#94 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents
“The agony is over at last; and the result you doubtless know. I write this only to give you some particulars to explain what might appear difficult of understanding. I began with 44 votes, Shields 41, and Trumbull 5—yet Trumbull was elected. In fact 47 different members voted for me—getting three new ones on the second ballot, and losing four old ones. How came my 47 to yield to T’s 5? It was Govr. Matteson’s work.”
On This Date
How Historians Interpret
“Despite the dignity of Lincoln’s public demeanor, he privately suffered a brutal disappointment, describing the ordeal as an “agony.” Though he had engineered Trumbull’s victory for the sake of the anti-Nebraska cause it was difficult to accept the manner of his loss. ‘He could bear defeat inflicted by his enemies with a pretty good grace,’ he told his friend Gillespie, ‘but it was hard to be wounded in the house of his friends.’ After all the hard work, the interminable nights and weekends on the hustings, conversations with fellow politicians, the hours spent writing letters to garner support, after so many years of patient waiting and hopefulness, he seemed as far from realizing his ambition as ever. Fate seemed to take a curious delight in finding new ways to shatter his dreams.”
—Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), 173.
If Matteson and his friends did resort to bribery, which seems highly likely, then it is easy to understand why Lincoln rejoiced at thwarting the governor’s scheme. “I regret my defeat moderately,” he told Washburne, “but I am not nervous about it. I could have headed off every combination and been elected, had it not been for Matteson’s double game – and the governor’s defeat now gives me more pleasure than my own gives me pain.” Lincoln was not gloating or being vindictive; he was genuinely offended by Matteson’s tactics and regarded the governor’s defeat as an ideological triumph, a rebuke to Democrats who had supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act. “On the whole,” he mused to Washburne, “it is perhaps as well for our general cause that Trumbull is elected. The Neb[raska] men confess that they hate it worse than any thing that could have happened. It is a great consolation to see them worse whipped than I am. I tell them it is their own fault – that they had abundant opertunity to choose between him & me, which they declined, and instead forced it on me to decide between him & Matteson.” Trumbull confirmed Lincoln’s observation, reporting that the pro-Nebraska Democrats “are exhibiting towards me a great deal of ill natured & malignant feeling.” The editor of the Chicago Times told Douglas that Trumbull’s election constituted “the severest blow we could have received.”
— 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 10 (PDF), pp. 1148-1149.
“‘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 examination 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. 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.”
—Matthew Pinsker, “Senator Abraham Lincoln”, Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 14, 1993.
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