General Land Office Affair

Date: From 1849-03-04 to 1849-06-21

Place: Illinois

Following Zachary Taylor's election as President in 1848, many expected that an Illinois Whig would be appointed commissioner of the U.S. General Land Office. As an Illinois Congressman and Whig, Abraham Lincoln became directly involved in shepherding applications and recommendations for the position to the Taylor administration. In February 1849, Lincoln sponsored Cyrus Edwards for the position but fellow Illinois Whig, Edward D. Baker, preferred James L. D. Morrison. The next month, Lincoln and Baker met with Secretary of the Interior Thomas Ewing to discuss patronage, in which they preserved the administration's desire to give the appointment to an Illinoisan but could not make a joint recommendation due to their personal disagreement over the best candidate. Neither Edwards nor Morrison was willing to concede the position, so a third candidate, Justin H. Butterfield, emerged and gained Ewing's favor. Several Whigs had already urged Lincoln to request the appointment himself but he had thus far refused. However, Lincoln believed Butterfield had not earned the position and offered himself up as an alternative - submitting letters of recommendation to support his qualifications. Despite Lincoln's stature in the state and national Whig Party, Ewing and Taylor gave the appointment to Butterfield on June 21, 1849. The affair led to friction within the Illinois Whig Party, clearly stung Lincoln, and may have motivated him to temporarily retire from politics.

Thomas F. Schwartz, “‘An Egregious Political Blunder’ Justin Butterfield, Lincoln, and Illinois Whiggery” in Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 8 (Winter 1986), 9-19; David Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 138-141; Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 1:294-307; Thomas Ewing, “Lincoln and the General Land Office, 1849,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 25 (October 1932), 152.