and earnest support in all his constitutional efforts to suppress the present wicked rebellion, and reserve all censure, if any, for a more suitable time and a full knowledge of all the facts influencing his conduct.” When Swett had their debate correspondence published, Stuart challenged Swett to an impromptu debate in Lincoln, Illinois in which he expressed “confidence” in President Lincoln but charged the Lincoln Administration with “inaugurating a revolution leading to military despotism.”17 Stuart defeated Swett by 1500 votes. Over the next two years, Stuart was a frequent guest at the White House.

In 1864, with President Lincoln on ticket, Shelby Cullom ran against Stuart and defeated him. Stuart’s 1864 nemesis had once been his student. Cullom’s father had proposed to Shelby in 1853 that he apply to Mr. Lincoln to study law in his office. According to Cullom biographer James W. Neilson, Mr. “Lincoln was genuinely pleased to see the son of his old friend and was quite willing that the younger Cullom should enter his office. However, a reflection about the young man’s own welfare made Lincoln hesitate. He was often away on the circuit and could give little time to preparing a student for the law. If Cullom entered his office, he would have to ‘read law’ in the most literal sense; the directions and explanations an accomplished, well-practiced attorney alone could provide would be missing. Thus Lincoln advised his caller to go to the law firm of Stuart and Edwards, also located in Springfield.” Stuart took Cullom in and he studied at the first over the next two years.18

According to William H. Herndon, “Between Lincoln and Stuart from 1843 to 1865 there was no good feeling of an honest friendship. Lincoln hated some of the ways of Stuart. Lincoln felt no jealousy toward Stuart, Stuart did toward Lincoln. Stuart in his heart hated Lincoln.”19 Stuart’s later recollections of Mr. Lincoln indeed seemed somewhat bitter. He blamed some of Mr. Lincoln’s problems on his digestion and said he had prescribed “blue mass pills” to deal with the problem.


  1. Albert A. Woldman, Lawyer Lincoln, p. 26.
  2. Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln, p. 41-42.
  3. Edward J. Kempf, Abraham Lincoln’s Philosophy of Common Sense: An Analytical Biography of a Great Mind, Volume I, p. 171.
  4. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 147.
  5. William E. Barton, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 232.
  6. Albert A. Woldman, Lawyer Lincoln, p. 27.
  7. Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis, p. 31.
  8. Gerald M. Capers, Stephen A. Douglas Defender of the Union, p. 14.
  9. Roy P. Basler, editor, “James Quay Howard’s Notes on Lincoln”, The Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, Volume IV, December 1947, No. 8, p. 394.
  10. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 229 (Letter to John T. Stuart, January 23, 1841).
  11. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 228 (Letter to John T. Stuart, January 20, 1841).
  12. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 229 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to John T. Stuart, January 23, 1841).
  13. William O. Stoddard, Abraham Lincoln: The Man and the War President, p. 206.
  14. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 287.
  15. See similar story in William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 311.
  16. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 312.
  17. Harry E. Pratt, The Republication of Lincoln’s War Policy in 1862 – Stuart-Swett Congressional Campaign, p. 10-11 (Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, April 1931).
  18. James W. Neilson, Shelby M. Cullom: Prairie State Republican, p. 4.
  19. Emanuel Hertz, The Hidden Lincoln, p. 112 (Letter from William H. Herndon to Jesse W. Weik, December 10, 1885).