Swett, Leonard

Leonard Swett set aside his own ambitions to become a trusted advisor to his old friend and law colleague, Abraham Lincoln. Swett was born on a farm near Turner, Maine but made his way west to seek his fortune. In Indiana he enlisted as a private in the war with Mexico but spent much of the conflict deathly ill in a military hospital at Matamoras. Discharged in St Louis, he settled in Bloomington, Illinois and began a career as a lawyer on the Illinois circuit. There he met Abraham Lincoln and his colleague David Davis who adopted and mentored the younger and still sickly former soldier. Tall and rangy like Lincoln and with considerable skills in the courtroom, Swett became an effective trial lawyer, particularly with murder cases where he had a remarkable record. He was less successful in his political career and only served one term in an official post, as a state senator in 1858. Unselfish and generous to a fault, he instead became an invaluable strategist and advisor to Lincoln, especially during the crucial period between 1856 and 1860 in Illinois and again in Washington during the crisis days before the 1864 election. Following the tragedy of 1865, Swett built a lucrative law practice in Chicago and devoted himself to his invalid wife and their son. In one final service to his friend, he represented Robert Lincoln with sensitivity and dispatch during Mary Todd Lincoln’s insanity hearing in 1875. He died in Chicago in June 1889. (By John Osborne)
Life Span
    Full name
    Leonard Swett
    Place of Birth
    Birth Date Certainty
    Death Date Certainty
    Sectional choice
    Free State
    Other Education
    Waterville College (ME)
    Attorney or Judge
    Relation to Slavery
    White non-slaveholder
    Church or Religious Denomination
    Political Parties
    Liberal Republican
    State legislature
    US military (Pre-Civil War)
    Slaveholding in 1860
    Household Size in 1860
    Children in 1860
    Occupation in 1860
    Political Party in 1860
    Residence in 1860
    Wealth in 1860
    Marital status in 1860

    Leonard Swett (Appleton's)

    SWETT, Leonard, lawyer, b. near Turner, Me. 11 Aug., 1825. He was educated at North Yarmouth academy and at Waterville (now Colby university), but was not graduated. He read law in Portland, enlisted as a soldier in the Mexican war and at its close in 1848 settled in Bloomington, Ill. He travelled the circuit in fourteen counties, and was an intimate friend of Abraham Lincoln and David Davis. In 1865 he removed to Chicago. In 1852-'61 he took an active part in politics, canvassing the slate several times, and in 1858, at the special request of Mr. Lincoln, was a candidate for the legislature on the Republican ticket, and was elected by a large majority. This is the only official place he has ever held. When Mr. Lincoln became president Mr. Swett was employed in the trial of government cases, one of the most noted of which was that for the acquisition of the California quicksilver-mines in 1863. In the course of his practice Mr. Swett has defended twenty men indicted for murder, securing the acquittal of nineteen, and a light punishment for the other one. He has also been retained in criminal cases in nearly every part of the country, though his professional work has been mainly devoted to civil suits. His success is attributed to his careful personal attention to details and his eloquence as an advocate. He has rendered much gratuitous service to workingrnen, servants, and other poor clients. He delivered the oration at the unveiling of the statue of Abraham Lincoln in Chicago, Ill., 22 Oct., 1887, and at the Chicago Republican convention in June, 1888, in an eloquent speech, proposed Walter Q. Gresham, of Illinois, as a candidate for the presidency.
    James Grant Wilson and John Fiske, eds., “Swett, Leonard,” Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1889), 6: 9.

    Leonard Swett (Eckley, 1999)

    Political association also started early in their friendship. Swett volunteered to assist Lincoln in both of his U.S. Senate campaigns. In 1854, he wrote Lincoln to “use me in any way…” as preparations for the contest in the legislature began to take shape. He then made an extended swing through northern Illinois to sound out support for Lincoln. Similarly, in 1858 Swett spoke extensively for Lincoln’s candidacy and ran for and was elected to the legislature in order to support Lincoln there. Early in the canvass, both Lincoln and Swett spoke at the McLean County Republican Convention on September 3, which nominated Swett, and the following day Swett introduced Lincoln for one of his major speeches in the Lincoln-Douglas campaign. Little more than a year later, Swett was one of those who met with Lincoln in the last week of January 1860 and helped make the fateful decision that Lincoln should seek the Republican nomination for the Presidency.
    Eckley, Robert S., “Lincoln’s Intimate Friend: Leonard Swett,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 92, no. 3 (Autumn 1999): 278.

    Leonard Swett (Chicago Tribune)


    At Bloomington he became a close friend of Judge David Davis. In his travels through the Eighth Judicial District in the years between 1850 and 1860 he met Lincoln, often practiced in the same courts with him, and they became the warmest of personal friends. The admiration of each man for the other was genuine and strong.

    Judge Davis and Mr. Swett both appreciated Lincoln. They saw that he was the man the Nation needed, and it was largely their efforts which led to Lincoln’s nomination. Mr. Swett was a prime mover in this and was a controlling influence in planning and executing that remarkable campaign which resulted in his nomination and election.

    The political prominence which his successful championship of Lincoln brought led to his being the most prominent candidate for Governor of Illinois. He was defeated in the convention by the supporters of all the other candidates, who united on “Dick” Yates. After Lincoln’s election Mr. Swett went to Washington to urge the appointment of Judge Davis to the Supreme Bench. Judge Davis had but a local reputation. He was opposed by O. H. Browning, a man of National repute who had already made his mark in the United States Senate. Lincoln heard Mr. Swett’s plan and said: “But what will I do with you?”

    “I’ll give you a receipt in full,” said Mr. Swett, “but if anything ever does come around to me give me something that will pay.”

    “Leonard Swett Is Dead,” Chicago (IL) Tribune, June 9, 1889, p. 9: 3-4.

    Leonard Swett, Lawyer (Chicago Tribune)



    As a young man it was said that Mr. Swett greatly resembled Abraham Lincoln in personal appearance. He was tall, angular, and dark, with prominent features strikingly like his great friend’s. The coincidence in physical similitude extended in a considerable degree to the mental characteristics of the two men. He possessed the same class of humor and often employed the same quaint, epigrammatic methods of expressions peculiar to Mr. Lincoln.

    As a lawyer Mr. Swett stood in the front rank in the Northwest. His special excellence lay in the direction of the trial of cases and possibly in the handling of criminal cases. As a speaker he had few or no superiors at the bar. He required scarcely any preparation, and he was always ready with imagination, humor, and pathos in abundance. He possessed the subtle power to touch effectively men’s emotional natures.

    His first murder case was that of a young man at Shawneetown. The boy had shot down the clerk of the court because the clerk had posted some scurrilous matter about his father. Lincoln had first been engaged to defend the boy, but he had said that Swett was the man to defend that case, and he had come. Among the young lawyers who crowded the courtroom to hear the defense were John A. Logan and Robert Ingersoll. Mr. Swett put in the defense of temporary insanity. It was the first time that defense had been urged in this country, and it was successful.

    “Leonard Swett Is Dead,” Chicago (IL) Tribune, June 9, 1889, p. 9: 3-4.
    How to Cite This Page: "Swett, Leonard," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College, https://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/23997.