Recollection of Jesse W. Fell, Conversation with Abraham Lincoln in early 1859

    Source citation
    Statement by Jesse W. Fell, Normal, Illinois, 1882, in Osborn H. Oldroyd, ed., The Lincoln Memorial: Album Immortelles (New York: G. W. Carleton, 1882), 473-476.
    Date Certainty
    Transcription adapted from The Lincoln Memorial: Album Immortelles (1882), edited by Osborn H. Oldroyd
    Adapted by Don Sailer, Dickinson College
    Transcription date
    The following transcript has been adapted from The Lincoln Memorial: Album Immortelles (1882),
    At length, from the frequency of these inquiries and public notices of the Illinois contest [in 1858], an impression began to form, that by judicious efforts [Abraham Lincoln] could be made the Republican candidate for presidency in 1860.Very soon after my return home [to Bloomington, Illinois], and after the senatorial contest had closed, one evening, as I passed on the south side of the public square of this city, I espied the tall form of Mr. Lincoln emerging from the court-house door, Judge Davis's court then being in session. I stopped until he came across the street, when, after the usual salutations, I asked him to go with me into my brother's (K. N. Fell) law-office, then kept over what is now the Home Bank. There we sat down, and in the calm twilight of the evening, had substantially the following conversation :

    FELL. "Lincoln, I have been East, as far as Boston, and up into New Hampshire, traveling in all the New England States, save Maine: in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Indiana; and everywhere I hear you talked about. Very frequently I have been asked: 'Who is this man Lincoln, of your State, now canvassing in opposition to 'Senator Douglas?' Being, as you know, an ardent Republican and your friend, I usually told them we had in Illinois two giants instead of one; that Douglas was the little one, as they all knew, but that you were the big one, which they didn't all know.

    "But, seriously, Lincoln, Judge Douglas being so widely known, you are getting a national reputation through him, as the result of the late discussion; your speeches, in whole or in part, on both sides, have been pretty extensively published in the East ; you are there regarded by discriminating minds as quite a match for him in debate, and the truth is, I have a decided impression that if your popular history and efforts on the slavery question can be sufficiently brought before the people, you can be made a formidable, if not a successful, candidate for the presidency."

    LINCOLN. "Oh, Fell, what's the use of talking of me for the presidency, whilst we have such men as Seward, Chase and others, who are so much better known to the people, and whose names are so intimately associated with the principles of the Republican party. Everybody knows them; nobody, scarcely, outside of Illinois, knows me. Besides, is it not, as a matter of justice, due to such men, who have carried this movement forward to its present status, in spite of fearful opposition, personal abuse, and hard names? I really think so."

    FELL. "There is much truth in what you say. The men you allude to, occupying more prominent positions, have undoubtedly rendered a larger service in the Republican cause than you have; but the truth is, they have rendered too much service to be available candidates. Placing it on the grounds of personal services, or merit, 'if you please, I concede at once the superiority of their claims. Personal services and merit, however, when incompatible with the public good, must be laid aside Seward and Chase have both made long records on the slavery question, and have said some very radical things which, however just and true in themselves, and however much these men may challenge our admiration for their courage and devotion to unpopular truths, would seriously damage them in the contest, if nominated. We must bear in mind, Lincoln, that we are yet in a minority; we are struggling against fearful odds for supremacy. We were defeated on this same issue in 1856, and will be again in 1860, unless we get a great many new votes from what may be called the old conservative parties. These will be repelled by the radical utterances and votes of such men as Seward and Chase. What the Republican party wants, to insure success, in 1860, is a man of popular origin, of acknowledged ability, committed against slavery aggressions, who has no record to defend and no radicalism of an offensive character to repel votes from parties hitherto adverse. Your discussion with Judge Douglas has demonstrated your ability and your devotion to freedom ; you have no embarrassing record ; you have sprung from the humble walks of life, sharing in its toils and trials ; and if we can only get these facts sufficiently before the people, depend upon it, there is some chance for you. And now, Mr. Lincoln, I come to the business part of this interview. My native State, Pennsylvania, will have a large number of votes to cast for somebody on the question we have been discussing. Pennsylvania don't like, over much, New York and her politicians. She has a candidate, Cameron, of her own; but he will not be acceptable to a larger part of her own people, much less abroad, and will be dropped. Through an eminent jurist and essayist of my native county in Pennsylvania, favorably known throughout the State, I want to get up a well-considered, well-written newspaper article telling the people who you are and what you have done, that it may be circulated, not only in that State, but elsewhere, and thus help in manufacturing sentiment in your favor. I know your public life, and can furnish items that your modesty would forbid, but I don't know much about your private history: when you were born, and where, the names and origin of your parents, what you did in early life, what your opportunities for education, etc., and I want you to give me these. Won't you do it?"

    LINCOLN. "Fell, I admit the force of much that you say, and admit that I am ambitious, and would like to be President. I am not insensible to the compliment you pay me, and the interest you manifest in the matter; but there is no such good luck in store for me as the presidency of these United States; besides, there is nothing in my early history that would interest you or anybody else; and, as Judge Davis says, 'It wont pay.' Good night."

    And thus ended, for the time being, my pet scheme of helping to make Lincoln President. I notified him, however, as his giant form, wrapped in a dilapidated shawl, disappeared in the darkness, that this was not the last of it; that the facts must come.
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