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Friends and Allies

During his years on the Eighth Circuit, Abraham Lincoln came to trust and depend on several leading citizens of McLean County. These men were members of the Whig Party who believed in government support for economic and industrial growth, especially railroads. They also opposed the expansion of slavery. But when their Whig Party collapsed over the issue of slavery, Lincoln, with support from his Bloomington friends, became the leader of the new Republican Party.

David Davis

Born in Maryland in 1815, Davis headed to Illinois in 1835 and established a law practice in Pekin. 

He moved to Bloomington in 1836 after buying out the practice of Bloomington’s first lawyer, Jesse Fell.

Davis met Lincoln for the first time in 1835, in Vandalia, Illinois, then the state capital. Davis practiced law on the Eighth Circuit and in 1848 became the presiding judge.

Lincoln was a state lawmaker and Davis came to lobby for a railroad for Pekin. Davis was a member of the Whig Party and believed railroads would spur economic growth.

Black and white photograph of Davis, he wears a suit jacket over a silk button up shirt and tie, with gut protruding and a soft gaze.

David Davis.

Black and white photograph of Davis, he wears a suit jacket over a silk button up shirt and tie, with gut protruding and a soft gaze.
Black and white photograph of the Davis home, two stories in size, with a wide front porch and several windows with open shutters. A woman sits on the porch in the window frame and a man stands close by, slightly hidden by a fence in front of the columned porch.

Lincoln often visited Davis and his growing family at their home, “ Clover Lawn.”

Black and white photograph of the Davis home, two stories in size, with a wide front porch and several windows with open shutters. A woman sits on the porch in the window frame and a man stands close by, slightly hidden by a fence in front of the columned porch.

As Davis traveled the Eighth Circuit, he and his fellow attorneys enjoyed a level of intimacy and camaraderie common for the time.

For amusement Davis sometimes held mock trials in which lawyers were accused of breeches of decorum and court tradition. Lincoln was once “tried” for undercharging for his services.

When it came to opposing slavery, Davis held more moderate positions than many of Lincoln's friends.

What a dreadful affair the Harper's Ferry insurrection has been — The papers are full of it. These wild fanatics will be taught a lesson—that is only through the peaceful mode of the ball & box [ballot box] that slavery can be reached.
— David Davis to his son George, in reference to John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia
October 30, 1859
Black and white illustration of attorneys gathered together in the quarters of Judge Davis. One man appears to be talking with a raised hand while the other men sit or stand around him, their attention on him.

Attorneys often gathered together to spend late evenings in the quarters of Judge Davis.

Black and white illustration of attorneys gathered together in the quarters of Judge Davis. One man appears to be talking with a raised hand while the other men sit or stand around him, their attention on him.
Black and white illustration of men in military uniform, seizing a burning building: the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Smoke comes up from the windows and the scene looks chaotic, with some men charging, some men marching, and one man in the center, lying wounded.

In 1859 abolitionist John Brown and a group of men, both Black and white, seized a U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. In this failed attempt to spark a slave insurrection, Brown and his accomplices were captured, tried, convicted, and hung.

Black and white illustration of men in military uniform, seizing a burning building: the U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Smoke comes up from the windows and the scene looks chaotic, with some men charging, some men marching, and one man in the center, lying wounded.

Although Davis and Lincoln sometimes clashed, there was respect and affection between the two men.

After the death of their infant daughter Lucy in August 1850, Davis brought his grief-stricken wife Sarah and son George on the fall “swing” of the circuit. Lincoln took eight-year-old George under his care, giving his parents time to console each other. 

Yet for all his humor and stories, Lincoln remained a mystery to even his closest friends. Judge Davis, for one, called Lincoln, “the most reticent — secretive man I ever saw — or expect to see.”

Black and white illustration of a woman holding a baby, sitting in a rocking chair. The woman’s chin is resting on the neck of the child, who she holds in a tender embrace.

Infant mortality was high in the 1800s. David and Sarah lost five children between 1840 and 1859.

Black and white illustration of a woman holding a baby, sitting in a rocking chair. The woman’s chin is resting on the neck of the child, who she holds in a tender embrace.

Leonard Swett

A New Englander by birth and temperament, Swett headed west in his early twenties, serving in an Indiana regiment during the Mexican War. Sickness ended his fighting days, and he began a law practice in Bloomington.

According to one story, Swett first encountered Davis and Lincoln at a Danville hotel after being directed to their room.

Imagine my surprise when the door opened to find two men...engaged in a lively battle of pillows, tossing them at each other’s heads.
— Swett recollection, circa 1887-1889
Black and white photograph of a young man in a suit. He has thick hair and a full beard, his eyes look directly into the camera.

Leonard Swett.

Black and white photograph of a young man in a suit. He has thick hair and a full beard, his eyes look directly into the camera.

Swett and Lincoln appeared together in more than 90 cases of record, sometimes working together but just as often in opposition. With the coming of the railroads, many attorneys returned home for the weekend. Both Swett and Lincoln stayed. They used the extra time to prepare casework and enjoy each other's company.

It seems to me I have tried a thousand lawsuits with or against him and I have known him as intimately as I have ever known any man in my life.
— Swett on Lincoln, May 27, 1860
Black and white photo of a newspaper advertisement, reading M’Williams and Sweet, attorneys and counsellors at Law. Will practice in McLean and the adjoining counties. Office over Miller’s bookstore, Bloomington, IL. December 1, 1852.

Like most lawyers, Swett and his partner Amzi McWilliams advertised their services in Eighth Circuit newspapers.

Credit: Bloomington Intelligencer, December 1, 1852
Black and white photo of a newspaper advertisement, reading M’Williams and Sweet, attorneys and counsellors at Law. Will practice in McLean and the adjoining counties. Office over Miller’s bookstore, Bloomington, IL. December 1, 1852.

A first-rate orator and debater, Swett’s skills made him a formidable ally. Like Lincoln, he opposed slavery and fought its expansion westward.

Swett was a tireless supporter of Lincoln’s political career, beginning with Lincoln’s failed 1854 bid for a U.S. Senate seat. “Use me in any way,” Swett instructed Lincoln during that campaign.

In 1856 and again in 1858, Swett campaigned alongside Lincoln in various Central Illinois communities in support of Republican candidates.

Leonard Swett of McLean [County] is decidedly the leader of the Republican forces. He is undoubtedly one of the fairest and most honorable gentleman on his side.
— St. Louis Daily Missouri Republican, 1859
Black and white photo of two newspaper clippings. The first, from the Bloomington Intelligencer, reads Whig meeting called! And gives details on Swett’s Wednesday evening court house address to the citizens of Bloomington. The second, from the Bloomington Pantagraph is a Sweet campaign notice for Congress, third congressional district.

Left: Bloomington Intelligencer, October 13, 1852

Right: Swett campaign notice, Bloomington Pantagraph, June 18, 1856

Black and white photo of two newspaper clippings. The first, from the Bloomington Intelligencer, reads Whig meeting called! And gives details on Swett’s Wednesday evening court house address to the citizens of Bloomington. The second, from the Bloomington Pantagraph is a Sweet campaign notice for Congress, third congressional district.

Asahel Gridley

Born in upstate New York in 1810, Gridley settled in Bloomington in October 1831, three months after its establishment as the county seat.

It is not known when Gridley and Lincoln first crossed paths, but by the early 1840s Gridley was a successful attorney on the Eighth Circuit. In McLean County, he appeared alongside or against Lincoln in more cases than any other Bloomington attorney.

On December 5, 1840, Gridley and Lincoln were part of a trio of Whig Party state representatives who jumped out a window to prevent an unfavorable vote. Their ploy failed.

As a state senator, Gridley played a chief role in ensuring the Illinois Central Railroad passed through Bloomington. He then became a land agent for the railroad, becoming a wealthy “speculator-politician.”

In 1853 the Illinois legislature passed a series of punitive Black Laws that denied African Americans basic civil and political rights. Gridley opposed the measures, arguing Bloomington’s Black residents were industrious and moral citizens.

The law proposed...was harsh, cruel, and unnecessary...Disguise it as you may, it would give power to make Illinois a slave state.
— Gridley on the 1853 Black Laws,
Bloomington Intelligencer, March 9, 1853
Black and white photo of an older man, with suit and tie and white collar. He looks away from the camera with a downturned smile.

Asahel Gridley

Black and white photo of an older man, with suit and tie and white collar. He looks away from the camera with a downturned smile.
Black and white newspaper clippings from the Blooming Western Whig announcing campaigns. The first reads, For Senatorm Asahel Gridley, for representative, C.H. Moore, for Sheriff, Thomas Fell, for coroner, John B. Thrasher. The second clipping reads, “We feel, as does every WHIG in the district, a keen solicitude for the election of Gen. Gridley. His eloquence, and his political information—his industry and intimate knowledge of the several interests of the district, point him out as the most efficient man in the Whig party of the district for the office to which he aspires.”

Bloomington Western Whig, October 5 and October 26, 1850

Black and white newspaper clippings from the Blooming Western Whig announcing campaigns. The first reads, For Senatorm Asahel Gridley, for representative, C.H. Moore, for Sheriff, Thomas Fell, for coroner, John B. Thrasher. The second clipping reads, “We feel, as does every WHIG in the district, a keen solicitude for the election of Gen. Gridley. His eloquence, and his political information—his industry and intimate knowledge of the several interests of the district, point him out as the most efficient man in the Whig party of the district for the office to which he aspires.”
Black and white newspaper clipping from the Bloomington Weekly Pantagraph titled ‘Illinois Central R.R. Co.’s Lands for Sale! The ad lists 200,000 acres for sale and invites persons to Gridley’s office to examine the land and come to terms of agreement for purchasing.

Bloomington Weekly Pantagraph, March 25, 1857

Black and white newspaper clipping from the Bloomington Weekly Pantagraph titled ‘Illinois Central R.R. Co.’s Lands for Sale! The ad lists 200,000 acres for sale and invites persons to Gridley’s office to examine the land and come to terms of agreement for purchasing.

In a letter written from the White House when he was president, Lincoln referred to Gridley as—"my intimate political and personal friend."

Jesse Fell

Born into a Quaker family in 1808 in Chester County, Pennsylvania, Fell arrived in Bloomington in 1833.

Fell was the first lawyer in the new county seat of Bloomington, though he left the law in favor of land speculation and town development. 

When Lincoln began to travel to Bloomington as a lawyer on the Eighth Circuit, he and Fell became political allies and friends.

In the years before the Civil War, Fell — unlike Lincoln and Davis — supported the goals of the abolition movement and the ideals of racial equality.

When Fell led efforts to locate the state’s first public university (now Illinois State University) in Normal, he hired Lincoln to handle the legal work.

Fell founded the Town of Normal in 1865.

In 1857, Fell became the corresponding secretary for the newly formed Illinois Republican Party. He traveled the state making connections that would serve Lincoln well during the 1858 and 1860 campaigns.

In the lead-up to the 1858 U.S. Senate race, Fell introduced this and other resolutions backing Lincoln at a convention of McLean County Republicans.

Republicans of Illinois, as with the voice of one man, are unalterably so resolved; to the end, that we may have a big man, with a big mind, and a big heart, to represent our big state.
— Resolution of support for Lincoln,
Bloomington Pantagraph, June 7, 1858
Black and white photograph of an older man, Jesse Fell, wearing a simple suit. He has a nice gaze, looking off into the distance, and a slight upward turn to his mouth

Jesse Fell

Black and white photograph of an older man, Jesse Fell, wearing a simple suit. He has a nice gaze, looking off into the distance, and a slight upward turn to his mouth
Black and white photograph of Normal. Trees are closest in the frame, separating the house from the other houses in the town. In the upper left corner is a bigger building with a bell tower.

This earliest known view of the Town of Normal, dates to the early 1860s. Note the Illinois State Normal University administration and classroom building in the upper left corner. This view was likely taken from the cupola of Fell’s home.

Black and white photograph of Normal. Trees are closest in the frame, separating the house from the other houses in the town. In the upper left corner is a bigger building with a bell tower.
Black and white photograph of the Fell home, two stories with a cupola. The house appears to be white, fenced in and surrounded by trees.

Lincoln was often a guest in Fell’s home, located on a 150-acre estate named “Greenwood Park,” in the town Fell founded — Normal.

Black and white photograph of the Fell home, two stories with a cupola. The house appears to be white, fenced in and surrounded by trees.
Black and white photograph of a newspaper clipping informing readers of the opening of Illinois State Normal University’s new Model School in 1958. The article announces a primary, intermediate and high school class, with weekly tuition at 70 cents. It also announces Mr. G Thather as principal of the advance classes, as well as the limited availability and preference for admission given to first applicants.

Illinois State Normal University’s new Model School opened in 1858.

Black and white photograph of a newspaper clipping informing readers of the opening of Illinois State Normal University’s new Model School in 1958. The article announces a primary, intermediate and high school class, with weekly tuition at 70 cents. It also announces Mr. G Thather as principal of the advance classes, as well as the limited availability and preference for admission given to first applicants.

Normal 100th Anniversary Token

In 1965 this token was created to honor Fell and to celebrate Normal’s 100th anniversary.

Circa 1965


Donated by: Richard Middleton
868.618

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