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Lincoln Shrewdly Plots to Stop the Spread of Slavery
after the Infamous Dred Scott Case
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A politically re-energized Lincoln shrewdly plots to stop the spread of slavery after the infamous 1857 Dred Scott case.


Lincoln asks Illinois’s future governor to plant an anonymous endorsement for Congressional candidate James Matheny in local newspapers. Though Matheny was not a Republican, Lincoln explains, “he is with us” in opposing the Dred Scott decision. Broadening the base of the Republican Party, Lincoln argues, is essential to defeating pro-slavery forces.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN. Autograph Letter Signed (“A. Lincoln”) to Richard Yates, Springfield, Ill., March 9, 1858. 2 pp. 8 x 10”.

Inventory #21945.99       PRICE ON REQUEST

Complete Transcript

      “Springfield, March 9. 1858.

Hon. R. Yates 
      My dear Sir: 
            If you approve of the following contrive to have it appear in some one of the anti- administration papers down your way- better there than here. 
      ‘Mr. Editor: 
            Why may not all anti-administration men in this District vote for James H. Matheny, of Springfield, for Congress? He was opposed to the repeal of the Missouri Compromise; was for Fillmore in 1856, but never was a Know-Nothing- He is now opposed to the Lecompton Constitution, and the Dred Scott decision- Who can be more suitable, when a union of Fremont and Fillmore men, is indispensable? A. republican.’ 
      We have thought this over here- The leading Fillmore men here wish to act with us, and they want a name upon which they can bring up their rank and file- It will help us in Sangamon, where we shall be hard run, about members of the Legislature- Think it over, and if you can approve it, give it a start as above- 
      I have not forgotten my course towards ‘Jim’ [Matheny] for a nomination in 1856, which you also well know- The difficulty then was on a point which has since been measurably superseded by the Dred Scott decision; and he is with us on that-
       [William] Butler says you rather have an eye to getting our old friend Bill Greene on the track- Nothing would please me better, whenever he got on to ground that would suit you, except it would give us no access to the Fillmore votes. Don’t you see? We must have some one who will reach the Fillmore men, both for the direct and the incidental effect.
      I wish you would see Nult. [Lynn McNulty] Greene, and present this view to him. Point out to him the necessities of the case, and also how the question, as to ‘Jim’ is varied since 1856.
      Let this be strictly confidential.      

Yours as ever, 
      A. Lincoln”

[docket:] A. Lincoln  

Historical Background

In 1854, opposition within the Whig Party to the Kansas-Nebraska Act gave birth to the Republican Party. Lincoln allied himself with the new movement, led by John C. Frémont, while Matheny stayed with Millard Fillmore’s Whigs. Though Matheny had been the best man at Lincoln’s and Mary Todd’s wedding in 1841, Lincoln opposed his old friend’s 1856 Congressional bid. By then, the Whig Party had collapsed. Matheny and others who would not join the Republicans backed Fillmore’s bid for the presidency as leader of the American Party (the “Know-Nothings,” an anti-Catholic, nativist movement).

The next year, the political landscape shifted dramatically. Chief Justice Taney ruled in March 1857, in Dred Scott v. Sandford, that a slave could not sue for his freedom since African Americans had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The court declared the 1820 Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, giving license to expand slavery throughout the western territories.

After his stint in Congress from 1847 to 1849, Lincoln retreated from politics, but the Dred Scott decision drew him back. For Lincoln, old political divisions that had pitted Frémont’s Republicans against Fillmore’s Know-Nothings in 1856 were insignificant in the face of the growing threat posed by the “Slave Power.” Lincoln’s plan was to use published statements, political stumping, and the strategic choice of candidates to help defeat pro-slavery forces. He hoped Matheny’s candidacy would help bring about the “union of Fremont and Fillmore men” that Lincoln saw as “indispensible” to blocking the westward expansion of slavery. Acknowledging that Yates preferred a different candidate, Lincoln opts for expediency over party loyalty: “Don’t you see? We must have someone who appeals to the Fillmore men.”  Lincoln originally closed with a request that his plan be kept “strictly confidential,” which he then crosses out. Despite Lincoln’s strategizing, Matheny lost his 1858 Congressional bid to Democrat Thomas L. Harris.

In Lincoln’s own race for the Senate that year, his coalition-building strategy would help the Republicans carry the popular vote against the far better known Stephen A. Douglas. Before the 17th Amendment, however, senators were chosen by the state legislatures, and Douglas handily won the seat.

The career of Richard Yates, this letter’s recipient, paralleled that of Lincoln. Born in Kentucky, Yates moved to Illinois, became an attorney, served in the state legislature and then the U.S. House of Representatives. Lincoln had worked hard for Yates in his Congressional campaign. Yates, in turn, would be a driving force behind Lincoln’s nomination at the 1860 Republican Convention.

The mythologizing of Abraham Lincoln, which began almost immediately after his assassination, placed him in the pantheon of American “gods” alongside George Washington. But behind the legend of “Honest Abe” – country raconteur, log-cabin president, compassionate father figure and, finally, national martyr – was a shrewd legal mind, astute politician and adept student of human psychology. This letter reveals Lincoln as a consummate political strategist.

Lincoln thought  Taney’s decision in the Dred Scott case did “obvious violence to the plain unmistakable language of the Declaration” of Independence and its recognition that all men were created equal and endowed with unalienable rights. “If its framers could rise from their graves,” Lincoln added, “they could not at all recognize it” (quoted in Donald, Lincoln, 201 – from Lincoln’s June 26, 1857 speech in Springfield, Ill.). Taken together with Stephen A. Douglas’s support of the Lecompton Constitution, submitted to Congress by pro-slavery settlers in Kansas, Lincoln saw a consistent pattern by Democratic Party leaders to aid the advance of slavery.

Matheny, Lincoln realized, could bring together different political factions to help defeat pro-slavery forces. Though Matheny opposed Taney’s decision and had allied himself with the Republicans, he still had credibility among the old Know-Nothings. In this letter, Lincoln offers a strategy to take advantage of Matheny’s influence to reach “the Fillmore men, both for the direct and the incidental effect” — a Republican victory as well as a defeat of slavery expansionists.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates, held during the 1858 Illinois Senate campaign, aired the fundamental differences between the new Republican Party—which opposed the extension of slavery into the free territories of the West—and the Democratic Party, which largely supported or at least accepted slavery. Conversely, Lincoln called for the restriction of slavery within its current boundaries while Douglas advocated “Popular Sovereignty,” the right of each territory to determine whether or not slavery would be allowed. Douglas retained this position even after the Dred Scott decision, in essence, allowed slavery everywhere based on property rights. In so doing, Douglas alienated Southern voters by suggesting that slavery could still be limited despite the Supreme Court ruling.  

Though he lost the senatorial election, Lincoln outmaneuvered Douglas during the campaign by forcing him to defend his well-known position on slavery—a stance that would return to haunt Douglas in the presidential election of 1860. The unprecedented series of debates transformed Lincoln from a regional politician to a nationally recognized leader of the Republican Party, paving the way for his 1860 presidential run.

The Republican position, along with and Lincoln’s careful strategy, proved unsuccessful in the short term. Though the Republicans took the popular vote, previous apportionment of representatives in the state strongly favored Democratic districts. The General Assembly elected Douglas senator over Lincoln by a solid party-line vote of 54 to 46.

Richard Yates (1815-1873), a Lincoln friend from New Salem, had followed a similar career path, serving as a lawyer, state legislator and member of Congress. It was Yates’s 1854 re-election campaign that helped get Lincoln back into politics after a four-year hiatus following his own failed Congressional re-election bid in 1850. Yates, an outspoken critic of Stephen A. Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska legislation, lost his seat in Congress, despite Lincoln’s support. Yates went on to assist Lincoln’s 1860 and 1864 presidential campaigns. He served as governor of Illinois from 1861-1865, marshaling firm support and a great many troops for the Union, followed by one term in the Senate as a Radical Republican.

James H. Matheny (1818-1890), another longtime Lincoln friend, had served under William “Slicky Bill” Greene at the Springfield courthouse. Matheny had been best man at Lincoln’s wedding to Mary Todd (a ceremony, as Matheny later recalled, that Lincoln participated in under some duress). When Lincoln allied himself with the new Republican party in 1856, Matheny stayed with the Whigs, running for Congress as that party’s candidate. It was Matheny’s mention of a deal between Lincoln and Lyman Trumbull to split Senate seats (Trumbull to get one in 1854, and Lincoln to take Douglas’s four years later) that Douglas repeatedly cited as a corrupt bargain in his 1858 debates with Lincoln. Matheny lost his 1858 Congressional bid to Democrat Thomas L. Harris.

William Butler (1797-1876) was an early mentor to Lincoln, helping him pay off his debts and encouraging him in his study of law. After a politically-related squabble in the late 1840s, the two men renewed their friendship.

William Graham “Slicky Bill” Greene (1812-1894), once a fellow clerk with Lincoln at Offut’s general store and mill in New Salem, had coached the future president in grammar and mathematics. He later served as court clerk in Springfield, and went on to become a successful merchant, banker and railroad executive.


Some show-through, very lightly and expertly silked, tipped to another sheet.

References (excellent bios of Matheny, Yates et al).

Basler, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 10:28-29

Neely, Mark. The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia.

Krenkel, John H. Richard Yates, Civil War Governor, p. 211-213

Holzer, Harold, ed.  The Lincoln-Douglas Debates (NY: 1993) p. 371-373
“Appendix, Lincoln vs. Douglas: How the State Voted” “Neither Abraham Lincoln nor Stephen A. Douglas ‘won’ a popular election for the Senate in 1858. Neither of their names appeared on the ballot, and thus, citizens could not vote for either candidate directly. Under the rules governing Senate elections in nineteenth-century America, voters cast their ballots for local legislative nominees who in turn were empowered to choose senators, parliamentary-style. Douglas’s party won more legislative seats that Lincoln’s that year, and the Senator was thus returned to office, ‘defeating’ Lincoln. / But at the same time, Lincoln’s Republican’s fared better than Douglas’s Democrats in the key statewide popular vote held in 1858: the race for state treasurer. Republican candidates amassed more total votes in the state’s nice congressional contests as well. / One question that has never been answered, however, is whether Lincoln or Douglas men did better among voters in counties in which their seven debates were staged.  The statistics are presented here for the first time. The totals provide a clue, however imperfect, to the impact the debates had on the voting audiences who actually witnessed them. And what the numbers show is that Republican candidates did fare better – although only slightly so – in these areas… The strongest statement that any debate eyewitness could make at the ballot box, however inspired by a Senate candidate’s performance, was an indirect vote for legislator, or a sympathetic one for treasurer or congressman. / Nonetheless, the numbers do lend credence to the prevailing assumption that Lincoln would have been elected to the Senate that year in a head-to-head popular vote, under twentieth-century rules”
in Illinois Douglas’s followers did not poll so large a vote as Lincoln’s. Douglas, however, won the senatorship by a vote in the legislature of 54 to 46.
Before the adoption of the 17th Amendment Senators were selected by the State legislatures, not by the people, which led to anomalous results such as Stephen Douglas defeating Abraham Lincoln for the Senate in 1858 even though Lincoln won the popular vote.

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