April 10, 1848

Abraham Lincoln, a Henry Clay Man, Explains Why He Supports Zachary Taylor for President in 1848: Political Pragmatism

Autograph Letter Signed
2 pages
SMC 532
In politics, pragmatism trumps principle, and the willingness to throw one’s grandmother under a bus, or a carriage, is generally regarded not as a sign of heartlessness, but maturity. Here, first-term Congressman Abraham Lincoln explains why he is not supporting his beau ideal of a statesman, Henry Clay, for a third run at the presidency. It isn’t that he doesn’t admire Clay, but that Zachary Taylor has the best chance – the “only” one, he says here – to win.  “I go for him, not because I think he would make a better president than Clay, but because I think he would make a better one than Polk, or Cass, or Buchanan, or any such creatures, one of whom is sure to be elected, if he is not.” But if politics trumps principle, it does not trump a promise: Lincoln will not stand for re-election because he had arranged with two of his friends, in 1843, to rotate the Congressional seat of Illinois’ only Whig district. When Lincoln’s term ended, then, the seat would go to one of them. Hence Lynch’s question about the district’s next representative elicits this firm reply: “I can only say that I can not become a competitor with others for the nomination. I have said I will not. I would deny the people nothing - but I presume there are many others who will be quite as acceptable as myself.” But to even suggest, as Lincoln does here, that he “would deny the people nothing” is, he fears, a breach of the Hardin-Baker-Lincoln “Pekin Agreement” – and hence he adds, “Lest I be misunderstood, don’t let any one know I have written you any thing on this subject. I should not, had you not requested it.”

But as Lincoln’s life was not entirely political, so is this letter, which is also concerned with Lincoln’s work as a lawyer - which, he states, he barely has time to do.  He has, he reports, been to the Patent Office that morning to inquire about Lynch’s application for a patent. “They tell me that no patent has [been] issued to any body on any application made as late as the first of July last. Mr. Jones [apparently a patent attorney in Washington] is dead - died a few weeks ago. The officers say he was trust-worthy. If you write again, mention the names of the applicants, as I have mislaid your former letter. I am almost too busy to undertake an agency, besides which, I shall have to leave before the business can be got through with; still, if you choose, I will try to get any business for you into the hands of some one having the reputation of a faithful agent.”
Autograph Letter Signed (“A. Lincoln”), as Congressman, 2 pages, recto and verso, quarto, Washington, April 10, 1848. To Jesse Lynch in Magnolia, Illinois.
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