Abraham Lincoln and the Political Upset

7/29/2020 Daniel Worthington

Abraham Lincoln was a bit dumbfounded when he wrote William Schouler, editor of the Boston Atlas, on August 28, 1848. Although sanguine about the Whig Party's prospects in the upcoming presidential election, Lincoln was still smarting from the recent loss of his congressional district to the Democrats. The Illinois Seventh Congressional District was, after all, a Whig Party stronghold. Eligible voters in these eleven counties had cast their ballots for Henry Clay in 1844 and had sent John J. Hardin, Edward D. Baker, John Henry, and Lincoln to successive Congresses. 

True, Lincoln's "spot resolutions" and speech critical of President Polk's conduct in the origins of the Mexican War had ruffled some feathers in the district, but the Whigs still appeared in a strong position to retain Lincoln's seat. Lincoln would not be on the ballot, since he had pledged to serve only one term. His old law partner, Stephen T. Logan, was the Whig nominee instead. Meanwhile, the Democrats selected Thomas L. Harris, a Mexican War veteran, to run against Logan.

 Stephen T. Logan

On August 3, 1848, Harris surprised Lincoln and the Whigs by defeating Logan in a close race.

In the aftermath of this unexpected setback, Lincoln's latest law partner, William H. Herndon, and other Whigs wondered if Lincoln's antiwar stance had cost the Whigs the election. Lincoln himself, who was attending to official business in Washington and preparing to campaign in New England for Whig presidential candidate Zachary Taylor, was unclear about the reasons for the disastrous outcome.

Pressed by the Boston editor to account for the loss, Lincoln wrote that he "would rather not be put upon explaining how Logan was defeated in my district." Lincoln said he was ignorant of the "particulars" of the canvass, including voter turnout. Still, he attributed the upset to two factors: "a good many Whigs, without good cause, as I think, were unwilling to go for Logan," he said, and Harris was a veteran of the Mexican War who had seen action at the Battle of Cerro Gordo, "where several Whigs of the district fought with him."

"These two facts and their effects, I presume tell the whole story." Lincoln wrote. "That there is any political change against us in the district I cannot believe … I dislike to predict, but it seems to me the district must and will be found right side up again in November." 


 Lincoln's letter to Boston editor

Lincoln proved prescient: although Illinois as a whole went for Democratic candidate Lewis Cass in the 1848 presidential election, voters in the Seventh Congressional District opted for Taylor, casting 8,188 ballots for him, 6,684 for Cass, and 712 for Martin Van Buren, candidate of the Free Soil Party. Taylor won seven counties, Cass three, and Van Buren one.

In August 1850, Richard Yates would unseat Harris, returning the district to the Whigs. Yates would retain the seat in 1852, but the era of Whig ascendancy was over. Between 1853 and 1863, Democrats would represent the Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Daniel Worthington
Director, Papers of Abraham Lincoln

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