“A Most Abandoned Hypocrite”

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As soon as he moved to Illinois in 1830, Abraham Lincoln found himself on the opposite side of the political fence from Peter Cartwright, a well-known Methodist preacher and politician. They crossed paths in the Illinois legislature, but their best-known confrontation was as opponents in the 1846 congressional election, which Lincoln won handily. Late in that campaign Lincoln found himself having to combat a rumor that he was an “infidel,” or unbeliever, a charge uncomfortably close to the truth. If Cartwright had anything to do with that rumor, he may have regarded Lincoln’s discomfort as the evening of an old score, for what follows is the story of a stinging satirical attack on Cartwright, written a dozen years earlier, but hitherto unknown in Lincoln biography.

When William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s old law partner, was gathering information for his biography of the President, he collected two accounts of how Lincoln had once pilloried Cartwright in print. Caleb Carman, one of Lincoln’s New Salem friends, wrote to Herndon, “Lincoln once rote an Artical against Peter Cartwrgh which was a good one the name Sined to it was Diotrefus you may Bet it used the old man very Ruff it was a hard one it was Published in the Beardstown Cronicle by Francis Earns Simeon Francis would not publish in the Sangamon Journal.”

John McNamar, another former New Salem resident, wrote: “Mr Lincoln wrote a first rate Notice of the Revd Peter Cartwright, before he left here … the article alluding to Mr Cartwright obtained a good deal of notoriety from the fact that Mr Hill [New Salem’s most successful merchant] rather inocently I should think, signed the article with his own name and published it and consequently Received the Skinning that old Peter administered in a public speech at Salem shortly after, I think Lincoln must have enjoyed the joke rather Hugely, I think you can find the article in the Journal somewhere from 33 to 36.”

There are notable differences in these two stories—about the newspaper involved and about the name signed to the article—but they do agree that Lincoln pseudonymously wrote a satiric newspaper piece at Cartwright’s expense. And although Herndon was unable to locate it, such an article does exist. If we assume it is indeed by Lincoln, it is the earliest surviving political satire from his hand.

It is clear from Herndon’s notes for his biography that he ransacked Simeon Francis’s Springfield newspaper, Sangamo Journal , for material relating to Lincoln, and he presumably would have found the piece had it been there. But it actually appeared, as Carman indicated, in an obscure Beardstown paper published from 1833 to 1835, the Beardstown Chronicle and Illinois Military Bounty Land Advertiser , on November 1, 1834. And as McNamar stated, it bore the signature of Samuel Hill.

Testimony about the distant past is often dubious with respect to details, even if the central facts are faithfully recalled, and precise accuracy may often be a matter of circumstance. Caleb Carman remembered why the article hadn’t appeared in the Journal and thus was right about the newspaper though wrong about the signature; McNamar, while wrong about the newspaper, correctly remembered the signature, because it earned his former business partner a public “skinning.” Better complementary, cross-correcting testimony is hard to imagine.

Twenty-five years old, Lincoln had been living at New Salem for three years and was probably working at Samuel Hill’s store when the attack on Peter Cartwright was written. He had been, among other things, a surveyor, a volunteer in the Black Hawk War, a partner in an unsuccessful store, and the local postmaster, and he had just been elected to his first term in the Illinois General Assembly.

Peter Cartwright had just completed a term in the state legislature, and though he hadn’t run for re-election, he remained a formidable Jacksonian political protagonist. But his chief claim to fame was his standing as the foremost Methodist circuit rider in pioneer Illinois. In a fearless frontier ministry, preaching the Gospel to a far-flung constituency unreached and unreachable by conventional college-trained ministers, Cartwright was already a legend. His biographer, Robert Bray, writes, “Throughout his career Cartwright either could not or would not clearly distinguish church from state, religion from civic life, preaching from politicking—especially when he was concurrently doing both himself.” This trait exasperated his political opponents, especially when he boasted of the support of a loyal Methodist political “militia.”