Abraham Lincoln and fifteen other members of the Illinois Bar signed a petition recommending Robert Allen for the position of U.S. marshal of the District of Illinois. The petition was undated; the recipient was not identified.
Roy P. Basler, editor of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, dated the petition circa April 1849, speculating that Lincoln signed it after he returned to Springfield from Washington, DC, on March 31. Basler’s contention had the staff at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln scratching their heads: Why would Lincoln, Herndon, and other Whigs endorse Allen, a Democrat, for marshal in the Whig Administration of Zachary Taylor? Especially when several Whigs wanted the same job?
That date seemed implausible. After Taylor won the presidency in November 1848, Lincoln and other Whigs clamored to reap a political harvest with patronage appointments. They were unlikely to endorse any Democrat for a job in the new administration, let alone the coveted position of U.S. marshal. Lincoln received numerous letters, moreover, in the winter of 1848-49 endorsing Benjamin Bond, a Whig attorney from Carlyle, Illinois, for the job, and in March 1849, Lincoln added his name to those recommending Bond (though he preferred the job go to another). A majority of the Democrats in the Illinois General Assembly also supported Bond. The Taylor Administration appointed Bond marshal in April 1849, and he remained marshal until 1853.
Basler’s date does not, therefore, fit the historical context or the documentary record. So when did Lincoln and his colleagues recommend Allen?
The editors believe this petition was written and signed not in April 1849 but several years earlier. Lincoln’s comment “If new appointment is made” offers a subtle clue to the mystery. It suggests that he did not necessarily favor the removal of the incumbent, which implies that the person was politically palatable to Lincoln. This would further indicate that a new appointment would be made by Lincoln’s political enemies, namely, the Democrats. When would the Democrats be in a position to replace the marshal in the 1840s? After the election of James K. Polk in November/December 1844. Lincoln and the others most likely signed this petition between Polk’s victory and April 1845, when the Polk Administration appointed a Democrat as the marshal.
A cursory review of the politics surrounding the appointment and removal of marshals in the 1840s lends credence to our contention. William Henry Harrison and the Whigs swept to power in 1840, and in April 1841, the Harrison Administration replaced Harry Wilton, the Democrat incumbent, with Whig William S. Prentiss. Prentiss held the job until July 1844, when President John Tyler replaced him with Thomas M. Hope, a Harrison Whig turned Tyler partisan. When Polk assumed the presidency, Democrats moved swiftly to remove Hope and other Tyler supporters and replace them with Democratic loyalists. Stinson H. Anderson, a staunch Democrat and former lieutenant governor of the state, was the leading contender to replace Hope. Lincoln’s comment and the political context suggest that, if Hope was to be replaced, he and his fellow attorneys preferred Allen to Anderson and other Democrats receiving consideration.
As it turned out, the Polk Administration appointed Anderson as marshal. He would hold the post until replaced by Bond in 1849.
Dr. Daniel Worthington
Director, Papers of Abraham Lincoln