February/March 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 1
A crucial letter and life portrait finally surface
Just when it seemed we’d heard—and seen—everything there is to know about one of America’s most prolific and portrayed Presidents, two vital, long-lost relics from his past, one verbal and one visual, have unexpectedly surfaced.
For years scholars have known that Lincoln penned some sort of letter in the fall of 1859 to the Ohio orator and Republican senator Thomas Corwin. Two surviving Corwin letters to Lincoln neatly bracket, and indisputably attest to, the missing communication. In the first, Corwin chides Lincoln for allegedly saying in a Cincinnati speech that a moderate Republican presidential candidate would lose Illinois by 50,000 votes in 1860. In the second, written nearly a month later, Corwin notes, “I have red [received] your explanation,” adding: “Six months hence we shall see more clearly what at this time must remain only in conjecture.”
But what had Lincoln written to Corwin in between? All that the Library of Congress’s Abraham Lincoln Papers Web site offered was the notation “The ‘explanation’ referred to has not been located.”
Now it has. About a year ago the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago announced that it had been brought a three-page handwritten “Confidential” note, long quietly treasured by Corwin’s descendants. Undeniably Lincoln’s, it offers some of the strongest language he ever used to defend his party’s opposition to slavery, warning:
“Drop that issue, and they [voters] have no motive to remain, and will not remain, with us. It is idiotic to think otherwise. Do you understand me as saying Illinois must have an extreme antislavery candidate? I do not so mean. We must have, though, a man who recognizes that Slavery issue as being the living issue of the day; who does not hesitate to declare slavery a wrong, nor to deal with it as such; who believes in the power, and duty of Congress to prevent the spread of it.”
One can search high and low in the Lincoln corpus for another use of the word idiotic —or for more electric proof that on the cusp of his nomination to the Presidency he was as strongly committed as ever to keeping slavery at the center of American political discourse until it could be eradicated. Unwilling to focus on safer subjects “upon which the old Whig party was beat out of existence”—“tariff, extravagances, live oak contracts, and the like,” he mocks—Lincoln reiterates that there is only one subject worth discussing: “that Slavery issue.”
After he won the nomination the next year, painters and sculptors descended on his hometown to create depictions of the little-known dark-horse candidate. Lincoln welcomed the artists to his offices in the Springfield statehouse, allowing them to sketch or model him as he opened his daily mail. Most of them had difficulty. Accustomed to sitters who posed in frozen stillness, and frustrated by Lincoln’s requirement that they observe him “on the jump,” several importuned him to sit for local photographers to produce models they could work from at their ease.
The best of the resulting campaign paintings quickly inspired mass-produced engravings and lithographs. The worst were just as quickly forgotten. One, however, by an artist named J. C. Wolfe seemed to vanish altogether despite its reputed excellence.
Now this mystery, too, has been solved. The painting turned up last year in a Chicago suburb, hanging in the home of the descendants of a Springfield landlord in whose building Wolfe likely lodged and worked. Family lore holds that the artist had no money to pay his rent when he left town and handed over the Lincoln picture to satisfy his debts.
The spirited Wolfe portrait, well drafted and in perfect condition, turns out to bear close resemblance to an odd, seldom reproduced Lincoln photograph long attributed by experts to one Joseph Hill of Springfield in that same month of June 1860. The Hill photo was clearly commissioned by Wolfe to serve him as a crutch for capturing Lincoln’s likeness. Eerily, the photo still bears the outlined impression of the oval mat that once framed it, matching almost precisely the oval painting that Wolfe subsequently crafted in oil.
We know little of what happened thereafter to Wolfe, an itinerant who made his living going from city to city and painting prominent citizens. But Corwin, so powerfully rebuked by Lincoln in 1859, emerged that year as what one might describe as a major historical footnote. Both he and Lincoln received invitations, around the same time they exchanged letters, from the Young Men’s Central Republican Union of New York, bidding that they come east to lecture. Corwin promptly accepted and went on to deliver a speech at Brooklyn’s Plymouth Church. Lincoln hesitated, negotiated, postponed, and finally agreed to come too. But by the time he arrived in New York, the church’s lecture series had ended, and he was compelled to give his speech instead at a different venue: Cooper Union. There, on February 27, 1860, he gave the widely reported speech that was perhaps the biggest single factor in making him President.