Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Lincoln's Friend and Biographer: Joseph Hartwell Barrett

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

Lincoln's Friend and Biographer: Joseph Hartwell Barrett

Article excerpt

In 1859 Abraham Lincoln was such an unseemly contender for the presidency that a biography of twenty-one prospects published that year did not include him.1 Yet, following his 1860 nomination, more than fifteen Lincoln biographies were feverishly rushed to market-among them was that of Joseph Hartwell Barrett.2 By 1864, however, the fascination with Lincoln's person had largely been drained in the seemingly never-ending Civil War. His policies, actions, and inactions were under attack on a number of fronts; both his re-nomination and re-election were uncertain, and publishers had little of the Lincoln fervor (and expectation of profit) that they had had four years before.

In 1864, only five books advocating Lincoln's re-election came on the market, of which but three are notable. The anonymous campaign biography, Life and Public Services of Abraham Lincoln, likely written by David Brainerd Williamson, appeared on 14 April, well before the 7-8 June nominating convention, and is prized only as the earliest of the 1864 Lincoln campaign works-its contents are unremarkable.3 Henry J. Raymond's History of the Administration of President Lincoln reached the street on or about 11 June, and Barrett's Life of Abraham Lincoln appeared on 18 June. Raymond was the principal proprietor and editor of the Lincoln-friendly New York Times and was also the chairman of the Republican National Committee. Barrett was into his third year as Lincoln-appointed Commissioner of Pensions, and was well established over several years as Lincoln's friend.4

In 1860 both Barrett and John Locke Scripps had used information provided by Lincoln to depict him in their biographies as an elementary Protestant Christian, about which there had been some doubt among Springfieldians. Lincoln had provided Barrett alone the sensitive account of his attendance as a Kentucky youth at Zachariah Riney's Catholic school, a fact that would almost certainly have surfaced during his campaign as a barrier to his election.5 Barrett shrewdly defused the issue. Though Lincoln had reason to be dissatisfied with Scripps's personal performance-though not his biography-he had earlier trusted Barrett, for shortly after his election, he shared with him his considerations about the makeup of his cabinet.

In a meeting on 15 November 1860-even as speculations about his appointments were rampant-Lincoln revealed his thoughts: "It is due to Mr. [William H.] Seward that he should be tendered the office of Secretary of State ... [and] I think Governor [Salmon P.] Chase [of Ohio] would make an excellent Secretary of the Treasury." Barrett adds regarding the comment on Chase, "This expression was given in such a way as to leave no doubt of a serious purpose to make this appointment."6 (The appointment of Chase, however, was to suffer complication through Lincoln's wavering on another selection.) Barrett had been one of the Ohio delegates to the Republican nominating convention of 1860-whose "favorite son" was Chase-and was the Ohio representative on the platform committee.7

At the time, Barrett was the editor of the Cincinnati Gazette, was a member of the Republican machine in a state of great political importance, and was well regarded by Chase. In a private three-page letter to Barrett dated 29 October 1859, he wrote, "Accept my warm thanks for yourself and coadjutors for your compliance with my request and for your more than compliance. And, one good turn deserves another!" It appears that the Gazette had published materials favorable to Chase who, among others, had been blamed for John Brown's actions at Harper's Ferry in mid-October. There, at the federal arsenal, Brown and his followers had taken hostage a number of prominent men of the town, expecting that their slaves would join the fight. None did. The local militia attacked Brown's party, and soldiers led by Robert E. Lee finished what the militia began, killing or capturing most of Brown's men. The few survivors, including Brown, were put on trial. …

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