Edwards, Ninian

Born: 1775-03-17 Montgomery County, Maryland

Died: 1833-07-20 Belleville, Illinois

Edwards graduated from Dickinson College in 1792 and began studying law. In 1795, he followed his parents to Bardstown, Kentucky, completed his law studies, and earned admittance to the bar in 1798. In 1803, he married Elvira Lane, with whom he had five children, including close friend of Abraham and Mary Lincoln, Ninian W. Edwards.

Edwards became heavily involved in law and politics in Kentucky. He served in a variety of judgeships between 1803 and 1808, won election to the Kentucky Legislature, and served as an elector for Thomas Jefferson in the 1804 presidential election. However, Edwards's political career began in earnest when James Madison appointed him governor of the Illinois Territory in 1809, causing Edwards to move to Illinois, where he mostly remained for the rest of his life. As governor, Edwards primarily managed conflicts with Native Americans, especially during the War of 1812, and later advocated removal. He also became the central figure of Illinois's emerging political factions, with many politicians grouping themselves as pro- or anti-Edwards.

Following Illinois's admission to the union in 1818, the General Assembly sent Edwards to the U.S. Senate, where he remained until March 1824, when he resigned to become minister to Mexico. In Washington, Edwards became a leading advocate of opening western public lands to settlers. As an owner of enslaved people, he also supported admitting Missouri as a slave state and opposed Illinois's ban on slavery. These beliefs gradually brought him into John C. Calhoun's orbit, and Edwards began to work secretly to advance Calhoun's aspirations for the presidency in 1824, resulting in Edwards's most prominent national incident: the A. B. Controversy. In December 1823, Edwards wrote an article in the Washington Republican under the pseudonym "A.B.," accusing Treasury Secretary William H. Crawford, a Calhoun rival for the presidency, of corruption. Although Crawford was innocent of the specific charges Edwards directed against him, Edwards nevertheless exposed corruption in the Department of the Treasury, bringing Crawford's credibility into question and hurting his chances for the presidency. Exposed as "A. B.," Edwards failed to corroborate his charges, tarnishing his reputation and forcing him to give up the diplomatic appointment to Mexico.

Returning to Illinois, Edwards won re-election as governor in 1826. He continued to advocate for opening public lands and received support from several other western states. He retired from the governorship in 1830 and lost a Congressional election bid in 1832.

John R. Van Atta, "Edwards, Ninian," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 7:337-38; Michael John Bakalis, "Ninian Edwards and Territorial Politics in Illinois: 1775-1818" (Ph.D. Diss.: Northwestern University, 1966).