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Bloomington Attorney Donates 1854 Lincoln Letter To Museum

Abraham Lincoln, (1809 - 1865), the 16th President of the United States of America.
Abraham Lincoln, (1809 - 1865), the 16th President of the United States of America.

A Bloomington attorney and Lincoln scholar has given an 1854 letter Lincoln wrote to a Peoria attorney to the Abraham Lincoln Library and Presidential Museum in Springfield.

Guy Fraker said the missive is a response to Ian Powell's message to Lincoln that Lincoln's attempt to gain a U.S. Senate seat was illegal. At the time, state lawmakers chose senators. Lincoln was in the Statehouse and Fraker said he would have been voting for himself. Powell was a Whig and a political ally of Lincoln's.

"Powell advised him he'd better resign from the House of Representatives. And so he said, and I love this little twist that he added in there. He said, 'Acting on your advice and my own judgment.' In other words, he was not willing to admit entirely that he didn't know that," said Fraker.

Fraker said Lincoln's attempt to gain the Senate seat slipped away. He received 45 of the 50 votes he needed on the first ballot. The process went through nine ballots and Fraker said support for Lincoln ebbed each time until he chose to support another so-called Anti-Nebraska (anti-slavery) Democrat for the post. Fraker said the battle for the Senate seat was between anti-slavery former Whigs like Lincoln and anti-slavery Democrats.

"This doesn't mean abolitionists. Abolitionists were considered radical and most people like Lincoln hated the institution of slavery, but had their notions of how it should end and what would cause it to end,' said Fraker.

Most people in Lincoln's camp wanted to limit slavery to the states where it already existed on the belief the institution would eventually wither away.

Lincoln threw his support to Lyman Trumbull, who later co-wrote the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.

“The interesting thing is Trumbull’s wife was maid of honor at Lincoln’s wedding,” said Fraker. “Lincoln was supportive of Trumbull and his sort of noble approach to this election that was so hotly contested. It didn’t damage his relationships with anybody. Mary Lincoln, though, never spoke to Julia Trumbull again.

“This whole chain of events tells you so much about Lincoln: his realism as a politician, his flexibility, and his willingness to work, in this case, across party lines.”

Fraker said the document also mentioned Lincoln's reluctance "to stand upon a platform he cannot support." Fraker said that is historically significant because it shows Lincoln in transition from a member of the Whig party to an anti-slavery Democrat, and eventually to the soon-to-form Republican party.

"This is at the time they were just literally dragging Lincoln over to the new party. He wasn't ready. He was always cautious about these things. So, he wasn't ready to jump into the Republican party yet," said Fraker.

Lincoln penned the response to Powell in the fall of 1854. By 1856, Fraker said, Lincoln had come around.

In fact, Fraker said Lincoln gave a speech in Bloomington that year at the formation of the Republican Party that is known as Lincoln's famous "Lost Speech." Reportedly, people were so enthralled by his oratory that nobody wrote it down. More likely, some historians muse, those early Republicans didn’t want it published because they knew it was a minority position and it wouldn’t do the nascent party any good to promulgate its details widely.

The speech was full on anti-slavery and red meat for those at the meeting. Fraker said some consider it, along with the Cooper-Union speech and a couple others, to be a significant event on the road to putting Lincoln in the White House.

The original letter written by Peoria attorney Ian Powell, Fraker said, is in the Library of Congress. Fraker said with chagrin he feels he should have found it himself, but an acquisitions expert from the Lincoln museum tracked it down. Fraker said finding the Powell letter enriched the historical context of his document and sealed the deal on his decision to donate the artifact.

Fraker said he obtained the letter and other Lincoln documents from the widow of McLean County Judge Wayne Townley Jr. Townley's father, Wayne Sr., also a judge, was a noted collector of items connected to Lincoln, said Fraker.

The gift is not the first time Fraker has donated a Lincoln document. He earlier gave a pleading written by Lincoln describing a McLean County property dispute and the legal arguments behind the case to the McLean County Museum of History.

Fraker said he still has a few more Lincoln documents in his back pocket, but nothing of the historical significance of the response to Powell.

Fraker is a lifelong Lincoln fan and scholar and the author of the book "Lincoln's Ladder To The Presidency: The Eighth Judicial Circuit," that looks at the cases and the people Lincoln dealt with, and how those political connections later helped him win the presidency.

Copyright 2021 WGLT

GLT Assistant News Director Charlie Schlenker grew up in Rock Island, Illinois and graduated from Augustana College. He has spent more than three decades in radio and has won numerous state and national awards for journalism. He lives in Normal with his family.