Lincoln: boss or compromiser?

Historians talk politics

 Abraham Lincoln was notoriously silent on his career in Illinois state politics.

In an 1859 autobiographical statement sent to a Republican friend in Pennsylvania, the future president devoted exactly one sentence to his career as a state legislator, noting only that he’d been elected to the House four times and did not run for re-election when his last term ended in 1842. “There is not much of it, for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me,” Lincoln wrote in letter accompanying the brief summing up of his life to date.

That’s hardly true, according to a pair of historians who delivered differing views of Lincoln as a legislator and state politician during Tuesday lectures at the Old State Capitol, sponsored by the Abraham Lincoln Association.

“His accomplishments were many,” said Ron Keller, a history and political science professor at Lincoln College whose book Lincoln In The Illinois Legislature is due for publication this spring. “To understand Abraham Lincoln as a state legislator is critical to understanding him, period. …The pragmatic politician was born in the Illinois legislature.”

Lincoln sometimes could persuade other legislators because, simply, he was likeable, Keller said, a man who quickly learned the virtues of backslaps, handshakes and conversations in taverns. “In short, it didn’t take Lincoln long to become a politician,” Keller said.

Not all of Lincoln’s legislative accomplishments were legendary – debates over whether the state should establish a bank, a proposal Lincoln supported, were “not terribly sexy,” Keller acknowledged. On the other hand, he pushed to expand voting rights to all white men, not just property owners, and led efforts to borrow $15 million to build canals and roads, with bonds not paid off until the 1880s, long after the Great Emancipator was dead. He served in the General Assembly when Chicago became a city, Keller said, and he proved key in moving the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield, with help from fellow central Illinois legislators dubbed the Long Nine due to their height – they averaged six feet tall.

“When it came to log rolling, the Long Nine rolled like a snowball,” Keller said.

Matthew Pinsker, a history professor at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania who is writing a book called Boss Lincoln: New Insights On A Party Leader, noted that many politicians are pragmatic. “To call Abraham Lincoln a political pragmatic is to say he spoke in English,” Pinsker said. “That doesn’t go far enough.”

A $2,500 loan the future president made in 1857 to Norman Judd, a state senator who was a delegate at the 1860 Republican convention, likely was transactional, Pinsker said, designed to help Lincoln’s political visions. Lincoln used his political experience and gift for building coalitions to help build the Republican Party into a national force, Pinsker said. The party created in 1854 needed Whigs and converted Democrats, Pinsker observed, but the tent could only be so big. “You have to know when to exclude people,” the historian told his audience that nearly filled the chamber of the Old State Capitol.

Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s political rival, was one example.  Douglas, Pinsker said, once showed signs of rejecting the Democratic Party in favor of becoming a Republican. “He (Lincoln) had to stop Douglas from becoming a Republican,” Pinsker said. Lincoln made plain that he and Douglas weren’t cut from the same political cloth in an 1857 speech delivered in Springfield, two weeks after Douglas gave a speech praising the Dred Scott decision.

Douglas had said that Republicans believed that blacks were equal to whites. In his retort two weeks later, Lincoln rejected slavery while attacking Douglas’ assertion that the GOP believed in racial equality. “I protest against that counterfeit logic which concludes that, because I do not want a black woman for a slave, I must necessarily want her for a wife,” Lincoln said. “I need not have her for either.” While agreeing with opposition to mixed marriages, Lincoln pointed out that more people of mixed race lived in the South than anywhere else in the nation, nearly all the children of black slaves and white masters.

It was, Pinsker said, a preview of Lincoln’s House Divided Speech delivered a year later. “He rehearsed it all, he laid it all out,” Pinsker said. “Lincoln, at this moment, draws the line: Our party cannot accept anyone who doesn’t believe slavery is morally wrong.” On the other hand, Lincoln in the same speech brought up sending black people to African colonies, saying “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Pinsker chalked that up to politics.

“I think it is purely tactical – I don’t think it was heartfelt,” the historian said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at

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