Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois
Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois
I would rather have a full term in the Senate than in the Presidency.
—Abraham Lincoln[1]

Abraham Lincoln came within five votes of becoming a U.S. senator on February 8, 1855. It happened one cold Thursday afternoon in Springfield, when ninety-nine members of the Illinois General Assembly met to elect a federal senator. While Mary Lincoln watched from a crowded gallery, Lincoln collected forty-five votes on the first ballot—more than anyone else, including the incumbent, a Democrat named James Shields. Yet the hours dragged by without the required majority. Most of the legislators opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and wanted to send a message to their other senator and the plan's author, Stephen A. Douglas, but for nine ballots the various anti-Douglas or anti-Nebraska factions could not unite on a candidate. Lincoln finally broke the deadlock in the early evening by releasing his remaining supporters to Lyman Trumbull, a prominent anti-Nebraska Democrat. It was a dramatic gesture by Lincoln, who apparently sacrificed himself for the free-soil cause.

This is the story familiar to Lincoln students. Clearly, the 1855 senatorial contest has been eclipsed by the more famous Lincoln-Douglas campaign of 1858. Biographers examining the earlier campaign usually minimize its importance. Only a handful of studies of the pre-presidential Lincoln have seriously examined this episode. Albert J. Beveridge produced the most complete account, and although Senator Beveridge was especially well equipped to analyze the contest, a surprising amount of information was unavailable to him. Don E. Fehrenbacher's excellent work on Lincoln in the 1850s concentrates on other political battles, spending almost as many chapters on the second senatorial campaign as he does pages on the first. Less well known, but sometimes more useful for this period, Page  [End Page 1] is John S. Wright's account of Lincoln and the politics of slavery. Still, there has been nothing more than cursory treatment of the contest in the Lincoln canon. [2]

"There is a long and painful history of that senatorial contest yet to be written," insisted Elihu B. Washburne, one of the key figures in the campaign, "and when the whole truth is disclosed it will throw a flood of new light on the character of Mr. Lincoln." While an exmaination of the 1855 contest may not "throw a flood of new light" on Lincoln, it does present one of the fullest and most striking portraits yet available of Lincoln as a political leader. Start with his decision to elect Trumbull, which was not simply a selfless gesture. Lincoln helped elect a man whose own supporters had betrayed him. Some overlooked recollections of the contest, plus a letter Lincoln wrote after the election but not discovered until 1989, suggest that Governor Joel A. Matteson (another candidate in the race) was arranging to buy votes in the Trumbull camp when Lincoln intervened. Lincoln had entered the ballot expecting to lose and hoping only to prevent anyone else, including Trumbull, from winning; he switched gears only when he discovered that Matteson was cheating. [3]

Yet Lincoln achieved more than just revenge. By supporting a former Democrat, he finished laying the foundation for what would become the Republican party of Illinois—a job he had pursued since the beginning of his campaign the previous November. "During the anxious moments that intervened between the general election and the assembling of the Legislature," recalled William H. Herndon, his law partner, Lincoln "slept, like Napoleon, with one eye open." What Herndon and others have failed to understand is that for Lincoln to win the contest, he needed to build a party. Robert W. Johannsen Page  [End Page 2] has recently revived the argument that Lincoln was a reluctant Republican who thought the reaction against the Kansas-Nebraska Act would reinvigorate the listless Whig party.[4] Although Lincoln sometimes used the Whig label during his 1854–55 senatorial campaign, he acted without regard for strict Whig interests. In fact, by the end of the contest, he considered himself part of what he called the "Republican organization." Moreover, because Lincoln was the most aggressive candidate for the Senate seat, he proved to be the Republicans' most effective organizer. Lincoln was not just a willing Republican in the winter of 1854–55; he was the leading member of that party. By establishing himself as the point man for this emerging Republican movement, Lincoln began moving swiftly toward a goal even larger than a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Because state legislatures decided senatorial elections in those days, the senatorial campaign could not begin in earnest until after the fall elections, when voters chose most state senators (some held over from previous contests) and all state representatives. In Illinois, there had also been congressional elections and an election for state treasurer. Under normal circumstances, the 1854 elections would have passed without much excitement. The Democrats had not lost a statewide election in years and enjoyed an overwhelming majority in the legislature. The Kansas-Nebraska Act helped break that electoral lock. Candidates who opposed Douglas's plan for the organization of the territories won impressive victories. Complicating the results, however, were the successes of some candidates who pledged to the temperence movement and others who had connections to Know-Nothing lodges. The turnover in the new legislature was tremendous. Only four out of seventy-five representatives kept their seats. Quite a few of the new members had been elected independent of either the Whig or Democratic parties. A survey of the winning candidates revealed almost a dozen self-applied political labels. [5]

The traditional explanation of the new party alignment—which insists on a simple dichotomy between Nebraska and anti-Nebraska forces—is therefore misleading. At the start of the senatorial race, there were actually four major factions: northern Republicans, down- Page  [End Page 3] state Fusionists, Democrats, and Independents. Across northern Illinois, most opponents of the Nebraska bill were working together and calling themselves Republicans by the November election. Further south, comparable anti-Nebraska forces had also engaged in fusion, although without admitting it as freely. Downstate fusionists resisted the radical connotations of the Republican label, but were not intent on keeping the Whig party, either; Lincoln, for example, was called a "Fusionist" by the Illinois Journal of Springfield because the local Whig party had not organized that fall. [6] In fact, the difference between Republicans and Fusionists was little more than one of regional strategy. Both opposed Douglas and would eventually ignore their minor ideological disputes to join forces to beat him. Meanwhile, Douglas's insistance that all Democrats support his Nebraska plan had irrevocably split his party. Those who refused to accept his "test" became Independents and would later prove to become the linchpin of the anti-Douglas effort.

In ordinary circumstances, a senatorial candidate would have waited until the new legislature met before soliciting votes directly. Worried about the chaotic party situation, however, Lincoln eschewed custom and began a full-court press even before he knew the results of the elections. "The returns of members of the Legislature," reported the Illinois Journal on November 10, "are not sufficient to determine its character." Yet the same day Lincoln sent out several letters announcing his intentions. "Some friends here are really for me, for the U.S. Senate," he wrote to a likely supporter and lobbyist, "and I should be very grateful if you could make a mark for me among your members." John G. Nicolay and John Hay claim in their biography of Lincoln that these letters were a "Western custom," but apparently nobody else followed the custom with Lincoln's dedication. During the two months before the legislature convened, Lincoln wrote numerous letters asking for support or discussing strategy. The incumbent Shields did not even bother to evaluate the complexion of the legislature until weeks after Lincoln had begun campaigning.[7]

The letters that remain offer a glimpse of Lincoln's blunt campaign style. As he told a former client, "You used to express a good deal Page  [End Page 4] of partiality for me; and if you are still so, now is the time." To a colleague from Lincoln's own days in the legislature, he wrote, "When you were in the legislature you helped to pass some bills of mutual interest, at that time either in jest or earnest you suggested me for Senator. My friends are now asking me to make the race." The tone was always candid, sometimes almost urgent. One of the letters, to Thomas J. Henderson, a member of the new legislature, is so brusque that it is worth repeating in full: "It has come round that a whig may, by possibility, be elected to the U.S. Senate; and I want the chance of being the man. You are a member of the Legislature, and have a vote to give. Think it over, and see whether you can do better than to go for me. Write me, at all events; and let this be confidential." [8]

The early responses were largely encouraging, but some correspondents questioned Lincoln's eligibility. The problem was that the Illinois Constitution forbade a member of the state legislature from running for federal office, and Lincoln was a member of the new legislature. Although a former congressman, he had agreed to run as a state representative because his popularity would help the local ticket. Fehrenbacher calls the mix-up "a surprising oversight for an eminent attorney at law." [9] It was actually not much of an oversight, however. The state constitution was only six years old and untested in many areas. The clause concerning Lincoln's eligibility would later be proven unconstitutional on the grounds that no state may alter requirements for federal office. Only two years before, another member of the legislature had been the Whig nominee for U.S. Senate. The restriction was dubious and open to challenge.

Yet Lincoln chose to resign his seat. For someone who took so much pride in public service, resignation must have been difficult. But Lincoln wanted no doubts about his eligibility. There had been questions during the last senatorial election. Shields, a native of Ireland, was elected before he had been a naturalized citizen for seven years. The Democratic governor endured public scorn while he delayed calling a second election until after Shields had passed the required mark. [10] Realizing that legislators might be sensitive to Page  [End Page 5] creating another embarrassment for the state, Lincoln prevented any problems with a quick exit. His decision left no doubts about his ambition.

Lincoln's letter to Jonathan Young Scammon
requesting support for his senatorial bid.
Lincoln's letter to Jonathan Young Scammon requesting support for his senatorial bid.

Two days after he resigned his seat, Lincoln made another strategic retreat. The northern Republicans had met in Springfield in October and had named Lincoln to their central committee after hearing him speak and realizing that his positions were comparable to their own. But Lincoln needed to steer clear of the new movement in order to hold his downstate base. On November 27, he politely declined to join the Republican committee, but his delicate refusal has often been misunderstood. Beveridge claims Lincoln "brusquely denied" the Republicans; Richard H. Luthin labels Lincoln's response a "sharp letter"; Stephen B. Oates finds it a "sharp rebuke." Only Robert W. Johannsen calls Lincoln's response "equivocal." Yet, Lincoln merely told Ichabod Codding, the committee's secretary, that he was "perplexed" by the appointment because he assumed that he was not radical enough on the slavery issue. Lincoln asked if he had misunderstood the Republicans' positions—a cagey reference to rumors Page  [End Page 6] that their platform had been intentionally misquoted in Democratic newspapers—and closed his supposedly "sharp" answer with a request to "Please write, and inform me."[11]

"Things look reasonably well," Lincoln told a friend on the same day, "but I fear some will insist on a platform, which I can not stand upon." Already, Lincoln recognized that he would have to deal with a loose coalition of several different factions—with several different platforms. Throughout the next month the Republican newspapers lined up against him. "We could not advise the republicans to support ... Lincoln, or any of the moderate men of his stamp," stated the influential Chicago Free West, "He is only a Whig, and this people's movement is no whig triumph." "There must be something wrong about U.S. Senator, at Chicago," Lincoln confided to Elihu B. Washburne, a northern Republican congressman and ally. The Galena representative then lobbied Zebina Eastman, editor of the Free West, to reverse his opposition. "I know he is with us in sentiment," pleaded Washburne.[12]

Although the Republicans were suspicious of Lincoln's commitment to fusion and the antislavery cause, their primary objection was regional. Lincoln and the Republicans neither knew nor trusted each other. In a letter that probably crossed paths with Lincoln's note, Washburne reported that many Republicans resented the "Springfield influence" that had long dominated Illinois politics.[13] The regional jealousy obscured the comparatively small ideological and social differences between Fusionist leaders in the north and center. More often than not, the fears expressed by either side were exaggerated by a deep unfamiliarity that was perhaps inevitable in a state that stretched from the Kentucky border to the latitudes of Maine.

An example of this regionalism was the October 5, 1854, Republican convention in Springfield, which created the organization that Page  [End Page 7] Lincoln refused to join. According to Paul Selby, a participant in the convention, the Illinois Republican party was a direct descendent of that October gathering. More recently, Victor B. Howard, in two articles generated from research about Ichabod Codding, supports Selby's claims. On ideological grounds, Selby and Howard make a persuasive case. Despite their contemporary noteriety, the Republicans were actually quite moderate, and their platform was later incorporated into the Illinois Republican party platforms. But a platform is not a party. The 1854 Republican movement was a northern, and not statewide, fusion of Whigs, Free-Soilers, Know-Nothings, and temperance advocates that dated back to 1852 when Free Democrats (the name Free-Soilers in Illinois and elsewhere adopted that year) agreed to support Washburne for Congress, despite his Whig affiliation. In that year, "Republican" candidates won four out of five congressional districts in northern Illinois, a result repeated in 1854. But the 1854 Republican organizers at Springfield included hardly any central Illinois Fusionists. Lincoln, not Codding, ultimately succeeded in bringing those factions together to win a statewide election. [14]

On December 23, there was a special election to fill Lincoln's vacant seat in the General Assembly. After pretending to concede the election, Springfield Democrats turned out in surprising numbers to score a shocking upset. The ripples were felt even in Boston. "'Abe' appears to have resigned for nothing," claimed the Boston Post, "as he will now be neither in the state nor U.S. legislature." Then the Post added in a sarcastic couplet: "Honorable Abram Lincoln, / How much you have to think on!" In Illinois, the defeat hurt Lincoln most with Republicans. "The election of that Nebraska man in the county of Sangamon to fill the vacancy occasioned by Abe's resignation," claimed Charles H. Ray, an important Republican editor from Galena, "has done more than anything else to damage him with the Abolitionists." Many doubted that Lincoln cared as much about antislavery as he did about his career. He spread the word that "the result [wa]s not of the least consequence," because the anti-Nebraska movement still had a clear majority in the House. Page  [End Page 8] About this excuse, Beveridge writes caustically, "No lamer explanation of a defeat was ever put forward by politicians." [15]

A letter available after Beveridge's death offers another explanation for Lincoln's ambivalence about the Democratic victory. David Davis, presiding judge of Lincoln's circuit court and an ally in the senatorial campaign, reasoned that Lincoln did not work harder in the special election because the Whig candidate, Norman Broadwell, withheld support for the Senate race. "It is better for your chances, that Broadwell was out than that he being elected sh[oul]d not go for you," Davis wrote Lincoln, "That you can readily see would be a severe dig."[16] Apparently, in this case, Lincoln may have let his personal interests interfere with his commitment to the anti-Nebraska cause.

Given Lincoln's mythical probity, even this minor Machiavellian incident seems almost unbelievable, or at least incongruous. One should not, however, underestimate Lincoln's desire that winter to join the U.S. Senate. The evidence is quite clear. His solicitations were not only numerous but also explicit. "I have really got it into my head," he admitted freely, "to try to be United States Senator." His resignation from the General Assembly and his reluctance to help Broadwell fit a pattern. It is not coincidental that Herndon's famous description of Lincoln's ambition as a little engine that did not rest occurs when he tells the story of this campaign. Perhaps the most revealing pieces of evidence are Lincoln's notebooks analyzing the composition of the state legislature. With meticulous care, he recorded each legislator's name, locality, and political affiliation. He performed this chore not just for himself, but several times for each of his campaign deputies.[17] With so much at stake, Lincoln was willing to make some compromises for the sake of winning.

Lincoln prepared the notebooks some time before the legislature was supposed to meet on January 1, 1855. Normally, the two houses Page  [End Page 9] would start a new session by calling roll and electing various officers. Although the house of representatives managed to organize as expected, there was confusion in the upper house, where four Independents who had been affiliated with the Democrats protested Douglas's demand that every Democrat support his Kansas-Nebraska Act. Regular Democratic senators, in turn, refused to provide a quorum until their party managers could win back the protestors. In one of the notebooks, Lincoln claimed that "a great many" Whigs and Democrats who opposed the Douglas plan had entered the "Republican organization"; but in another, he more prudently admitted that only "several" had done so. Actually, none of the Independents joined the Republicans; yet it is significant that Lincoln considered downstate Fusionists and northern Republicans part of the same "Republican organization." Ultimately, the Independents did help the "Republicans" organize the senate. [18]

According to Lincoln's estimate, anti-Nebraska Whigs and Democrats outnumbered regular Democrats fourteen to eleven; but over the course of the session, it became apparent that the opposite was true: Democrats eventually controlled fourteen votes against only eleven for the anti-Nebraska coalition. In the end, two independent Democrats returned to the fold, and one Whig, who had a Catholic wife, joined with Democrats because of their opposition to nativism. [19] These reversals allowed the Democrats to control the timing of the senatorial election. Both bodies needed to agree to enter a joint assembly in order to elect a senator. With their slim three-vote majority in the senate, the Democrats had the power to delay the election or even postpone it indefinitely, an important advantage for their outnumbered but better-organized forces.

The day after the senate organized, Lincoln made an important campaign appearance before the Springfield African Colonization Society. Speaking to an audience comprised largely of state legislators, Lincoln tried to please all factions. According to the Chicago Democratic Press, which remained independent during the campaign, the result was unimpressive. Although Lincoln "labored very ingeniously against occupying a position obnoxious to the favor of anybody," the paper reported, "it is whispered around that he lost Page  [End Page 10] a point or two which he held in his hand before this play-out." The local Democratic organ was, of course, more pointed. It charged that Lincoln was "lost in the mazes of fusion."[20] The year before, Lincoln had cited family reasons and begged off his commitment to speak before the society; he might have done so again. That he tried to make his way through the "mazes of fusion," however, demonstrated sizable political courage.

Perhaps because of this courage, Lincoln was making progress. On January 6, he telegraphed Washburne that he had "more committals" than anybody else on their side. Lincoln excelled at the personal campaigning required in the contest. "I was present and saw something of Mr. Lincoln during the early part of the session," recalled Elijah M. Haines, a lobbyist. Haines observed that the candidate "was not forward in pressing his case upon the attention of members, yet, before the interview would come to a close, some allusion to the senatorship would generally occur, when he would respond in some such way as this: 'Gentleman, that is a rather delicate subject for me to talk upon, but I must confess that I would be glad of your support for the office, if you shall conclude that I am the proper person for it.'" Still, even this restrained appeal annoyed some unfamiliar with Lincoln. One northern newspaper objected to his transparent ambition. The Aurora Guardian criticized Lincoln's botched resignation from the legislature and then argued that "[t]his fact, together with his over-weaning anxiety to obtain the place, will stand, and ought to do, against him seriously." [21]

That the Guardian was a northern Republican organ signaled ongoing problems for Lincoln. On Wednesday night, January 10, all Republicans (now including downstate fusionists) caucused on the senatorial question. Instead of choosing a candidate, however, they agreed only to press for an election date. After some wrangling between the two legislative bodies, the contest was scheduled for January 31—about two weeks away.[22] Lincoln desparately needed to win over the northern Republicans, but they, as shown by the Guardian and the Free West, were pursuing other candidates. Page  [End Page 11]

Lincoln's own congressman, Richard Yates, was the choice of northern Republican leaders. Yates wrote Lincoln on January 8 that "in the event you cannot (which he crossed out and replaced with the less eager "could not") succeed I should like to have my name presented." A few days later, Washburne, who was serving with Yates in Washington, warned Lincoln, "Yates wants to come in terribly." Yates had tentative pledges from Eastman and the northern Republicans. Although Yates was a well-spoken Whig politician, the northerners considered him less attached to the Whig party than Lincoln. Finally, Lincoln admitted to his eager rival that "[i]f the election should be protracted, a general scramble may ensue, and your chance will be as good as that of any other I suppose."[23]

The Yates boom, however, proved short-lived. He was simply too far away. As the election approached, Lincoln relied on valuable endorsements and some strategic deals to overcome the objections of the Republicans. Joshua Giddings, a well-known Ohio congressman who could influence men like Eastman, came out for his old friend and mess-mate from Congress. Washburne wrote that Giddings "would walk clear to Illinois" to elect Lincoln. In addition, Lincoln's forces in the legislature agreed to help Republicans get their motions debated and their members appointed to important committees—assistance that Yates was unable to offer. Despite Lincoln's earlier fears, these concessions were enough. Washburne, who considered the Republicans political novices, had predicted earlier that Eastman would be "easy to manage." [24]

Lincoln's enticements to northern Republicans were political. He made no ideological concessions. He continued to be aloof on many important issues: repealing the Fugitive Slave Law, refusing the admission of any more slave states, and even openly renouncing the old party system. Lincoln's forces were careful, however, to postpone controversial votes until after the senatorial election. The day after the contest, Lincoln's floor manager, Stephen T. Logan, admitted his forces "had been rode, and rode, and rode to death" on minor points Page  [End Page 12] by the northerners, but not on the important ones. [25] Nor would the northern Republicans have expected such major concessions. However inexperienced Eastman and the others were, their major goal was to beat Douglas.

"Through the untiring efforts of friends, among whom yourself and Washburne were chief," Lincoln wrote Jesse O. Norton, one of his more important northern supporters, "I finally surmounted the difficulty with the extreme Anti-Slavery men, and got all their votes." The remaining obstacles were the Independents, from whom Lincoln needed at least two votes. The Independents proved more intractable and adroit than the northern Republicans. (Afterward, Lincoln complained that Independents "never could vote for a whig.")[26] The barrier was old party identities. The Independents were former Democrats—some still considered themselves Democrats. They had nothing in common with the various Republicans except opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and they had nothing but distaste for former Whigs like Lincoln.

Lyman Trumbull emerged as the principal Independent candidate for senator. A congressman-elect from the Alton area in southern Illinois, Trumbull was a former Democrat, but was unacceptable to the regulars because of his outspoken opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He has been one of the most painful thorns in Douglas's side during the fall campaign. Trumbull was no threat to Lincoln, however. Although other Independents held the balance of power, they would not unite with the Democrats. Some Democrats tried to attract Independents with the claim that Shields privately opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. "Gen. Shields has never attempted to make the Nebraska bill a test of democracy, like Judge Douglas," argued the Chicago Democrat, but his loyalty to Douglas was an insurmountable liability with the Independents. [27]

Clearly, the Democrats needed to drop Shields, but Douglas refused to sacrifice his colleague. Because Shields was Irish, Douglas thought that he could switch attention away from his unpopular plan to organize the Kansas-Nebraska territories. "At all events our friends should stand by Shields," the senator had written before the legislature met, "and throw the responsibility on the whigs of beating him because he was born in Ireland. The Nebraska fight is over, and Know Nothingism has taken its place as the chief issue in the future." Page  [End Page 13] Neither nativism nor temperance, however, was demonstrating much staying power in the new legislature. Nor was opposition to the Nebraska bill the simple organizing issue of the session. The Independents opposed Douglas as much as they opposed his bill. Others who remained within the regular party began to realize that the Little Giant—far away in Washington—might be ignored long enough to reestablish party unity. Shields, an excitable man who had once challenged Lincoln to a duel, feared that those men plotted to dump him. "There is a snake in the grass," he wrote, "They are holding back to bring out a new man." [28]

Lincoln had come to the same conclusion. A new candidate could stitch together a majority from Democrats and Independents. Governor Joel A. Matteson confirmed the worst fears of both Lincoln and Shields. Before he was elected governor in 1852, Matteson was a wealthy and popular Joliet businessman who had served in the state senate and gained a reputation for holding free-soil sentiments. The Whigs had even accused him of abolitionist leanings during his gubernatorial campaign. Now he planned to use those charges to his advantage. The governor had never been forced to vote on the Nebraska issue; although he remained a regular Democrat, many believed that he secretly opposed Douglas's Nebraska test. He had appeal in both camps. [29]

Sometime during the winter Matteson began quietly pushing his claims. "He has been secretly a candidate," Lincoln wrote Washburne, "ever since (before even) the fall election." According to Lincoln, the governor convinced Independents from his region that he was anti-Nebraska or "at least could be secured to be so by instructions, which could be easily passed." After making progress, Matteson returned to the Democrats and persuaded them that he could win where Shields was sure to lose. Lincoln claimed that the Democrats decided "to let him get whomever of our men he could by whatever means he could and ask him no questions." As the election approached, Matteson's tactics seemed to be working. "The senatorial election has not yet come on," wrote Mary Stuart, a prominent Springfield hostess, "but it is believed that Gov. Matteson has Page  [End Page 14]

 Engraving based upon Johan Carl Frederic Polycarpus Von
Schneidau's portrait of Lincoln in 1854.
Engraving based upon Johan Carl Frederic Polycarpus Von Schneidau's portrait of Lincoln in 1854.
better chance of success than any other of the numerous candidates." A snowstorm postponed the election, but the governor's momentum was unstoppable. A St. Louis reporter indicated that "unless there is a great change in the complexion of things, Governor Matteson is to be the successor of General Shields." On Saturday night, February 3, the Democrats finally agreed to begin with Shields, in Page  [End Page 15] deference to Douglas, but then switch to Matteson during the later rounds of the contest. [30]

It is often overlooked in accounts of the election that by the end of the campaign Lincoln fully expected to lose. Like everybody else in Springfield, he realized that Matteson was in control. Lincoln's troops tried some last-minute but futile maneuvers to defeat the governor. Although the election had already been delayed by a snowstorm, Logan, Lincoln's former law partner and the house whip, succeeded in delaying the election for another two days in order to introduce a series of resolutions about a minor financial scandal designed to embarrass Matteson. Yet when the balloting finally began on February 8, 1855, Lincoln had little hope of winning. The day after his defeat, Lincoln stated plainly, "So we stood, and so went into the fight yesterday; the Nebraska man very confident of the election of Matteson, though denying that he was a candidate; and we very much believing also, that they would elect him." Matteson had accomplished the impossible task of uniting Democrats and Independents. Even John M. Palmer, a leading Independent and the man who nominated Trumbull, wavered at the end. "I think Gov. Matteson will be elected Senator," he wrote one week before the election: "The chances are that both wings of the democracy will unite on him. He is anti-slavery in all his antecedents and is a decided anti-Douglas man which is the real point involved in the controversy."[31]

The opening round was Lincoln's best. Apparently, a general Republican caucus, including anti-Nebraska men from all areas of the state but not the Independents, agreed to nominate him. Democrats stuck to their plan and held firm for Shields. The Independents, led by Palmer, backed Trumbull. Other Independent votes and some scattered votes went to an assortment of other candidates. In the first round, Lincoln had forty-five votes, while Shields had forty-one and Trumbull only five.

Two more rounds did little to change the complexion of things. Shields held the Democrats, who were still waiting to switch to Matteson. Lincoln lost some support, but Trumbull did not gain Page  [End Page 16] much. Logan then moved for an adjournment. Presumably, the Republicans wanted to let the election pass without choosing anyone in order to avoid an impending Matteson victory. The combined strength of the Democrats and Independents defeated Logan's motion easily, and the voting resumed.

During the next three rounds, nothing much changed. Lincoln's totals dipped slightly and then made a recovery. Shields picked up one vote and then dropped back to his first-round total. Trumbull had pulled together about ten supporters, but he was not attracting Republicans, who seemed to be fishing for a potential rallying point. Things started to shake up during the seventh round. The Democrats finally turned to Matteson. That scare briefly helped Lincoln, sending two voters back into his fold, but most Republicans soon defected to Trumbull. At the end of the ninth round, only fifteen representatives remained with Lincoln. It had become a contest between Trumbull and Matteson. Lincoln secured Trumbull's election by releasing his supporters in order to defeat Matteson.[32]

"I could have headed off every combination and been elected," Lincoln complained to Washburne, "had it not been for Matteson's double game." And then, with uncharacteristic malice, he added, "his defeat now gives me more pleasure than my own gives me pain." Lincoln was the only one in his circle to blame the governor for his defeat. Logan and Davis criticized the stubbornness of the Independents. Mary Lincoln refused to speak with Trumbull's wife, once her closest friend. It would seem that they had a point. Regardless of Matteson's "double game," Lincoln needed Independent votes, which were not forthcoming. Beveridge finds Lincoln's explanation to Washburne "so strange an excuse" that he reprints it verbatim. The key to understanding Lincoln's bitterness can be found in the recently discovered letter he sent to Jesse O. Norton, a Republican congressman. In this letter, Lincoln names the "secret Matteson men" who voted for Trumbull but intended to switch over to the governor. Four of the legislators whom Lincoln accused stayed with Trumbull on the last ballot. Did Lincoln have specific knowledge that unless he acted those votes would soon leave Trumbull and give Matteson his majority? [33] Page  [End Page 17]

Nothing in Lincoln's letters to Washburne or Norton directly suggests that Matteson bought off Trumbull's supporters, but there are reasons to be suspicious. One of the Independents told Trumbull years later that Matteson's agents tried to bribe him. "You know that no effort was employed to secure my vote for you," he wrote. "But you never knew that the Democratic, or Nebraska, members of the Legislature employed every means to buy my vote for Matteson." The independent Democratic Press of Chicago warned before the election that one of the candidates was buying votes, and after the election the Chicago Democrat made the same charge explicitly against Matteson. [34]

A reminiscence written by Jane M. Johns, whose husband was a Republican legislator, adds weight to the accusation and fits neatly with the letter to Norton. Johns claims that during a recess, she overheard two members of the legislature discussing a "contract" they had arranged with Matteson. "One of these men," she recalled, "whose name came near the head of the roll call, was to change his vote to Mattison [sic] after Allen and Baker had voted for Trumbull." The Norton letter names Frederick Day as one expected Trumbull bolter. According to Johns, she told the information to her husband, who brought her to Lincoln. After calling Palmer into his office to confront him with the revelation, Lincoln said dramatically, "Gentlemen, Lyman Trumbull must be elected to the senate on the next ballot." [35]

Despite some melodramatic touches, a good deal of what Johns says is supported by contemporary evidence. Her husband was a member of the legislature and voted for Lincoln until the end. By listing Day, Lincoln did verify that "a member whose name came near the head of the roll call" was a suspected traitor. Moreover, Johns has a believable style. When she forgets a name, she admits it. Her memory, however, was usually excellent. She describes a Page  [End Page 18] railroad outing that legislators and their wives took just before the election getting stalled temporarily in a snowstorm. The hungry passengers ate food meant for a party to be given by the governor. A contemporary newspaper account confirms her story down to the detail about the oysters the passengers enjoyed at Matteson's expense. It is also plausible that Matteson would use more than his popularity to help his chances. He was associated during his career with various scandals over misused public works funds, notably concerning the Illinois and Michigan Canal. It therefore seems to be a guilty coincidence that Day and other secret Matteson men all represented districts surrounding the canal. [36]

"The agony is over at last," Lincoln wrote Washburne after his loss, "I regret my defeat moderately, but I am not nervous about it."[37] Lincoln understood the positive implications of his decision to elect Trumbull. If his campaign brought together the various regional factions within the fusion movement, then his eleventh-hour sacrifice insured the birth of a winning coalition by bringing in the stubborn Independents. A Democratic newspaper from Jacksonville summarized the situation well in a bitter post-mortem of Matteson's defeat. "Every ism, every faction, every disconcerted demagogue," complained the Illinois Sentinel, "have concentrated their efforts for the only purpose they ever can unite, 'to beat the democrats.'" [38] Beating Matteson and the Democrats was the only guidepost out of the mazes of fusion, as Lincoln surely understood after his exhausting campaign. Some time would elapse before the Republican party of Illinois became officially established, but on February 8, 1855, Republicans achieved the first in a long series of statewide victories.

Johannsen concludes that Lincoln's senatorial defeat was the "decisive blow" in his hopes to rebuild the Whig party. Yet Lincoln never imagined he could win the senatorial election with Whig votes alone. It is easy to lose track of the factions because contemporary observers were neither careful nor consistent in their use of party labels. Speaking to one legislator, Lincoln emphasized his Whig affiliation, but to another he would position himself as a Fusionist. From the beginning, however, he campaigned for every potential Republican vote and dragged the more reluctant old Whigs into the Page  [End Page 19] "Republican organization." During the legislative session, anti-Nebraska men of all factions met in several party caucuses that culminated in the nomination of Lincoln as the Republican candidate for Senate. When Johannsen, and others, argue that Lincoln was a reluctant Republican, the strength of their case comes from Lincoln's rhetoric, not his actions. Certainly Lincoln was more conservative on the slavery question than the northern Republicans, whom he often dismissed as "extreme Anti-Slavery men." Yet much of this difference was in style not substance, and often the ostensible differences were not so wide as contemporaries, unfamiliar with each other, imagined.[39]

Electing Trumbull turned out to be a critical moment in Lincoln's career. By delivering votes to a former Democrat, Lincoln proved that he was the forward-looking party leader so long sought by northerners. The next year, the Illinois Republican delegation almost succeeded in winning him a spot on the Republican national ticket. In 1858, even former Democrats rallied to Lincoln as their candidate to defeat Stephen Douglas. "That night [after the 1855 election]," recalled John Palmer in a newspaper interview, "Lincoln came to our room, and because of the way he assisted us we promised to stand by him in the next fight, two years later, [sic] against Douglas." The one who owed Lincoln the most was Trumbull, and he did not overlook his obligation. "I shall continue to labor for the success of the Republican cause," he wrote Lincoln before the 1858 campaign, "& the advancement at the next election to the place new occupied by Douglas of that Friend, who was instrumental in promoting my own."[40] If the second senatorial contest enhanced Lincoln's national reputation, the first solidified his local standing. Lincoln received the unanimous endorsement of his party when he ran for the Senate against Douglas in 1858 and again when he ran for the presidency in 1860. He was the only Illinois Republican who claimed loyalty from every region and every faction. That loyalty was primarily rooted in his aggressive 1855 senatorial campaign. Unashamed of his ambition, Lincoln was unabashed in his effort to build a statewide coalition. This straightforward act of political leadership helped make him the state's leading Republican. And as the leading Republican Page  [End Page 20] from the critical state of Illinois, Lincoln eventually positioned himself to become the leading Republican in the nation. The irony is that because he wanted so badly to become a senator, Lincoln became a president. Page  [End Page 21]


  1. Abraham Lincoln to Norman B. Judd, Springfield, Dec. 9, 1859, in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, with Marion D. Pratt and Lloyd A. Dunlap, asst. eds., 9 vols. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1953–55), 3: 505 (hereafter cited as Collected Works). return to text
  2. Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln (1953, repr. New York: Modern Library, 1968), 152–55; Reinhard H. Luthin, The Real Abraham Lincoln: A Complete One-Volume History of His Life and Times (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1960), 178–80; Stephen B. Oates, With Malice Toward None: The Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Harper and Row, 1977), 118–20; Albert J. Beveridge, Abraham Lincoln. 1809–1858, 2 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1928), 2:273–90; Don E. Fehrenbacher, Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850s (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1962), 37–39; John S. Wright, Lincoln and the Politics of Slavery (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1970), 74–76. return to text
  3. Washburne's recollection is in Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time, ed. Allen Thorndike Rice (New York: North American Publishing, 1886), 21–22. For the text of the new letter, see Abraham Lincoln to Jesse O. Norton, Feb. 16, 1855, in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln: Second Supplement 1848–1865, ed. Roy P. Basler and Christian O. Basler (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 9–11 (hereafter cited as Second Supplement). return to text
  4. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, 3 vols. (Chicago: Belford, Clarke, 1889), 2:375; Robert W. Johannsen, Lincoln, the South, and Slavery: The Political Dimension (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991), 38–55. return to text
  5. A List of Members Composing the Nineteenth General Assembly of the State of Illinois (Springfield: Elam Rust, 1855), Broadside Collection, Illinois State Historical Library (ISHL), Springfield. return to text
  6. Illinois Journal [Springfield], Nov. 13, 1854, 2:1 return to text
  7. Ibid., Nov. 10, 1854, 2:1; Lincoln to Charles Hoyt, Nov. 10, 1854, in Collected Works, 2:286; John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, 10 vols. (New York: Century, 1890), 1:383; James Shields to Charles H. Lanphier, Washington, Nov. 23, 1854, Charles H. Lanphier Papers, ISHL. return to text
  8. Abraham Lincoln to Charles Hoyt, Clinton, Nov. 10, 1854; Abraham Lincoln to Herbert Fay, Springfield, Dec. 11, 1854; and Abraham Lincoln to Thomas J. Henderson, Springfield, Nov. 27, 1854, all in Collected Works 2:286, 292, 288. return to text
  9. Fehrenbacher, Prelude, 37. See also Charles H. Coleman, "Was Lincoln Eligible for Election to the United States Senate in 1855?" Lincoln Herald 60 (Fall 1958):91–93. return to text
  10. Joseph Gillespie, "Recollections of Early Illinois and Her Noted Men," Fergus Historical Series 13 (Chicago: Fergus, 1881), 50. return to text
  11. Ichabod Codding to Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 13, 1854, Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress (LC); Abraham Lincoln to Ichabod Codding, Springfield, Nov. 27, 1854, Collected Works, 2:288; Beveridge, Lincoln, 2:276; Luthin, The Real Lincoln, 178; Oates, With Malice, 118; Johannsen, Lincoln, 46. return to text
  12. Abraham Lincoln to Elihu N. Powell, Springfield, Nov. 27, 1854, Collected Works, 2:289; Free West [Chicago], Nov. 30, 1854, 2:4; Abraham Lincoln to Elihu B. Washburne, Springfield, Dec. 14, 1854, Collected Works, 2:293; Elihu B. Washburne to Zebina Eastman, Washington, Dec. 19, 1854, Zebina Eastman Papers, Chicago Historical Society (CHS). return to text
  13. Elihu B. Washburne to Abraham Lincoln, Dec. 12, 1854, Abraham Lincoln Papers, LC. return to text
  14. Paul Selby, "Genesis of the Republican Party in Illinois," Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society 11 (1906):270–83; Herndon and Weik, Lincoln, 2:371–72; Victor B. Howard, "The Illinois Republican Party," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 64 (Summer 1971):125–60 and 64 (Autumn 1971): 285–311. For Eastman's recollection, see Rufus Blanchard, ed., Discovery and Conquests of the Northwest with the History of Chicago, 2 vols. (Chicago: R. Blanchard, 1900), 1:669. return to text
  15. Charles H. Ray to Elihu B. Washburne, Galena, Dec. 29, 1854, Elihu B. Washburne Papers, LC; Boston Post reprinted in Chicago Journal, Jan. 5, 1855, 2:3; Abraham Lincoln to Elihu B. Washburne, Springfield, Jan. 6, 1855, Collected Works 2:304; Beveridge, Lincoln, 2:278–79. return to text
  16. David Davis to Abraham Lincoln, Dec. 26, 1854, Abraham Lincoln Papers, LC film. See also Willard L. King, Lincoln's Manager: David Davis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 106. return to text
  17. Herndon and Weik, Lincoln, 2:275; Abraham Lincoln to Hugh Lemaster, Springfield, Nov. 29, 1854; Abraham Lincoln to Joseph Gillespie, Springfield, Dec. 1, 1854; List of Members of the Illinois Legislature, Jan. 1, 1855 [?], Collected Works, 2:290, 289, 296–98. return to text
  18. Aurora Guardian, Jan. 4, 1855, 2:3; Alton Telegraph, Jan. 5, 1855, 2:2; Illinois Journal, Jan. 3, 1855, 2:1; William Butler to Richard Yates, Springfield, Jan. 2–3, 1855, Richard Yates, Sr., Papers, ISHL; Collected Works, 2:296n. return to text
  19. The Democrats were James M. Campbell of McDonough County and Uri Osgood of Will County. The Whig was an old friend of Lincoln's, James L. D. "Don" Morrison of St. Clair County. return to text
  20. Chicago Democratic Press, Jan. 8, 1855, 2:4; Illinois Register [Springfield], Jan. 10, 1855, 2:3; Alton Telegraph, Jan. 8, 1855, 2:1. Only a partial outline remains for the speech, and even that might be for an earlier address to the same society; see Collected Works, 2:298–99. return to text
  21. Collected Works, 2:303–4; Francis F. Browne, The Every-Day Life of Abraham Lincoln (New York: N. D. Thompson, 1886), 257; Aurora Guardian, Jan. 10, 1855, 2:1. return to text
  22. Alton Telegraph, Jan. 12, 1855, 2:3; Chicago Democratic Press, Jan. 15, 1855, 2:2; Belleville Advocate, Jan. 17, 1855, 2:4–5. return to text
  23. Richard Yates to Abraham Lincoln, Washington, Jan. 8, 1855, Abraham Lincoln Papers, LC film; Elihu Washburne to Abraham Lincoln, Washington, Jan. 12, 1855, Abraham Lincoln Papers, LC film; Zebina Eastman to Richard Yates, Chicago, Jan. 11, 1855, Richard Yates, Sr., Papers, ISHL; Abraham Lincoln to Richard Yates, Springfield, Jan. 14, 1855, in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln: First Supplement 1832–1865, ed. Roy P. Basler (1974, repr. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 25–26. return to text
  24. Elihu B. Washburne to Abraham Lincoln, Washington, Dec. 21, 26, 1854, Abraham Lincoln Papers, LC film; Collected Works, 2:304. return to text
  25. Illinois State Register, Feb. 12, 1855, 2:1. return to text
  26. Lincoln to Norton, Feb. 16, 1855, Second Supplement, 9. return to text
  27. Chicago Democrat, Jan. 13, 1855, 1:6. return to text
  28. Stephen A. Douglas to Charles H. Lanphier, Washington, Dec. 18, 1854; Robert W. Johannsen, The Letters of Stephen Douglas (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1961), 331; James Shields to Charles H. Lanphier, Jan. 14, 1855, Charles H. Lanphier Papers, ISHL. return to text
  29. A useful biography of Matteson, an elusive figure in the historical record, appeared in the Western Democratic Review and was reprinted in the Illinois State Register, Jan. 1, 1855, 2:2–4. return to text
  30. Abraham Lincoln to Elihu B. Washburne, Springfield, Feb. 9, 1855, Collected Works, 2:305; Mary N. Stuart to Elizabeth T. Stuart, Jan. 28, 1855, Stuart-Hay Family Papers, ISHL; St. Louis Democrat quoted in Belleville Advocate, Feb. 7, 1855; Alton Telegraph, Feb. 7, 1855, 2:3. return to text
  31. Journal of the House of Representatives (Springfield, 1855), 274–75, 283–84; Lincoln to Washburne, Feb. 9, 1855, Collected Works, 2:305; John M. Palmer to Elizabeth Palmer, Jan. 31, 1855, John M. Palmer II Papers, ISHL. return to text
  32. Senate Journal (Springfield, 1855), 242–55. return to text
  33. Lincoln to Washburne, Feb. 9, 1855, Collected Works 2:306; Illinois State Register, Feb. 10, 1855, 2:1; David Davis to Julius Rockwell, Feb. 15, 1855, David Davis Family Papers, ISHL; Beveridge, Lincoln, 2:286, 288; Lincoln to Norton, Feb. 9, 1855, Second Supplement, 9–11. return to text
  34. George T. Allen to Lyman Trumbull, June 14, 1866, Lyman Trumbull Papers, LC; see also Arthur C. Cole, The Era of the Civil War (Springfield: Illinois Centennial Commission, 1919), 135. Cole misreads the name of the Matteson agent. It was Lafayette F. McCrillis, a Democratic member of the legislature, not L. F. Mebrille, whom Allen claimed offered to buy his vote. Chicago Democratic Press, Feb. 6, 1855, 2:1; Chicago Democrat, Aug. 11, 1855, 2:1. return to text
  35. Jane M. Johns with editing by Howard C. Schaub, Personal Recollections of Early Decatur, Abraham Lincoln, Richard J. Oglesby, and The Civil War (Decatur: Daughters of the American Revolution, 1912), 75–76. See also Jane M. Johns, "A Momentous Incident in Illinois History," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 10 (1918):556–59; Lincoln to Norton, Feb. 16, 1855, Second Supplement, 9. return to text
  36. Johns, "A Momentous Incident," 554–55; Free West, Feb. 1, 1855, 2:7; Illinois State Register, Jan. 23, 1855, 3:1; Lincoln to Washburne, Feb. 9, 1855, Collected Works 2:305; Mark W. Summers, The Plundering Generation: Corruption and the Crisis of the Union, 1849–1861 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 274–75. return to text
  37. Lincoln to Washburne, Feb. 9, 1855, Collected Works, 2:305–6. return to text
  38. Jacksonville Sentinel, Feb. 16, 1855, 2:1. return to text
  39. Johannsen, Lincoln, 46; see also Reinhard H. Luthin, "Abraham Lincoln Becomes a Republican," Political Science Quarterly 69 (Sept. 1944):420–38. return to text
  40. "Palmer on Lincoln," Chicago Evening Post [1892?], clipping in the Lincoln Vertical File, Henry Horner Lincoln Collection, ISHL; Lyman Trumbull to Abraham Lincoln, Washington, Jan. 3, 1858, Abraham Lincoln Papers, LC film. return to text