BLOOMINGTON — With today being Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (happy 203rd Abe!), it’s natural that our attention turns to the Civil War, especially since we’re in the midst of the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) commemoration of the nation’s greatest — and bloodiest — moral and constitutional struggle in its history.
During Lincoln’s four-plus years in the White House, one of his frequent visitors was Bloomington lawyer Leonard Swett. A New Englander by birth, Swett settled here in 1848 at the age of 23. He gained admittance to the bar, appearing before Eighth Judicial Circuit Judge David Davis of Bloomington and becoming friends with Lincoln as they traveled from one county seat to another, spending weeks at a time on the road, and (as Swett once noted) “trying suits together, or more frequently, opposed to each other.” Colleague Henry Clay Whitney of Urbana called Lincoln, Davis and Swett the circuit’s “great triumvirate.”
Swett played a not-insignificant role helping organize and guide the early Illinois Republican Party, established in Bloomington in 1856 on the premise of halting the spread of slavery into western territories. He served one term in the state Legislature, nearly garnered his party’s gubernatorial nomination in 1860, lost a congressional race two years later and in 1865 moved to Chicago, where he would pass away in 1889 at the age of 63.
Back in 1860, Swett and Davis provided key assistance in securing Lincoln’s presidential nomination, and after he won the general election, the two acted as surrogates in the thorny politicking involved in forming a Cabinet.
In the 60 months between inauguration and assassination, Swett spent about half that time either visiting Lincoln or on some special assignment for him. In the fall of 1861, for instance, Swett headed to Missouri to deliver the controversial order sacking Gen. John C. Fremont. Lincoln also dispatched the Bloomingtonian to California in the summer of 1863, where he served (poorly, it turned out) as the White House’s point man in the hot potato issue over ownership of a California quicksilver mine.
Swett, like most of his fellow Eighth Circuit legal eagles, promoted Davis for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. In a private meeting with Lincoln, he proposed a novel arrangement whereby Davis’ nomination also would cover any perceived patronage obligations owed him — “that this appointment, if made, should kill ‘two birds with one stone,’” Swett later recalled, “that I would accept it as one-half for me and one-half for the Judge.”
Lincoln relented, and by the fall of 1862 Davis had his seat on the nation’s highest court.
On Nov. 19, 1863, Swett and his young son Herbert attended the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa., and thus were there for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. One month later, Swett, Lincoln and the two White House secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, spent the evening at Ford’s Theatre to see Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” (though Lincoln didn’t much care for James H. Hackett’s interpretation of Falstaff).
Once, during one of his many calls to the White House, Swett caught Lincoln in a state of rare impolite agitation as he reviewed court-martial cases for men scheduled to be shot the next day. “Get out of the way, Swett,” Lincoln said, “tomorrow is butcher day, and I must go through these papers and see if I cannot find some excuse to let these poor fellows off.”
In 1907, former Bloomington resident S.B. Hance, then living in Montana, reminisced about a spring 1864 trip to Washington, D.C., accompanied by his “old friend” Swett. Hance was there to seek the appointment as consul to Kingston, Canada.
“Well, Hance, you know there are about a thousand applicants for this position,” Lincoln supposedly said. “I will, however, approve of you, ‘unbeknown to myself,’ as the temperate Irishman said when he put some brandy into his lemonade.”
Lincoln, Davis once said, used humor to “whistle off sadness.” Swett’s prescient, unsentimental examination of Lincoln’s character and intellect, devoid as it was of mythologizing, also touched on the president’s inner sadness, apparent to his friends long before the unprecedented bloodshed of the Civil War and the burdens of the nation’s highest office.
“I would like to have you write me what the skeleton was with Lincoln,” Swett wrote in 1866 to William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s last law partner. “What gave him that peculiar melancholy? What cancer (i.e. depression) had he inside? … I always thought there was something but never knew what.”