On March 5, 1849, Abraham Lincoln stood among a throng of observers as Zachary Taylor was sworn into office, becoming the nation's twelfth president. Lincoln had worked long and hard on the campaign trail stumping for the hero of the Mexican War, "Old Rough and Ready" Taylor. The efforts of the outgoing Illinois congressman on Taylor's behalf included mass mailings of pro-Taylor speeches and documents, active campaigning in four states — Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts and Illinois — and enthusiastic pronouncements of Taylor as congressman.[1] Lincoln had every right to feel proud of his efforts which — in his mind — helped to win the presidency for the Whig party. Moreover, with the Whigs in control of the executive branch of the federal government, political patronage posts were available in greater abundance.

Even before Taylor's inauguration, aspiring office seekers assailed Lincoln with requests for public jobs. These requests ranged from postmaster to that of charge d'affaire. [2] The young congressman, who was nearing the end of his only term in the United States House of Representatives, diligently forwarded all applications to the appropriate department head, exerting great efforts to secure patronage jobs for his constituents and for Illinois Whigs generally. One appointment, however, became a cause celebre among Illinois Whigs: that of the commissioner of the General Land Office. Early in 1849 it was understood that an Illinoisian would be chosen to fill Page  [End Page 9]

Photograph of Ninian Wirt Edwards by C. S. German, National
Gallery, Springfield, Illinois.
Photograph of Ninian Wirt Edwards by C. S. German, National Gallery, Springfield, Illinois.Page  [End Page 10]
the position. But the confusion among Whigs within Illinois produced a fierce debate, one that eventually consumed all of Lincoln's attention.

The controversy is familiar to Lincoln students and, therefore, requires only a brief review. On February 14, 1849, Cyrus Edwards of Alton, Illinois, wrote to Lincoln requesting his aid in securing the appointment as commissioner of the General Land Office. In addition to being a good friend of Lincoln's, Edwards was the brother of Ninian Wirt Edwards, Mary Todd Lincoln's brother-in-law. Although Lincoln claimed to have received over three hundred applications for the position of commissioner, he chose Edwards for the office. Unfortunately, Edward Dickinson Baker, once Lincoln's rival for leadership of the Sangamon County Whigs, wanted the post to be given to J. L. D. Morrison, usually referred to in the press and among friends as Don Morrison.[3]

On March 11, Lincoln and Baker called upon Secretary of the Interior Thomas Ewing to discuss patronage matters. Apparently they managed to save the commissionership of the Land Office for Illinois but neither made a recommendation, assuming that Morrison and Edwards would resolve the candidacy issue between themselves. Certainly Lincoln urged Edwards to meet with Morrison and reach an amicable solution. Such, however, was not to be the case. The two candidates continued to battle between themselves for the office well into April. Lincoln's friends urged him to break the deadlock by running for the office himself. Lincoln rebuffed this suggestion. He refused to consider the appointment for himself unless the Taylor administration denied it to Edwards.

What existed as a stalemate between Edwards and Morrison was broken by the entrance of yet another Whig candidate into the race, Justin Butterfield of Chicago. [4] Lincoln knew Butterfield both as an accomplished attorney and fellow Whig. But before the Whig nominating convention in 1848, Butterfield was an active partisan on be- Page  [End Page 11] half of Henry Clay, not Zachary Taylor. Butterfield's meager efforts on Taylor's behalf led Lincoln to comment, "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 of one with less claims to it."[5] Lincoln's displeasure intensified when it became obvious that Butterfield was Secretary Ewing's choice for the office. Marshalling the services of his political friends, Lincoln managed to postpone the administration's appointment decision until he could assemble letters of recommendation for a campaign of his own. At last willing to promote himself, Lincoln wrote appeals to his friends within Illinois and in surrounding states, asking for their support. Nevertheless, all his efforts were for naught. On June 21, Justin Butterfield was appointed commissioner of the General Land Office. [6]

Historians have tended to view the Butterfield-Lincoln controversy in its narrowest sense: its immediate effects on Lincoln. Lincoln's failure to secure the office, so the argument goes, was but another in a series of personal and political defeats.[7] Biographers of Lincoln generally agree that the Illinois politician retreated to the practice of law, washing his hands of active participation in Whig politics. Only when the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 reignited the debate over slavery, according to this view, did Lincoln reemerge onto the political scene.

Recent scholarship has begun to diverge somewhat from the standard interpretation, offering additional insights. Don Fehrenbacher modifies the assertion that Lincoln retired from politics. He tells us: "Lincoln waited five years before seeking public office again, but this was a sensible adjustment to circumstances, not actual retirement. A Whig had few opportunities to choose from anyway, and he preferred to bide his time rather than take a backward step Page  [End Page 12] into the legislature or attempt some hopeless task like running for governor." [8] Mark E. Neely, Jr., finds the Butterfield-Lincoln controversy to be an important lesson which, as he says, "strengthened Lincoln's realization that patronage must go to the party faithful to keep the party from falling apart." [9] The significance of the Land Office controversy, according to Fehrenbacher and Neely, lies in the lessons that Lincoln learned. Remember, these interpretations assume that the race for the office had a significant impact upon Lincoln's psyche. But did Lincoln really want the appointment as commissioner of the General Land Office? Were his late efforts to secure the appointment based upon personal or party concerns? And more importantly, what does the appointment battle tell us about the operation of Whig party politics in Illinois?

If we accept Lincoln's statement at face value, there is little to indicate that he was seeking any political office after his term in the United States House expired in the spring of 1849. It is true that on January 8, 1848, Lincoln wrote to William Herndon, indicating that he would run for reelection only if no other Whig wanted the office. [10] But whatever hopes Lincoln held for reelection were quickly dashed when his former law partner, Stephen Trigg Logan, decided to seek the Whig nomination. Moreover, Lincoln indicated to several friends at the beginning of 1849 that the Land Office had been offered to him but he declined. His refusal seemed odd since the job paid the comfortable sum of three thousand dollars annually. Too, it was a position of prestige and some patronage power, ranking just below cabinet officers. Lincoln, however, explained to David Davis, "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."[11] This statement reveals two important considerations worth closer examination: first, Lincoln's attachment to the practice of law and second, the condition of the Whig party in Illinois.

It is difficult for scholars to rid themselves of Herndon's characterization of Lincoln's political ambition as "a little engine that knew no rest." [12] An appreciation of Lincoln's legal skill remains wanting Page  [End Page 13] among Lincoln biographers. All accounts by Lincoln's contemporaries agree that he loved riding the circuit and excelled as a trail lawyer. Between 1840 and 1850, according to Herndon, the practice of law in Illinois underwent a transformation. "The courts were becoming graver and more learned," Herndon wrote, "and the lawyer was learning as a preliminary and indispensable condition to success that he must be a close reasoner, besides having at command a broad knowledge of the principles on which the statutory law is constructed."[13] In short, the practice of law was becoming more demanding. At a time when the issues dividing Whigs and Democrats seemed blurred, it is not difficult to understand Lincoln's desire to resume the challenge of his legal career.

Simply put, the practice of law lured Lincoln away from politics. Nevertheless, Lincoln felt an obligation to work at maintaining the Whig toehold in central Illinois. His long and active association with the Whigs of Sangamon County imbued Lincoln with a party loyalty that could not be easily extinguished. But it was clear to Lincoln in 1848 that some of his previously held notions about the party had to be discarded or modified. Lincoln's attachment to the political philosophy of Henry Clay was shelved in favor of the electable Zachary Taylor. In addition, Lincoln's 1840 pronouncement that he was "opposed to removals to make places" for deserving Whigs had clearly been discarded by 1848.[14]

Lincoln's desire for a more rigorous party organization remained a constant goal. In some respects, he was an atypical Whig, advocating a state-wide party network of county, precinct and section committeemen. He pushed for a convention system to select candidates, and he worked toward ameliorating divisions within the Whig ranks. By 1848, he was urging Herndon to recruit young men like himself into the party to promote Taylor's election. Realizing that hard work resulting in Whig victories demanded rewards, Lincoln held out to young party workers the attractive possibilities of patronage jobs or future candidacies. [15] In this way, party loyalty and cohesiveness would be strengthened. More importantly, it placed individual ambition behind the needs of a unified party. Lincoln's approach emphasized the necessity of organizational efficiency and unity. Therefore, when Lincoln found so many Whig applicants for Page  [End Page 14] the Land Office, he declined to pursue the appointment. As the lone Illinois Whig in the Thirtieth House, he was painfully aware of the need to expand the party's influence beyond the Seventh Congressional District. And to maintain harmony within his safe district, the few political offices available to Whigs had to be shared among the party faithful.

With this in mind, it is easier to understand Lincoln's reluctance to break the Morrison-Edwards deadlock by running for the office himself. He had hoped that the two men might be able to reach an amicable settlement. If Lincoln and Baker could keep the field reduced to either Edwards or Morrison there would be little problem. But Lincoln realized the impossibility of such a task. Other states put forward their own favorite sons; although these candidates were unsuccessful, their attempts at the office convinced other Whig leaders in Illinois that something had to be done.

The catalyst which broke the stalemate was Butterfield's well organized campaign for the office. Chicago Whig, Lisle Smith, spearheaded the Butterfield drive by soliciting letters of recommendation from Whigs throughout the state. Smith was even able to secure the signatures of twenty-four prominent Springfield Whigs on one such petition. [16] His main target, as Donald Riddle has amply demonstrated, was Edward D. Baker. Smith wanted to diminish the influence of Baker in northern Illinois by challenging the Morrison candidacy for the Land Office. Other letters from Whigs in neighboring states were forwarded on Butterfield's behalf to Taylor. Of course, the personal endorsement from Daniel Webster was of no small consequence. And Henry Clay, already complaining that his supporters were being treated as lepers in the new administration, also endorsed Butterfield. [17]

Lincoln viewed the Butterfield candidacy with great apprehension. Butterfield did nothing to advance Taylor's victory. Yet, he sought one of the prize patronage plums. As former Whig Committee Chairman, Dr. Anson G. Henry, stated: "Who ever heard of Butterfield as a Whig ever, until the fight was over?"[18] Lincoln Page  [End Page 15] understood that Clay's endorsement came as a quid pro quo. But he confessed to Josiah M. Lucas that he felt deeply mortified because Gen. Taylor's administration trampled all of his wishes "in the dust merely to gratify" Clay and his followers. The needs of a floundering Whig party in Illinois were of greater urgency than the appeasement of Clay. Moreover, David Davis found it odd that the Taylor administration did not listen to Lincoln and Baker, two leading Illinois Whigs who had served in Congress. [19]

Davis was not the only Illinois Whig disturbed by the administration's patronage policy. Lincoln's central Illinois friends had been suggesting he take the Land Office for himself as early as February. By April, when it seemed clear that neither Morrison nor Edwards received the clear backing of Illinois Whigs, several of Lincoln's Springfield friends urged him to run for the Land Office as he was the only man popular enough to secure the appointment. Support came from as far away as Washington, D.C. Josiah M. Lucas, a clerk in the Land Office, both encouraged Lincoln to run and kept him apprised of developments. It was Lucas who provided Lincoln with detailed reports of Smith's activities on Butterfield's behalf. It was also Lucas who warned Lincoln of the "Eastern influence" of Congressman Truman Smith, of Connecticut, and Daniel Webster, as well as the Western influence of Clay, all of which advanced Butterfield's appointment. [20]

Clearly the disorder among Illinois Whigs and the conflict between state and national Whig leaders produced a most confused and emotional state of affairs. Lincoln was sensitive to these problems. He wanted to avoid a confrontation with his close friend and political associate Edward D. Baker. In spring, 1848, Baker moved to Galena, winning a congressional seat as a Whig in a previously Democratic district. [21] Because of this and their friendship, Lincoln refused to campaign against Morrison. As he reminded his supporters, "Col. Baker's position entitles him to a large share of control in this matter." [22] Ironically it was Baker's influence in the controversy that sparked other northern Whigs to run their own candidate. In winning the election, Baker had denied the congressional seat to anoth- Page  [End Page 16]

"Stump Speaking" by George Caleb Bingham. Original painting
property of Boatmen's Naional Bank of St. Louis.
"Stump Speaking" by George Caleb Bingham. Original painting property of Boatmen's Naional Bank of St. Louis.Page  [End Page 17]
er Whig, Elihu Washburne. Washburne joined forces with Martin Sweet, Lisle Smith and Justin Butterfield to check the power of the brash Baker. [23]

One wonders why Lincoln ran for the office given the byzantine events that surrounded it. His candidacy jeopardized his friendship with Edwards, possibly Baker, and required him to secure recommendations in a short three weeks. Adding to his problems, Ewing probably removed Lincoln's best letters of recommendation from his file. In a series of recently discovered letters, Lincoln questioned Ewing about the absence of endorsements from Indiana Whigs Richard Thompson and Elisha Embree known to have been placed on file. It was evident from the exchange that Ewing could not adequately explain their disappearance. [24]

Surprisingly, Lincoln did not pursue the issue of the tampered file or even speak of it to his friends. Rather, once he was satisfied that his file had been adversely altered, Lincoln wrote to Ewing, assuring the secretary of the interior that he backed the administration and the Butterfield appointment wholeheartedly.[25] When a disgruntled Lincoln supporter spoke out against Ewing and Butterfield in the Illinois legislature, Lincoln publicly came to the defense of the Taylor administration. As he lectured David Davis, "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." [26]

The evidence strongly indicates that Whig politics and not Lincoln's ambition was the significant factor in this controversy. Lincoln had more to lose than he had to gain personally from the battle over the appointment. From the standpoint of the Illinois Whig party, however, there was much to be gained. Lincoln was a proponent of an efficient party organization and was willing to implement reforms towards this end. He, as well as his constituents, was fearful that the position would be lost to Illinois because of the deadlock created by Morrison and Edwards. Butterfield, though an Illinoisan, proved to be an undesirable choice. The Chicago attorney Page  [End Page 18] was perceived to be a lukewarm Whig whose strongest support came from national rather than local leaders. His appointment surely would do little to encourage loyal Taylor Whigs to future exertions on the party's behalf. If Lincoln had successfully thwarted Butterfield's candidacy, it would have been a positive signal to those Whigs who anticipated patronage posts for loyal party service. Too, Lincoln's appointment would have provided direct access to the administration for the party faithful in Illinois.

The political risk seemed minimal. Lincoln had gone as far as a Whig could hope for in Illinois. He had expressed no further political goals other than to be a loyal Whig. Unless some organizational reforms were fully implemented and political patronage wisely distributed, the future of the party in Illinois looked grim. Lincoln's candidacy, however ill-fated, was an attempt to unite a badly divided state party based upon the principles that Jackson's opponents dubbed the "spoils system." By characterizing Butterfield's candidacy as "an egregious political blunder," Lincoln expressed his dissatisfaction, not with Butterfield's abilities, but with the negative repercussions it would produce on Illinois Whigs. Throughout the entire affair, Lincoln's decisions were driven by partisan considerations. When the appointment was given to Butterfield, Lincoln demonstrated his loyalty — and provided an example of party unity — by closing ranks behind the Chicago attorney. And with the controversy behind him, Lincoln was free to pursue his original goal: the practice of law. Page  [End Page 19]


  1. For general descriptions of Lincoln's activities during the campaign, see Albert J. Beveridge, Abraham Lincoln, 1809–1859 (Boston: Houghton-Mifflen, 1928), 1:434–494; and Donald W. Riddle, Congressman Abraham Lincoln (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979), 128–142. Transcripts of Lincoln's speeches are found in Roy P. Basler, ed., Marion Dolores Pratt and Lloyd A. Dunlap, asst. eds., Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 8 vols. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955), 1:501–519 passim, 2:1–14 passim, (hereafter cited as Collected Works). The Illinois congressman's stumping activities are described in Earl Schenck Miers, ed., Lincoln Day By Day (Washington: Lincoln Sesquicentennial Commission, 1960), 1:298–326. return to text
  2. See especially Riddle, Ibid., 181–197. Many of the requests to Lincoln for the year 1849 are found in the microfilm edition of the Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress.return to text
  3. The best accounts of the Land Office controversy are Beveridge, Abraham Lincoln, 1809–1859, 1:487–493; Riddle, Congressman Abraham Lincoln, 198–235; and Stephen B. Oates, With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York; Mentor Books, 1977), 95–97.return to text
  4. There is little information on Justin Butterfield. Most contemporary studies described his legal prowess. See John M. Palmer, ed., The Bench and Bar of Illinois (Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1899), 1:2, 181, and 2:613–614; John M. Wilson, Memoir of Justin Butterfield (Chicago: Chicago Legal News Company, 1880). The controversy from Butterfield's point of view is found in Thomas Ewing, "Lincoln and the General Land Office, 1849," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 25 (October 1932): 139–153.return to text
  5. Lincoln to Josiah M. Lucas, 25 April 1849, Collected Works, 2:43–44.return to text
  6. It has been charged that Lincoln's opposition to the Mexican War made him a political leper. Recent studies, however, refute this charge. See Gabor S. Boritt, "A Question of Political Suicide: Lincoln's Opposition to the Mexican War," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 67 (February 1974): 79–100; and Mark E. Neely, Jr., "Lincoln and the Mexican War: An Argument by Analogy," Civil War History, 24 (March 1978): 5–24.return to text
  7. The interpretation was first advanced by Herndon and Weik in Paul Angle, ed., Herndon's Life of Lincoln (New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1936), 240–243. One finds variations in Beveridge, Abraham Lincoln, 1809–1859, 1:487–493; Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952), 128–129; Paul Findley, A. Lincoln: The Crucible of Congress (New York: Crown Publishers Inc., 1979), 198–208; and Charles Strozier, Lincoln's Quest for Union (New York: Basic Books, 1982), 164–169. return to text
  8. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850's (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964), 20–21.return to text
  9. Mark E. Neely, Jr., The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982), 304–305. return to text
  10. Lincoln to William H. Herndon, 8 January 1848, Collected Works, 1:430–431. return to text
  11. Lincoln to David Davis, 12 February 1849, Roy P. Basler, ed., Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln: Supplement 1832–1864 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974), 12 (hereafter cited as Collected Works Supplement). return to text
  12. Angle, Herndon's Life, 304. return to text
  13. Ibid., 247–248. return to text
  14. Lincoln to John Todd Stuart, 17 December 1840, Collected Works, 1:221, as compared to Lincoln to Thomas Ewing, 7 April 1849, Collected Works, 2:39–40. return to text
  15. Lincoln to William H. Herndon, 22 June 1848, Collected Works, 1:490–491; Lincoln to William H. Herndon, 10 July 1848, Collected Works, 1:497–498; and Lincoln to William B. Preston, 20 April 1849, Collected Works, 2:42–43.return to text
  16. Riddle, Congressman Abraham Lincoln, 209–210.return to text
  17. Daniel Webster's connection with Butterfield is found in Webster to Samuel Lisle Smith, Justin Butterfield, et al., 26 June 1847, Charles M. Wilste, ed., The Papers of Daniel Webster (Hanover, NH: University of New England, 1984), Correspondence, 6:239–240; Elizabeth Sawyer to Jesse W. Weik, 12 October 1888, in Herndon's Life of Lincoln, 242. For Clay's complaints see Henry Clay to Nicholas Dean, 21 June 1849, Calvin Colton, ed., The Private Correspondence of Henry Clay (Boston: Frederick Parker, 1856), 587–588. return to text
  18. Anson G. Henry to Joseph Gillespie, 2 June 1849, in Joseph Gillespie MSS, Illinois State Historical Library.return to text
  19. Lincoln to Josiah M. Lucas, 25 April 1849, Collected Works, 2:43–44; David Davis to Lincoln, 6 June 1849, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Reel 1, Ser. 1, Frame 356; and Anson S. Miller to Anson G. Henry, 8 June 1849, Ibid. return to text
  20. Lucas to Lincoln, 15 April 1849, Ibid. return to text
  21. Harry C. Blair and Rebecca Tarshis, Colonel Edward D. Baker: Lincoln's Constant Ally (Oregon Historical Society, 1960) remains the only study of Baker. return to text
  22. Lincoln to William B. Warren et al., 7 April 1849, Collected Works, 2:41.return to text
  23. The best description of the Whig infighting is found in Riddle, Congressman Abraham Lincoln, 198–221.return to text
  24. These letters first appeared in Paul Richards' Autograph Catalogue 84 (April 1978): 11–16. The Illinois State Historical Library has since purchased two of these letters.return to text
  25. Lincoln to Thomas Ewing, 13 October 1849, Lincoln Collection, Illinois State Historical Library. return to text
  26. Lincoln to Editor of the Chicago Journal, 21 November 1849, Collected Works 2:68; and Lincoln to David Davis, 6 July 1849, Collected Works Supplement, 15–16. For Linder's response see U. F. Linder to Joseph Gillespie, 14 January 1850, Gillespie MSS, ISHL. return to text