Lincoln's Intimate Friend: Leonard Swett

By Eckley, Robert S. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Autumn 1999 | Go to article overview

Lincoln's Intimate Friend: Leonard Swett


Eckley, Robert S., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


When the journalist and aspiring Lincoln biographer, Josiah Holland, asked David Davis, the administrator of Lincoln's estate, less than three months after the assassination, who should be contacted for information, Davis wrote back: "Mssrs. Herndon and Swett were his intimate personal and political friends and can... give you more detailed information concerning the past fifteen years of his life than perhaps any other parties."1 Holland spent a couple of days in Springfield talking with Herndon, but there is no indication that he ever reached Swett. Years later, when Herndon published his own famous life of Lincoln, he chose to quote at length "two devoted and trusted friends,"3 Joshua Speed and Leonard Swett.22 Shortly after, Henry Clay Whitney published his Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, and wrote that "the great triumvirate," of the circuit, "consisted of Davis, Lincoln and Swett: and their social consequence was in the order named. "I What happened to Leonard Swett?

Swett was often mentioned in the reminiscence literature on Lincoln until around 1900, and less and less frequently thereafter. No full-scale biography of him has been written. Harry Pratt, onetime head of the Abraham Lincoln Association and later Illinois State Historian, wrote two articles on Swett, one on his loss to John Todd Stuart in their 1862 Congressional race and the second, a collection of letters home to a sister in Maine during his early years on the Eighth judicial Circuit.' Had it not been for Pratt's untimely death, he might have been Swett's biographer, just as he was the first biographer of David Davis.5 Three scholarly articles were written about the New Almaden quicksilver mine debacle in California - one by a historian and Lincoln scholar, the second by an economic historian, and the third by a legal practitioner and scholar - all, disparaging the role played by Swett.6 Other than these, there are only fragments on Swett, except for King's biography of David Davis, where he is dealt with as a collateral figure.7

This paper does not argue that Swett was an important historic figure; it does assert that he flirted with greatness on more than one occasion. His closeness to Lincoln and his role in Lincoln's two senatorial campaigns, the presidential nominations, election campaigns, cabinet formation, and presidency clearly make him of interest. His recurrent if sporadic political activities from 1852 to 1888 constitute a second focal point. Third, the forty-year legal career attracts attention in its own right, including a quarter century of leadership in the Chicago bar during its formative years, where he moved immediately following Lincoln's assassination. Only the first of these three segments of separate yet related activities will be covered here.

Swett was born in 1825 and grew up on a Maine farm - ten years younger than Davis and sixteen years Lincoln's junior. Early on it was decided that his older brother should inherit the family farm, and Leonard should receive a college education. After three years at what is now Colby College, he read law for two years in a Portland firm and then set out to sell books in the lower 28 states that existed in 1847. He did not sell many. Somehow, he took passage on a sailing vessel in Philadelphia bound for New Orleans, and after a few weeks there, he worked his way up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to Madison, Indiana. There he chose the seemingly better alternative of joining the 5th Indiana volunteer infantry, which, with amazing speed for the time, joined General Winfield Scott's forces on the line from Veracruz to Mexico City in the waning days of the Mexican War.8

In Mexico, Swett soon contracted a malaria-like fever and spent several weeks in a makeshift hospital in the Veracruz cathedral. He was shipped back to New Orleans with other sick soldiers, a third of whom died en route. Swett was mustered out at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis - elapsed time in the army, four months! …

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