The letter that solicited this response from President Lincoln is in the Library of Congress. It is written days before his famed House Divided speech.
June of 1858 was the turning point in Lincoln's life. Until then he was strictly a local character playing on the local stage in Springfield, Ill. He was well known there, having been a lawyer and one of the legislators who succeeded in transferring the state capitol to their home town. For...
June of 1858 was the turning point in Lincoln's life. Until then he was strictly a local character playing on the local stage in Springfield, Ill. He was well known there, having been a lawyer and one of the legislators who succeeded in transferring the state capitol to their home town. For a while he had been an active Whig and served one term in Congress, but returned to Springfield in 1849 determined to give up politics.
The attempt by Stephen A. Douglas to resurrect the question of allowing slavery in the U.S. territories by introduction of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill energized Lincoln, who awoke as from a deep sleep. He was determined to prevent this from happening come what may, and began speaking publicly in opposition. His eloquence and erudition on the issue gathered attention, and by the spring of 1858 he was considered the favorite to receive the Republican Party's nomination for the U.S. Senate seat held by Douglas himself.
At the beginning of June 1858, Lincoln was drafting the speech he intended to make when nominated, and planning the campaign that was to catapult him into fame and history. Yet he also had some last minute legal work to take care of before public matters overshadowed private. One such matter had reached his desk in April. A J. S. Copes wrote him from New Orleans on behalf of some needy orphan children to determine whether they had title to a parcel of land in Sangamon County, which he had heard their recently deceased father, Abram Halsey, owned and may have donated to the American Board for Foreign Missions.
The letter, now preserved in the Library of Congress, indicates that Cope had heard of the kind of man Lincoln was, as he states "I feel that you are just the person to whom they [the orphans] can apply with the best of assurances of having their title fairly examined."; Lincoln must have had the orphans on his mind while finishing up his affairs and writing his speech, as he wrote the following.
Abraham Lincoln Autograph Letter Signed, Springfield, Ill., to Cope on June 2, 1858. "At length I have had an interview with Mr. J. A. Pickrell, the gentleman from whom I expected to get information in relation to the land once owned by Mr. Abram A. Halsey and Mr. E. Lane. Mr. Pickrell is an entirely reliable gentleman, and he tells me he knows all about the matter. He says that legal title to the land was wholly in Lane, though Halsey was the equitable owner of part of it. He says that he personally knows that Lane sold and conveyed Halsey's part, and paid the proceeds to the Amer. Bd. Comrs. for Foreign Missions, and he always understood, and now believes, this was done by Mr. Halsey's direction. If so, and I have no doubt of it, this is the end of the matter." He then adds a P.S. "I make no charge for what I have done."
It is interesting that Lincoln took the time himself to attend to this question, personally going to see Pickrell, while also on his mind at that same time, according to Lincoln Day by Day, was the concern that some Republicans would go for Douglas, and thus doom his own budding candidacy. Just two weeks after writing this letter, Lincoln stood before the Republican state convention, accepted its nomination for the Senate, and delivered one of the most important speeches in American history, the "House Divided" Speech, in which he correctly predicted that the Union could not continue indefinitely half slave and half free.
The ensuing campaign against the Little Giant, with its famed Lincoln-Douglas debates, made his reputation and quickly brought him national attention. Thus June 1858 saw his transformation from a local to a national figure. The concern Lincoln shows here to do right by the orphans is reminiscent of his tender-hearted call for aiding the widows and orphans in his Second Inaugural, and harked back to his own youth. In his Honor¹s Voice, historian Douglas Wilson quotes a Lincoln friend, Jason Duncan, as saying that when first starting the practice of law, Lincoln "never charged his clients any fees." An extraordinarily rare insight into the real Lincoln, the man behind the legend. Obtained by us from the Cope descendents and never before offered for sale.
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