Abraham Lincoln to Richard Yates, 30 October 18541Naples, Oct 30. 1854Dear Yates:
I am here now going to Quincy, to try to give Mr Williams a little lift–2 I expect to be back in time to speak at Carlinville on Saturday, if thought expedient–3 What induces me to write now is that at Jacksonville as I came down to-day, I learned that the English in Morgan county have become dissatisfied about No-Nothingism– Our friends, however, think they have got the difficulty arrested– Nevertheless, it would be safer, I think, to do something on the subject, which you alone can do– The inclosed letter, or draft of a letter, I have drawn up, of which I think it would be well to make several copies, and have one placed in the hands of a safe friend, at each precinct where any considerable number of the foreign citizens ^german as well as english—^ vote–4 Not knowing exactly where a letter will reach you soonest I fear this can not be very promptly attended to;5 but if the copies get into the proper hands the day before the election, it will be time enough– The whole of this is, of course, subject to your own judgment–Lincoln
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2Whig Archibald Williams was challenging incumbent Democrat William A. Richardson in the congressional race in Illinois’ Fifth Congressional District. Williams received 47.61% of the vote, losing to Richardson who garnered 52.38%.
Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its effective repeal of the Missouri Compromise reawakened Lincoln’s passion for politics, and he threw himself into the congressional election campaign in the fall of 1854, crisscrossing Illinois to deliver speeches against the Kansas-Nebraska Act and in support of anti-Nebraska candidates such as Williams. Lincoln even allowed himself to become a candidate for the Illinois General Assembly (albeit reluctantly at first). As the election campaign reached its climax, Lincoln’s name began to circulate as a possible nominee for one of the state’s U.S. Senate seats. Lincoln won election to the Illinois General Assembly, but, in late-November 1854, declined to serve in order to run for the U.S. Senate. Ultimately, he did not win election to the U.S. Senate; the Illinois General Assembly selected anti-Nebraska Democrat Lyman Trumbull instead. See the 1854 Federal Election.
Howard W. Allen and Vincent A. Lacey, eds., Illinois Elections, 1818-1990 (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992), 10, 134; David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 167-73; Autobiography of Abraham Lincoln Written for John L. Scripps; William H. Randolph to Abraham Lincoln; Illinois Senate Journal. 1855. 19th G. A., 242-55.
3In a letter of October 29, 1854, Lincoln had informed local Whig Jefferson L. Dugger of his willingness to speak in Carlinville on Saturday, November 4, but there is no evidence that Lincoln did so.
4The enclosure has not been found. Richard Yates, a Whig, was at this time running against Democrat Thomas L. Harris for reelection to Congress in Illinois’ Sixth Congressional District. Yates ultimately lost his bid for reelection, receiving 9,890 votes compared to Harris’ 10,090. On verso of this letter is a note from Yates to Lincoln biographer Isaac N. Arnold dated June 17, 1869, which reads “The matter suggested within was not attended to and it so happened that I lost my elec[election] by the loss of that vote– The District gave about 2000 Dem.[Democrat] majority– I was beaten only two hundred votes over one half of which would have voted for me but for a false and sworn to statement that I had been seen in a Know Nothing Lodge–”.
The Democratic Illinois State Register had reported on October 25, 1854 that when at the “English settlement” of Lynnville in Morgan County, Yates had been asked his opinion on Know Nothings and had pandered to his audience by denouncing the organization. After Yates lost his reelection bid, the opposing Illinois Daily Journal published a note complaining that a person in Morgan County identified only as “W.” should go to prison for his role in Yates’s defeat. The Register then responded by claiming that “W.” was a prominent “old line whig” and veteran of the Mexican War from Morgan County who had supported Harris and denounced what the paper claimed was an effort by the Journal and fanatical “abolitionized whigs” to discourage national Whigs from joining with Democrats to support the Compromise of 1850. The Journal replied that “W.” had never been a Whig but was in fact a locofoco who joined a Know Nothing organization then swore that Yates was also a member “in order to prevent the 400 English whigs in Morgan and Scott from voting for Dick Yates.” The Journal also reprinted an article from the Jacksonville Constitutionist that argued that Yates had likely lost 200 votes in Morgan County through the efforts of his opponents to convince foreign-born residents there that he was a Know Nothing. In Morgan County, Yates had received 1,591 votes and Harris, 1,409.
Lincoln would later be called on to deny rumors that he himself had been in a Know Nothing lodge in Quincy during his November 1854 visit to the town. According to Lincoln, it was Richardson who started this rumor.
Howard W. Allen and Vincent A. Lacey, eds., Illinois Elections, 1818-1990, 10, 134; Illinois State Register (Springfield), 25 October 1854, 2:2; 15 November 1854, 2:1; Illinois Daily Journal (Springfield), 11 November 1854, 2:1; 15 November 1854, 2:2, 2:3; Abraham Jonas to Abraham Lincoln; Abraham Lincoln to Abraham Jonas.
5A similar letter from Lincoln to Yates with a date of November 1, 1854 was published by Yates’s namesake son in a speech to Congress in 1921. As Roy P. Basler, editor of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, pointed out, the published letter could have been an additional note Lincoln wrote and then sent to Yates at a different location, not knowing Yates’s location and hoping to reach him quickly. No manuscript text of the published letter from Lincoln to Yates has been located, however, and Richard Yates, Jr.’s discussion in his speech of a note from his father to biographer Arnold on verso of the source manuscript he utilized suggests that the letter from Lincoln to his father that he included in his speech was actually a loose transcription of this same letter which he misdated.
Abraham Lincoln to Richard Yates; Cong. Rec., 66th Cong., 3rd Sess., 3077 (1921); Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 2:284-85.
Copy of Autograph Letter Signed, 2 page(s), Abraham Lincoln Association Files, Lincoln Collection, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (Springfield, IL).