Letter to Joseph Underwood (June 3, 1849)

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#136 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents

Annotated Transcript

“Mr. B. though entirely competent, so far as I know, is not recommended by any citizen of this state directly for the office, and we feel that should he receive it, we are emphatically under a foreign guardianship. This, you know, men rebel against.” 

On This Date

HD Daily Report, June 3, 1849

The Lincoln Log, June 3, 1849

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How Historians Interpret

“In his view Butterfield belong to the ‘old fossil’ wing of the party, content to live on occasional federal appointments without ever building a strong state organization. Lincoln saw the land commissioner’s appointment as a means of building a viable Whig party in Illinois, which had never won in a presidential election or in a gubernatorial race. Properly used, that office could supplement the active local organizations that Lincoln had encouraged and the convention system that he had helped to establish.”

–David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 140.

 

“He was defeated in his first campaign for the legislature – defeated in his first attempt as a candidate for Congress. Four times he was defeated as a candidate for Presidential Elector, because the Whigs of Illinois were yet in a hopeless minority. He was defeated in his application to be appointed Commissioner of the General Land Office. It was painful for Lincoln to reflect on these setbacks, for he was ‘keenly sensitive to his failures,’ and the mere mention of them made him ‘miserable,’ according to Herndon. ‘With me, the race of ambition has been a failure – a flat failure,’ he lamented in his mid-forties.”

–Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2 volumes, originally published by Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) Unedited Manuscript by Chapter, Lincoln Studies Center, Volume 1, Chapter 9 (PDF), 1037.

 

“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… 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.”

–Thomas F. Schwartz, “’An Egregious Political Blunder’ Justin Butterfield, Lincoln, and Illinois Whiggery,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 8, no. 1 (1986): 9-19.

 

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Searchable Text

Springfield, Ills.
June 3, 1849
 
Hon. J.R. Underwood
Dear Sir:
 
You may remember that while at Washington I sought to have you recommend Mr. Cyrus Edwards, of this state, for Commissioner of the General Land Office.  Though not much disinclined, I believe you had not done so when I left.  I think it probable you have since.  I have received a Telegraphic despach from Washington of the 1st Inst saying a Mr. Butterfield of Chicago, will be appointed, unless prevented by the use of my own name.  Mr. B. though entirely competent, so far as I know, is not recommended by any citizen of this state directly for the office, and we feel that should he receive it, we are emphatically under a foreign guardianship.  This, you know, men rebel against.  The despach says the appointment has been postponed three weeks in order that our state may be heard from.  As against him, I desire the office; and while I shall rely chiefly upon recommendations from home, I wish to make it appear, if I can, that I was not greatly under par, for one of my limited acquaintance, and brief career, while at Washington.  For the latter object, I shall be very grateful if you will write the President as pretty a letter for me, as in your judgment the truth will permit.  If you write, so frame the letter as to save whatever chance, Mr. Edwards, or anyone else you may have recommended, may yet have.  Not a moment of time is to be lost.
Your Obt Servt
A Lincoln
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