Rare Abraham Lincoln Letter to His Dear Friend Abraham Jonas - He is "Hobbled" by a Troublesome Nephew

October 21, 1856

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Rare Abraham Lincoln Letter to His Dear Friend Abraham Jonas - He is "Hobbled" by a Troublesome Nephew
Autograph Letter Signed
1 page | SMC 350

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      Jews were so few on the Illinois frontier, the story goes, that when Abraham Jonas moved to Quincy, Illinois, in 1838, people came from miles around to see if he had horns.  Whether Lincoln met and befriended him in the course of Jonas’ store-keeping, or lawyering, or through their shared commitment to Whig politics, is unknown, but by 1842, when both were elected to the Illinois Legislature, their friendship was established for life.  This letter speaks for their intimacy - for here Lincoln writes of a business he wanted kept quiet: his wayward, and crippled, step-nephew (the son of his endlessly vexing never-do-well step-brother John D. Johnston) was jailed in Urbana on a charge of theft, and Lincoln was working day and night to get the troublesome teenager freed. Thus in this extremely rare allusion, by way of none-too-kind pun, to an intimate family problem, Lincoln explains why he cannot come to Quincy to speak on behalf of the Republican ticket:

      "I am here at court and find myself so 'hobbled' with a particular case that I can not leave, & consequently, can not be with you on the 23rd, I regret this exceedingly, but there is no help for it - Please make the best apology, for me, in your power - Your friend as ever"

      Generally assumed to be a mere communication about his calendar or, at best, a reference to his law practice, the key to this letter is contained in a single word: “hobbled.” That Lincoln marked the word for special notice by his use of quotes around it, signified a punning reference to “a particular case” which he knew that Jonas – and most likely, Jonas alone - would understand. The "hobbled" remark was, then, a mordant in-joke about a very private vexation, for Lincoln faced, in the form of the wayward progeny of a thoroughly disliked step-brother, an unregenerate and seemingly irredeemable family connection which, as he signaled with this letter to Jonas, hindered him considerably.
      The step-brother, John D. Johnston, was an idler to whom Lincoln had frequently lent money, and yet for whom no amount was enough. Once, much to Lincoln's disgust, Johnston tried to sell the farm Lincoln had bought for his step-mother - and so leave her, Lincoln fumed, with "the enormous sum of sixteen dollars a year." Johnston's crippled son, Thomas, promised to do his father one better, and when helping a drover drive some horses across Illinois, stopped over in Champaign just long enough to steal a solid-gold watch worth fifty dollars. This was not the 19 year-old's first theft, however; he had recently been charged with having stolen a gun in Coles County, too. On September 12, 1856, then, he was thrown into the "common jail", there to stay until his case was heard some six weeks later - and Step-Uncle Abraham had ridden to his rescue. But first, Lincoln had to see the boy. In town on the 17th to attend the Circuit Court by day, and speak for the Republican ticket at night, he managed to slip out of a mass-meeting and slip, secretly, into the jail. Buck up and behave yourself, he told the unhappy youth: he would try to see what he could do when his case came up next month. If he could get the charges dropped, that would be the end of it. After that, if the boy wanted to be a thief, he declared, he wouldn't help him again. Accordingly, when back in Urbana on October 20th, Lincoln scurried for two days between court appearances and speaking engagements to convince the old watch-maker from whom his nephew stole the watch, to drop charges, and then to ensure that the old man appeared in Court, to so swear; doing all of this, while acting in several cases - two, very complicated - and speaking every night. No wonder, then, that he felt "hobbled" by the hobbled boy.
      But in this confession lay an even greater truth: that Lincoln, an intensely private man, had shared this family crisis with "his friend as ever", Jonas - as evidenced here in a coded if punning way.  Yet the image Lincoln created by his use of “hobbled" was not malicious. Though it referenced his young nephew, it was the impact on Lincoln himself that was being described to Jonas.  Anger, sadness, and powerlessness were probably at the heart of what he wrote.  He was watching his nephew - just as he had predicted in a famous 1848 letter to his stepbrother - turn lazy and shiftless, just like his father.  Abraham Jonas was so close to Lincoln, that he could do something highly unusual: confide in him about his family unhappiness.

      Jonas was more than a close friend of his fellow lawyer, however; he was instrumental in advancing Lincoln’s career. In 1854, he actively supported Lincoln’s Senate candidacy, and it was at a meeting in his law offices, in 1858, that Lincoln was first mentioned to Horace Greeley - one of the founders of the Republican party and a political kingmaker - as a possible nominee for the Republican presidential primary. Lincoln, in return, considered Jonas “one of my most valued friends,” and when elected president, appointed him postmaster of Quincy. During the war, it was Jonas’ fate to have sons fighting for both North and South: and when one, Charles, was captured, Lincoln had him paroled for three weeks to attend his father’s deathbed. Even after Jonas’ death in 1864, Lincoln expressed his devotion to his friend: he appointed his widow Quincy’s postmistress.

      Autograph Letter Signed (“A. Lincoln”), 1 page, octavo, Urbana, [Illinois], October 21, 1856. To Abraham Jonas.

      Used with the permission of Shapell legacy partnership.

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      Urbana, Oct. 21. 1856
      A. Jonas, Esq

      My dear Sir:
      I am here at court, and find myself so "hobbled" with a particular case, that I can not leave, & consequently, can not be with you on the 23rd, I regret this exceedingly, but there is no help for it - Please make the best appology [sic], for me, in your power-

      Your friend as ever

      A. Lincoln.

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      Page 2 transcript
      A Lincoln
      Oct 21/56