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Wilson, Douglas L., ed.; Davis, Rodney O., ed.; Wilson, Robert L. 'Robert L. Wilson to William H. Herndon' in 'Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements About Abraham Lincoln' . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998. [format: book], [genre: letter]. Permission: University of Illinois Press
Persistent link to this document: http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/file.php?file=herndon201.html


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145. Robert L. Wilson to William H. Herndon.

Sterling, Feb 10th 1866.

Dear Sir;

I became acquainted with Mr Lincoln in May 1834. He then was living at New Salem. Sangamon County, Illinois. he assisted Sam Hill, a merchant doing business in Salem, part of his time; Part of his time he was engaged in Surveying land — holding an appointment as Deputy County Surveyor, under John Calhoun, then County Surveyor. Mr Lincoln was well known all through that part of the County (Now Menard County) as a Surveyor.

At that early period the Settlers made it a point to Secure choice lots of timber land, to go with their prarie land, often not entering the prarie part of the farm until it had been under cultivation long enough to make the money of the land to enter it. But the timber lots had to be Surveyed for the purpose of entering them, but also to protect from trespass by cutting, To accomplish this, lines must be run and clearly marked.

Mr Lincoln had the monoply of finding the lines, and when any dispute arose among the Settlers, Mr Lincolns Compass and chain always settled the matter satisfactorily. He was a good woods man. at home in the dense forest He was a geniel, fun loveing, young man. was always the centre of the circle where ever he was. Every one knew him; and he knew every one. His Stories and [fun] were fresh and Sparkling. never tinctured with malevolence; he never told a Story about or an acquaintance with a view to hurt or hold up to ridacule; but purely for fun. The victim always enjoyed it as much as any one else. esteeming it rather a compliment; than a Sarcasm, being. entirely destitute of malice.

Mr Lincoln, a[t] this time, was about twenty four or five years old. Six feet and four inches high in his Stockings. Some Stoop Shouldered. his legs were long, feet large; arms long, longer than any man I ever knew, when standing Straiht, and letting his arms fall down his Sides, the points of his fingers would touch a point lower on his legs by nearly three inches than was usual with other persons. I was

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present when a number of persons measured the length of thire arms on thire legs, as here Stated, with that result. his arms were unusually long for his hight, and the droop of his Shoulders also producd that result. His hands were large and bony, caused no doubt by hard labor when young. he was a good chopper. the axe then in use was a great clumsy tool, usually made by the country blacksmith, weighing about Six pounds, the handle being round and Strait, which made it very difficult to hold when chopping requiring a gripe as Strong as was necessary to wield a Blacksmiths Sledge hammer. This and running barefoot when young among Stones, and Stumps, accounts for his large hands and feet.

His eyes were a bluish brown, his face was long and very angular, when at ease had nothing in his appearance that was marked or Striking, but when enlivened in conversation or engaged in telling, or hearing some mirth-inspiring Story, his countenance would brighten up the expression woul[d] light up not in a flash. but rapidly the mucles of his face would begin to contract. Several wrinkles would diverge from the inner corners of his eyes, and extend down and diagonally across his nose, his eyes would Sparkle, all terminating in an unrestrained Laugh in which every one present willing or unwilling were compelled to take part.

In the Spring of 1836, the Citizens of New Salem and vicinity brought out Mr Lincoln as their Candidate for the Legislature. About the same time the People of the neighboring town Athens presented my name also as a candidate on the Same ticket. The different portions of the county brought their candidates until the ticket was full.

Sangamon County then was about as large as the State of Rhode Island. The county under the apportionment law then, was entitled to Seven Representatives, and two Senators. The Whig ticket for that election were, Abraham Lincoln John Dawson, Wm F Elkin, N. W. Edwards, Andrew McCormack, Dan Stone, and R. L. Wilson. The Sanators A G. Herndon and Job Fletcher.

The Democratic party had a full ticket in the field, prominant among them was John Calhoun who became conspicuous in the Kansas embroglio; a man of first class ability but too indolent to be a leader. hence he occupied a Subordinate position in his party.

The campaign commenced about six weeks before the election, which under the old Constitution was held on the first monday of August. Appointments being made and published in the Sangamo Journal and the State Register, the organs of the Parties then. We traveled on horseback from one grove to another — the praries then were entirely unoccupied — The Speaking would begin in the forenoon, the candidates Speaking alternately until all who could Speak had his turn, generally consuming the whole afternoon. The discussions were upon National and State questions, prominant among which were the Subject of a National Bank, and the Tariff, and a general System of internal improvement, by the State and the finishing the Illinois and Michigan Canal, then in progress of constuction —

Mr Lincoln took a leading part, espouseing the Whig side of all those questions, manifesting Skill and tact in offensive and defensive debates, presenting his

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arguments with great force and ability, and boldly attacking the questions and positions taken by opposing Candidates.

The Saturday preceding the election, the Candidates were addressing the People in the Court House in Springfield. Dr Earley one of the Candidates on the Democratic Side made some charge that N. W. Edwards one of the Whig Candidates deemed untrue, climbed on a table so as to be seen by Dr Early and evey one in the house, and at the top of his voice told Early that the charge was false. The excitement that followed was intense, so much so, that fighting men that a duel must Settle the difficulty, Mr Lincoln by the programme followed Earley, he took up the subject in dispute and handled fairly, and with such ability, that every one was astonished, and pleased. So that difficulty ended there, Then first time develloped by the excitement of the occasion he spooke in that tenor intonation of voice that ultimately settled down into that clear Shrill monotone Style of Speaking, that enabled his audience, however large, to hear distictly the lowest Sound of his voice.

This election was on the first monday of August 1836. and resulted in the election of the whole whig ticket. Sangamon County had been up to this election uniformly Democratic. The whigs carrying the County by about four hundred majority. Just before the meeting of the Legislature, which was on the first monday of December, 1836. A mass Convention of the People of the county met at Springfield, and passed resolutions instructing the members from that County to vote for a general system of internal improvement. In the evening after the temporary organization of the house, a convention of Delegates from nearly all the Counties in the State Convened in the hall of the House and organized with Col Thomas Mather of the State Bank as President, and after two days debate and deliberation, passed resolutions instructing the Legislature to pass a general system of internal improvements by authorizing the making of Rail Roads passing through nearly every county of the State, and also to improve the navigation of all Streams declared, and to be declared navigable; and to accomplish all this, to authorize the making of a loan of ten millions of dollars; issue bonds; Sell them; and pledge the faith of the State for thire redemption. The House organized, by electing Gen James Semple, by a Strict party vote, David Pricket, Clerk. The Senate, after a long contest organized by the election of Mr Davidson over Gen Whiteside.

Mr Lincoln Served on the Committee of Internal Improvements in the House, was an industrious, active, working member. The Internal Improvement bill, and a bill to permanently locate the Seat of Government of the State, were the great measures of the Session of 1836 & 7. Vandalia was then the Seat of Government, had been for a number of years, A new State House had been just built, Alton, Decatu, Peoria, Jacksonville Illioppolis and Springfield were the points seeking the location if removed from Vandalia. The Delegation from Sangamon were a unit, acting in concert in favor of the permenent location at Springfield. The Bill was introduced at an early day in the Session, to locate it by a joint vote of both Houses of the Legislature. The friends of all the other points united to defeat the Bill.

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as each point a postponement of the location to some future period would give Strength to their location, The contest on this Bill was long, and severe; its enemies laid it on the table twice, once on the table till the fourth day of July and once indefinitely postponed it. To take a Bill from the table is always attended with difficulty; but when laid on the table to a day beyond the Session, or when indefinitely postponed, requires a vote of reconsideration, which always in an intense Struggle. In these dark hours, when our Bill to all appearance was beyond recussitation, and all our opponents were jubilant over our defeat, and when friends could see no hope, Mr Lincoln never for one moment despaired, but collect his Colleagues to his room for consultation, his practical common Sense, his thorough knowledge of human nature then, made him an overmatch for his compeers and for any man that I have ever known.

We surmounted all obstacles. passed the bill, and by a joint vote of both houses, located the Seat of Government of the State of Illinois, at Springfield, just before the adjournment of the Legislature which took place on the 4th day of March 1837. The Delegation acting during the whole Session upon all questions as a unit, gave them a Strength and influence that enabled them to carry through their measures, and give efficient aid to their friends. The Delegation was not only remarkable for their number, but for their length, most of them measuring six feet, and over. it was Said at the time that Delegation measured fifty four feet high, hence they were known as the "long nine", So that during that session and for a number of years afterwards, all the bad laws passed at that Session of the Legislature were Chargable to the management and influence of the "Long Nine."

I have often during my connection with Mr Lincoln in the Social circle alone, or as a member of the Legislature, Sat for hours and listened to his delineation of character; he appeared to possess but little malice or ill feeling against others; he had no animosities as other men have, although wary and vigilant in guarding his own rights, and the rights of his constituents, and personall, He was verry slow to believe that men prominant in life, would Stoop to do a dishonest or dishonorable act.

He was, on the stump, and in the Halls of Legislation a ready Debater, manifesting extraordinary ability in his peculiar manner of presenting his subject. He did not follow the beaten track of other Speakers, and Thinkers, but appeared to comprehend the whole situation of the Subject, and take hold of its first principles; He had a remarkable faculty for concentration, enabling him to present his subject in such a manner as nothing but conclusions were presented.

He did not follow a system of ratiocination deducing conclusions from premises, laid down, and eliminated; but his mode of reasoning was purely analytical; his reasons and conclusions were always drawn from analogy. his memory was a great Store house in which was Stored away all the facts. acquired by reading but principally by observation; and intercourse with men Woman and children, in their Social, and business relations; learning and weighing the motives that prompt each act in life. Supplying him with an inexhaustible fund of facts, from which he would draw conclusions, and illustrating every Subject however complicated with annecdotes

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drawn from all classes of Society, accomplishing the double purpose, of not only proving his Subject by the annecdote, But the annecdote itself possessing so much point and force, that no one ever forgets, after hearing Mr Lincoln tell a Story, either the argument of the Story, the Story itself, or the author.

In 1838, many of the Long Nine were candidates for reelection to the Legislature. A question of the division of the County was one of the local issues. Mr Lincoln and myself among others, residing in the portion of the county sought to be organized into a new County, and opposing the division, It became necessary that I should make a special canvass, through the North West part of the County, then known as Sand ridge. I made the canvass. Mr Lincoln accompanied me, being personally acquainted with every one, We called at nearly every house. At that time it was the universal custom to keep Some whiskey in the house, for private use and treat friends. The Subject was always mentioned as a matter of etiquutte, but with the remark to Mr. Lincoln, "You never drink" but may be your friend would like to take a little". I never Saw Mr Lincoln drink. he often told me he never drank, had no desire for the drink, nor the companionship of drinking men. Candidates never treated any body in those times unless they wanted to do so,

Mr Lincoln remained in New Salem until the Spring of 1837. He went to Springfield, and went into the Law office of John T. Stewart as a partner in the practice of Law, and boarded with William Butler.

During his Stay in New Salem, he had no property other than what was necessary to do his business, until after he Stopped in Springfield. He was not avaricious, to accumulate property, neither was he a Spendthrift, he was almost always during these times hard up. He never owned land.

The first trip he made around the circuit after he commenced the practice of law, I had a horse, Saddle, and bridle, and he had none. I let him have mine. I think he must have been careless as the Saddle skinned the horses back.

While he lived in New Salem he visited me often, he would Stay a day or two at a time. we generally spent the time at the Stores in Athens. he was very fond of company, telling or hearing Stories told, was a Source of great amusement to him, He was not in the habit of reading much. never read Novels. Whitling pine boards and shingles, talking and laughing constituted the entertainment of the days and eveings,

In a conversation with him about that time, he told me that although he appeared to enjoy life rapturously, Still he was the victim of terrible melancholly. He Sought company, and indulged in fun and hilarity without restraint, or Stint as to time Still when by himself, he told me that he was so overcome with mental depression, that he never dare carry a knife in his pocket, And as long as I was intimately acquainted with him, previous to his commencement of the practice of the law, he never carried a pocket knife, Still he was not misanthropic. he was kind and tender in his treatment to others,

In the Summer of 1837, The Citizens of Athens and vicinity gave the Delegation, then called the "Long Nine," a public dinner, at which Mr Lincoln, and all the other members were present. He was called out by the toast "Abraham Lincoln

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one of Natures Noblemen" I have often thought that if any man was entitled to that compliment it was he.

In the Spring of 1840, I emigrated to Sterling, and did not see much of Mr Lincoln, until he was elected President of the United States. I went to Washington City in Feb 1861 and remained there nearly all the time, until October following; during that time I saw much of him.

He was a new man, comparitively among Politicians. as a matter of course, each faction of his own party intended to control his administration, and under ordinary circumstances would have succeeded. His predecessor had entered the Presidential Chair as the head of a Party; that was not true as to Mr Lincoln he was comparitively unknown. Old Politicians looked upon him with the same distrust, and want of Confidence, that Regular Army officer look upon officers in the Volunteer Arm of the Service, and they Supposed they would control his administration, not only as a matter of right, but they thought that he would be compelled to lean upon them for support; but he was not the man they bargained for. Many men who had made up their minds to serve their country were disappointed

The Army of officers to be appointed at the Commencement of each Presidental term is a bitter pill. First the Cabinate appointments, then begins the Scramble, each member of the Cabinet, Member of Congress, Governors of States, and all leading Politicians, each have a budget of appointments, and the rush on the President is alarming, he is beset to appoint some one of the family or some Political Pimp to whom they were under obligations, that could not be disreguarded

I was with the President one day, when Mr Grow, from Wilmot district Pa. came in, and in an excited manner demaned of the President the reason why he did not appoint his Brother-in-law as one of the Judges seat in one of the new Teritories. Mr Lincoln excused himself by saying that he had forgotten his Brother-in-law, at the time the appointment was made, but assured him that his friend Should have an appointment at an early day. Mr Grow was very angry, and talked, as it looked to me, impertinently, Mr Seward came in, and took part defending Mr Lincoln. Mr Grow used threats that surprised me. After Mr Grow and Mr Seward had retired, and we were alone, he was troubled. Said he had then been President five months, and was Surprised any body would want the office. he went on to speak about the duties; he said he was inaugurated, he supposed that although he realized that the labor of administering the affairs of the Nation would be arduous, and Severe, and that he had made up his mind, that he could, and would do it, all the duties were rather pleasant, and agreeable except making the appointments. He had Started out with the determination, to make no improper appointments, and to accomplish that result he imposed upon himself the labor of an examination into the qualifications of each Applicant. He found to his Surprise, that members of his Cabinate, who were equally interested with himself, in the sucess of his administration. had been recommending parties to be appointed to responsable positions who were often physically, morally, and intellecully unfit for the place. He said that it did appear that most of the Cabinate officers, and members of Congress, had a list of appointments to be made, and many of them were

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such as ought not to be made, and they knew, and their importunities were urgent in proportion to the unfitness for the appointee: he said he was so badgered with applications for appointments that he thought sometimes that the only way that he could escape from them would be to take a rope and hang himself, on one of the trees in the lawn south of the Presidents House, [1] looking out at the trees through the window at the same time.

I was with him one day in his office; parties were coming in, and doing business with him; he would send a card to the Department with which the business was being transacted. I remarked to him this reminds me of the office of the Justice of the Peace. Yes, says he, but it is hardly as respectable; he then went on to say that when he first commenced doing the duties, he was entirely ignorant not only of the duties, but of the manner of doing the business, he said he was like the Justice of the Peace, who would often speak of the first case he had ever tried, and called it, his "great first case least understood."

The night after the first Bull Run Battle, accompanied by Mr. Hanchett, M.P. from Wisconsin, and Mr McInder now a member, and the Successor of Mr Hanchett, now deceased, called at the White House to get the news from Manassass — as it was called. After having failed to obtain any information at Mr Seward's, and other places where we had sought it. The excitement was intense. Stragglers were coming in; but knew nothing except there had been a great fight, and they had made their escape, but did not know that any one else was so lucky. Messengers were coming in, bearing dispatches to the President, and Secretary of War, but outsiders knew nothing, but rumors, and no two agreed. We having arrived there, were told that Mr Lincoln was at the Secretary of War's office. We started for that place, but met parties who had just come from there, and said there was a great crowd around the building, but outsiders knew nothing. We sat down to rest, and while we were sitting. Mr Lincoln accompanied by Mr Nickolay, his private Secretary came along: and being the only one acquainted with Mr Lincoln, it was proposed that I should join the party, and ask of him the news. I did so. He said, it was contrary to Army Regulations to give military information to parties not in military service. I said to him then, I don't ask for the news, but you tell me the quality of the news, — is it good, or is it bad. Placing his mouth near my ear he said in a sharp, shrill voice, "damned bad". This is the only time I ever heard Mr Lincoln use profane language — if indeed it was in that connection profane. When I became fully acquainted with the details of the fight, I became satisfied that, used at that time, and in qualification of the nature of the news, that no other word would have conveyed the true meaning of the word bad.

The labor caused by the breaking out of the war at the commencement of his Administration, imposed on him more work than one man could do. He adopted no hours for business, but did business at all hours, rising early in the morning, and retiring late at night, making appointments at very early, and very late hours. He never had any time for rest and recuperation.

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The ante-rooms were crowded all the time from morning till night, with men, women and children all anxious to see Mr Lincoln to ask some appointment, or to see, and talk to him; and some to ask his advice about their private matters. That crowd swayed, and jostled against each other every day.

Members of the Cabinet, and Gen. McClellan, were admitted, whenever they came. and it did appear that they had to get his common opinion about anything they did, as they would call on him sometimes two or three times each day, and remain a long time in consultation about the duties of the several Departments.

In 1862, after Gen McClellan fell back on the Potomac, and the prospects were very dark, and uncertain; and Mr Lincoln's letters urging McClellan to strike and advance and take Richmond. I was that Summer with the Army under Buell and Halleck. The matter of placing Mr Lincoln at the head of the Army in the field, was generally advocated outside the Regular Army influence. It was conceded that he was not a military man. But he had proved to the world that he was equal to the exigencies of the times, and no man in the army appeared to be. That was the great trait of his character, all through his life. Whatever the exigency might be, he was equal to it, not only disappointing his friends, but also, I have no doubt, himself often —

I am very respectfully [2]
Your Ob't Servant
Robert L Wilson

Library of Congress: Herndon-Weik Collection. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress. Washington, D.C. 2480 — 87; Huntington Library: LN2408, 2:1 — 19

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Wilson, Douglas L., ed.; Davis, Rodney O., ed.; Wilson, Robert L. 'Robert L. Wilson to William H. Herndon' in 'Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements About Abraham Lincoln' . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998. [format: book], [genre: letter]. Permission: University of Illinois Press
Persistent link to this document: http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/file.php?file=herndon201.html
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