Lincoln’s First Battle

By: Avram Fechter

Logrolling is traditionally defined as a legislator agreeing to vote for something he/she probably would not vote for in return for receiving something special for his/her district that he/she would not otherwise receive. For better or worse, logrolling has made the machinery of legislatures move for hundreds of years and was in the tactical tool belt of some of the most effective and popular American politicians throughout history.

A little known, but illustrative, example of the use of the tactic dates to when Abraham Lincoln was a young member (he was 26) of the Illinois House of Representatives. The early/mid 1830s witnessed the formation of our modern two party system of government. President Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party championed a small government role in the economy and an expansion of participatory democracy. Jacksonian Democrats expanded the franchise to white males regardless of their property holdings and rewarded their political supporters with government jobs (the most common conduits were via the post office and customs bureaus). The Whig Party formed in opposition to Jackson’s policies and advocated for an expanded government role in promoting infrastructure projects and encouraging the banking/manufacturing industries. The 1832 and 1836 elections were bitterly partisan and battle lines were stark up and down the ballot. State and local elections quickly became proxies for the partisan fights at the national level.

Lincoln “came of political age” as the two-party system was becoming solidified and entrenched. He idolized the Whig leader Henry Clay and was a supporter of the Whig Party’s efforts to finance canal and railroad projects. The sitting Governor and the vast-majority of Democrats opposed any effort to launch a massive internal improvement program. Despite this opposition, Lincoln would help engineer the passage of the largest state internal improvement program in the nation’s history while at the same time assuring the movement of the state capital from Vandalia in heavily Democratic Fayette County[1] to Springfield in Whig Sangamon County[2] instead of Jacksonville in Democratic Morgan County[3]. This is the story of how he did it.

Lincoln’s Political Baptism

The embryonic formation of political parties in Illinois spawned a number of weekly newspapers all around the state. Newspapers before the Civil War had a distinctly political slant. Editors did not pretend to be unbiased in their reporting. The newspapers that were formed in Illinois reflected the two political parties in the state. The newspapers in the northern and central portions of the state were either halfhearted supporters of President Jackson or entirely against the Administration. In the south, the Administration found its strongest support. The Vandalia Free Press, located in the seat of government, was founded in 1831 and would be the party organ for the Democratic Party in Illinois for over thirty years. In the same year the Sangamon Journal was founded in Springfield and was a vocal critic of the Administration. Both papers were weeklies. Both papers focused heavily on national politics, printing entire speeches and debates from the floor of Congress in their columns. State politics was always reported after national politics.

Into this swirling maelstrom Abraham Lincoln of New Salem, in the county of Sangamon, announced his second candidacy for the state legislature. He had run for office before, announcing his candidacy in a handbill that was distributed to the citizens of Sangamon County on March 9, 1832. The handbill endorsed the building of a canal on the Sangamon River instead of a railroad from the Illinois River to Springfield, citing the high cost of a railroad as a reason for his preference. Lincoln ran eighth out of thirteen candidates; however, Lincoln was away for most of the political campaign fighting the Black Hawk War. He did manage to poll 277 out of 300 votes in his hometown of New Salem. In November of the same year, Lincoln watched New Salem vote 185–70 for President Jackson’s reelection.

He learned a couple of lessons from his first campaign. The first: his platform had earned few votes by itself. He got votes where people knew him. The second: Jackson was a popular figure and it would be a mistake to buck him. In April 19, 1834 Lincoln announced his candidacy in the Sangamon Journal, but did not lay out a platform. Instead he embarked on a door-to-door campaign, using his popular personality and already finely honed storytelling ability to build his base, one voter at a time. By not issuing a statement of his positions Lincoln was able to gain the support of all three of the factions in the gubernatorial campaign. Lincoln was a closet Whig and secretly helped John T. Stuart, one of the leading Whigs in the state, win against a concerted Democratic attack against his reelection. Lincoln coasted to victory with 1,376 votes, second out of four state representatives elected. Sangamon County elected two other Whigs, Lincoln, and a “milk and cider” Democrat. Sangamon County was rapidly moving into the Whig camp. Lincoln demonstrated his Whig leanings by voting for Rep. Duncan (a moderate Democrat) in the gubernatorial campaign.

Rep. Duncan won the election. In an important indicator of where Illinois politics was heading, Duncan carried the entire part of the state northeast of the mouth of the Illinois River. Sangamon County and a couple of others returned pluralities for Duncan. The southern part of the state returned majorities for Kinney (a mainline Democrat). The Whigs of Illinois, for the most part, voted for Duncan instead of Adams (the official Whig candidate), hoping to deny Kinney the victory. Duncan won based upon the combined strength of the “milk and cider” Democrats and the Whigs. In the same year a referendum was held as to where the state capital should permanently locate. Alton garnered 8,157 votes, the current state capital Vandalia received 7,730, Springfield (county seat of Sangamon County) received 7,035, Geographical Center received 790, Peoria received 423, and Jacksonville received 273. By law the seat of government should have been transferred to Alton. However, Alton did not garner a majority of the popular vote and certainly could not muster the majority support of the legislature. The issue lay dormant for the totality of the Ninth Session of the Illinois House of Representatives (Lincoln’s first as a legislator).

Stuart rewarded Lincoln for his assistance in the election, taking Lincoln under his wing, bringing him on as a junior partner in Stuart’s law practice. When the legislature met in Vandalia Stuart was elected leader of the Whig Party in the House. Stuart made Lincoln his right-hand in the House as well. Overnight Lincoln had assumed a leadership role in the fledgling Illinois Whig Party. Less than two years after jumping into politics, Lincoln was one of the few men who were literally building the Whig Party in Illinois from almost scratch. He was, to quote former Secretary of State Dean Acheson about a different situation, “present at the creation”.

The Whigs in the Ninth House were outnumbered 34–21. However, the Democratic Party in Illinois was still in its infancy. The Democratic Caucus spent most of its time feuding within itself instead of dueling with the Whigs. The Whigs were able to divide the Democrats and win vote after vote. Stuart installed Lincoln as the party whip. It was his job to ensure that every Whig was on the floor for every vote, and ensure that they voted the party line. If it looked like too many Whigs were going to defect, it was the job of the whip to alert the floor leader so that the floor leader could avoid an embarrassing defeat in a floor vote. In order to do this the whip must know where every member is at every moment during the session. The whip should know the mind of his/her caucus at all times. It was a dream role for an up and coming politician. Stuart and Lincoln would need 9 or 10 Democrats to cross the aisle (33% of the Democratic caucus) to win any floor vote (assuming all Whigs were present). Lincoln was being dealt a tough hand to play in his freshman year as a legislator.

Lincoln spent most of the first session of the legislature learning the ropes and passing relatively minor pieces of legislature that were important to his constituents. The second session of the legislature saw Lincoln back at his post as Whip. The Governor called for legislative redistricting in response to the 1835 census, state support for Illinois and Michigan Canal bonds, continued support for the state bank, and a halt to all other state support for internal improvement projects. The Governor praised President Jackson while denouncing Jackson’s chosen successor Martin Van Buren and his style of patronage politics. Duncan was maintaining his middle of the road political position. Democrats were opponents of banks while tepid supporters of internal improvement schemes. Whigs were enthusiastic supporters of banks and state involvement in the building of internal improvements. Jackson was universally popular while Van Buren was denounced by many even in the Democratic Party. Many Democrats were on the verge of bolting the party if Van Buren came to power.

Political life was changing rapidly. On the same day that the legislature met the Democratic Party held its first state convention. In December, one year before the election, the Illinois Democratic Party endorsed the nomination of Vice-President Van Buren. Any Democrat present at the convention who failed to do so would lose their job in state/federal government. Party discipline was seeping into the Democratic Party during elections.

Meanwhile — the Democratic Party in the legislature still had not discovered the unifying effect of strict party discipline. The Whigs, with Lincoln as whip, still were able to use their superior unity to win close floor fights. A battle over the floating of state bonds to pay for the Illinois and Michigan Canal illustrates this point. On December 15, 1836 the bill came to the floor for its second reading. The first vote on the bill to approve its second reading failed 25–29. A Whig member was absent, en route from his home district. Stuart noticed the members’ absence. Without the Whig member the vote would have failed, 27–27. Stuart had two Democrats from Lawrence County, a county in the path of the Canal, to vote against the second reading. The next day, the missing Whig arrived. The two Democrats from Lawrence County moved to reconsider the previous day’s vote. The Democrats were caught by surprise. The bill was approved for its second reading 28–25.

By December 21 more Democrats had arrived at the session and the bill was rejected for its third reading and final passage by a vote of 26–28. The Governor, Stuart and Lincoln met with the Speaker of the House over that weekend. Some sort of deal was struck. On the 25th the Whigs moved a number of amendments that they had previously rejected. They passed easily. Then they moved to reconsider the vote on final passage. The Speaker switched his vote and the Whigs made sure every member of their caucus was present. The bill passed 29–26 and was signed by the Governor before New Year’s Day.

During the end of the second session the Illinois census of 1835 was released. It showed that Illinois had a population of 271,727 residents, almost double the Illinois population of 1825. The census of 1835 was also being used to redistrict the seats in the Illinois legislature. The northern and western counties were the areas that had the largest increases in population. They would gain a disproportionate amount of the new seats that were being added to the state legislature. Sangamon County was the second largest county in the state with 17,573 residents. Neighboring Morgan County was the largest with 19,214. The third largest county, in southern Illinois, only had 12,274 residents. Morgan was a swing county and Greene was predominantly Democratic. Sangamon was clearly the base of Whig power in Illinois. And Lincoln was becoming one of the leading Whigs in Sangamon County.

It was the job of the legislature to reapportion the legislative districts. Drawing district lines is always a politically charged issue. A minority party can gain control of the legislature if they draw the lines to have slim edges in 51% of the district while conceding the other 49%. On the flip side of the coin, a majority party can consolidate its power by drawing the lines a different way. The Whig power base was in the parts of the state that were growing the fastest and in the counties that were more populated then the average Illinois county. It was in their interest to keep each district large so that they could match large Whig counties with small Democratic counties to neutralize the Democratic vote in those counties. If the size of districts were smaller, Democratic counties would gain greater representation in the legislature. Additionally, most large counties that would have more than one representative were Whig counties.

Control of the legislature was potentially at stake. When the redistricting bill was first introduced the Whigs had it referred to a select committee for markup. It was common for bills to go to a select committee instead of one of the standing committee. The people who would serve on these committees were the ones who were most interested in the bill being considered; these were the only people who would give up multiple evenings of free-time to sit on an additional committee. The select committee was stacked with Whigs, no one wanted to give up their free time.

The bill was reported out of committee with each district containing 8,000 residents, the same ratio that had been used in the last round of redistricting. It was the precedent. It also benefited the Whig party. Out of 60 Illinois counties, only 8 counties had populations larger than 8,000. Out of those eight counties, only Sangamon and Morgan were large enough to have two districts. The Democrats had been caught off guard. They tried to amend the bill on the House floor. On the 17th of December Democrats moved to amend the bill and replace 8,000 with 7,000. The Whigs knew the amendment was going to be made and had all their members present on the floor. Then the Whig speakers invoked precedent to sustain the 8,000 number. The Democratic caucus split, the amendment failed 24–28.

The legislature adjourned and Lincoln went home to campaign for reelection. Sangamon County, due to redistricting, had gained 3 more house seats and a state senator. 1836 was an important election year; it was the first Presidential election in Illinois where party lines were clearly drawn between Democrats and Whigs. The Democrats had Vice-President Van Buren at the top of their ticket. Nobody loved him and many hated him.

Van Buren did not have the grassroots popularity Jackson enjoyed. He had risen to power by building a party machine in New York which had as its base patronage and spoils. Many Americans viewed this form of political organizing, and anyone who came out of such a system, as dirty and unsavory (yet somehow conveniently forget this distaste when it was their party in power). The Whigs were happy to sit back, nominate a bland candidate in the person of General Hugh White, and hope the Democrats would self-destruct. With the Presidential election dominating the attention of the country and the front-page of the newspapers, Lincoln announced on March 19, 1836 in the Sangamon Journal that he was running for reelection. Lincoln favored the internal improvement plan and would be voting for General White in the Presidential election.

In the same edition of the paper Stuart announced that he was running for Congress. The Congressional seats had not been redrawn; those districts were on the 10 year cycle mandated in the Constitution. The growth in Illinois’ population would not reap additional Congressional seats until after the 1840 Federal census. For the 1836 election Illinois still had only three Congressional seats. The state was cut into roughly thirds, each district running east to west. The northern and southern districts were safe Democratic seats. The 2nd District, containing Sangamon County, was a potential pickup for the Whig Party. As the leader of the Whigs in the House, Stuart was the natural choice to run as the Party’s nominee.

Other than the one announcement in the Sangamon Journal, Lincoln issued no other press statements or releases. He once again utilized his wit, warmth, and enthusiasm to charm voters one-on-one or in stump speeches to small gatherings. His job as county surveyor enabled him to travel to every corner of the county. Occasionally Lincoln took to the stump to campaign against Van Buren and defend the Whig Party. Lincoln first gained recognition as a stump speaker in this campaign, with the Sangamon Journal reporting every speech he made on behalf of the Whig Presidential candidate. It was in this capacity that Lincoln spread his name. Whigs who read about Lincoln in the papers saw him stumping not for himself, but for his party.

On August 1st, 1836 the voters of Sangamon County went to the polls and chose who they wanted to be their elected representatives in the Illinois Legislature. They chose nine Whigs out of a field of 17 candidates of both parties. Lincoln received more votes than anyone. In two years Lincoln had become the most popular Whig in Sangamon County. Stuart lost his Congressional race to Democrat John May by a mere 1,000 votes. However, Democrats easily held onto their majority status in the legislature. It was a bad omen for the Presidential race. Despite predictions of a landslide win for White by the Whig papers in Illinois, Van Buren carried Illinois and the nation. The Whigs had solidified control of Sangamon County, but were unable to carry the state.

Lincoln Emerges

Lincoln would enter the first half of the 10th Session of the Illinois House of Representatives leading a 28 vote Whig caucus against a 63 vote Democratic one. 39 Illinois counties had voted for Van Buren — only 13 had voted Whig. To win any floor vote Lincoln would once again need to hold the Whig Party together and ~25% of Democrats. Lincoln’s efforts on redistricting meant he had cut the margin — if Lincoln had lost the redistricting vote he would have still needed the 33% of the Democratic caucus to win on the floor.

The Springfield delegation arrived in Vandalia with two missions: Move the state house to Springfield and pass some sort of system of internal improvements. The Whig Party was ablaze with the demand for more railroads and canals. The Sangamon Journal editorialized that “It is not a party measure, and all our citizens can cordially unite in one rigorous effort to secure the adoption of a system of internal improvements for the state, which is so much needed, so much desired, and so absolutely necessary to its prosperity”. The Democrats only held the Senate by a 22–18 vote margin — if Lincoln could gerrymander a Whig/Democratic coalition behind legislation in the House it probably could also pick up the 3 Democratic votes it would need in the Senate to make it to the Governor’s desk. All eyes would be on Lincoln.

Lincoln wrote in a letter to Mary Owens — his future wife — on December 13, 1836 that “Our chance to take the seat of Government to Springfield is better than I expected. An Internal Improvements Convention was held here since we met, which recommended a loan of several millions of dollars on the faith of the State to construct Rail Roads. Some of the legislature are for it, and some against it; which has the majority, I cannot tell”. The placement of these two political events so close together in Lincoln’s letter indicates Lincoln saw a potential to exploit the battle over internal improvements to gain leverage for the movement of the state capital to Springfield.

The Governor’s message called for the expansion of educational opportunties and for the internal improvements of the state to be achieved by the state working with private companies to build railroads and canals in public-private partnerships with the state contributing only 33% of the costs — — he was against the internal improvement program proposed by the Whigs. However, the Governor did not stop there. The Governor declared his neutrality on the central issue that was dominating the politics of the country — he did not have a position on whether there should be a central bank. Here was a registered Democrat who did not denounce the national bank. He was breaking party ranks. Duncan even went further. The majority of Duncan’s address was dedicated to a stringent and ringing denunciation of Van Burenism and partisan politics. It was a smack in the face to the President of his party. The party smacked back. A House Committee stacked full of Democrats issued a report denouncing the Governor’s address. They refused to even schedule any bills sponsored by the Governor for a vote. Duncan was powerless — and the Democratic Party of Illinois was a house divided against itself.

The managers of the internal improvement bill gave a clinic on legislative logrolling. The bill they sent to the floor contained an unprecedented $10 million worth of loans — — $250 million+ in modern purchasing power — to begin construction on ten different projects all over the state, simultaneously. It even included $200,000 for the counties in which no projects were planned. There was something in the plan for every county in the state. No income would be generated by these projects for at least a decade. If the projects had been completed one at a time, a project could have been completed every year, with the revenue from one railroad paying for the construction of the next. But that would have generated a fight over which projects would be completed first. No one was quite sure how to pay for the interest on the bonds. If the economy slowed down, the whole plan would collapse under its own weight. The legislature, full of relatively young and inexperienced freshman and sophomores due to expansion/redistricting, bulled ahead.

Lincoln voted for the plan at every step of the way. In fact, as leader of the Whigs he gave the plan bipartisan cover. Lincoln was so involved in the work of the Committee on Internal Improvements, of which he was not a member, that years later a colleague of Lincoln’s remembered that Lincoln actually was on the committee. After its passage Lincoln paid attention to every minor detail related to the project. He was a leading voice in favor of an infrastructure program that had not commissioned a single survey or instituted any system of financing the bonds it was floating. The Governor lobbied to lower the cost to the state and bring in private companies to help carry the burden. Duncan was ignored. Publicly, pro-improvement Democrats in the legislature said they were afraid of private monopolies; privately, the Democrats were getting even with the Governor.

Friday, February 9th, 1837. A seemingly inconsequential day in American history. However, that is probably the day that propelled Lincoln to the Presidency (more on this later). It is the day that the Illinois House took its test votes on the internal improvement bill. Mainline Democrats made a motion to table the bill. A “motion to table” is the parliamentary equivalent of a motion to kill it. If the pro-improvement forces won this vote — it meant passage for the bill was virtually assured. The motion to table failed on a vote of 29–46.

Lincoln had held his Whig caucus together — — supporting the plan by 23–6. Democrats split 23–23 in favor — Lincoln had broken off 50% of the Democratic caucus. 18 of the 23 Democrats who voted in favor of the plan had improvements being built in their County. 15 of the 23 Whigs had improvements in their County. Members with improvements in their County voted 35–22 in favor. Members without voted 11–7 in favor. Democrats with improvements in their County split 20–18 in favor. Democrats with nothing in their County voted 14–3 against the plan. Whigs with nothing voted 4–1 in favor.

Changing 9 votes would have changed the outcome — and a revised redistricting plan would probably have delivered 5 more votes to the Democrats and 5 less to the Whigs. Even then — Lincoln needed ~33% of the Democratic caucus to make up for the handful of defections from his own. Logrolling had worked. Pro-improvement forces had purchased via railroads/canals/roads enough votes to ensure passage. Lincoln was on the brink of achieving the Whig Party’s greatest legislative accomplishment in Illinois history. He wasn’t done yet.

While the Internal Improvements bill was moving through the legislature, the bill to locate the seat of the state capital (hereafter known as the “Springfield Bill”) was quietly proceeding. Alton seemed to be the front runner, having received the most votes in the statewide referendum a few years before. However, Alton’s plurality had not been a decisive one. Vandalia had been the second highest vote getter, but it seemed inevitable that the seat of government would shift northward with the weight of Illinois’s population. Springfield was a close third, still a threat.

It was common practice for the House to handle multiple controversial issues over an extended period, meeting for a couple of hours on one issue, tabling that issue for the day, and then moving on to work on another issue for a couple of hours. While the Whigs were outnumbered in the House by almost 2–1, the numbers were even in the Senate. There is where the “Springfield Bill” was passed first. The Senate bill was reported to the House on February 8th, 1837 stating that the permanent seat of the capital would be decided by “the legislators”. Lincoln wrote an amendment, which was introduced by someone else; to require that whichever town hosted the capital must donate $50,000 and two acres for the new building. No small town in the state could afford to do so. The amendment carried 53–26. It was doubtful that Alton could afford the $50,000. Springfield had gained the upper hand.

Springfield’s opponents had been caught off guard. Now they were alert and ready for battle. A few days later a vote to “table indefinitely” put forward by Vandalia supporters passed 38–37.[4] Lincoln only carried his caucus by an 18–7 vote. 4 of the 7 defectors didn’t have any improvements in their County. Lincoln got 14 Democratic votes for Springfield (losing 30) — 12 of them had improvements in their County — the other 2 voted for the internal improvement bill but didn’t have any improvements in their own County (remember the $200,000?). 12 of the 14 Democrats who supported Lincoln in the motion to table also cast their vote for Springfield in early rounds of the ultimate balloting on the location of the state capital. ALL of them had improvements in their County.

Saturday, February 18, 1837. Springfield’s forces moved to reconsider the motion to table. Springfield wins 42–40. Eight member of the Illinois House flipped their position in less than 24 hours. Lincoln lost 3 but picked up another 5. Lincoln lost 2 Whigs and one Democrat. Both Whigs had improvements in their County and went on to be early Springfield supporters. The one Democrat had an improvement in his County and ultimately was not present for the final round of capital selection voting. Three Whigs and two Democrats flipped to Lincoln’s side. The two Democrats are an enigma — they did not have improvements in their Counties while one supported Springfield and the other did not in the ultimate capital location balloting. The three Whigs all had improvements in their County and went on to support Springfield. Eight legislators voted on the 2nd day who did not on the first — they split 4–4. Only 1 member missed the 2nd vote who attended the first one — he was a Democrat who had voted against Springfield, had an improvement in his County, and would go onto to vote against Springfield in the ultimate selection.

Nine days after the House passed the internal improvement bill with 46 votes — 42 members voted to bring the legislation moving the capital to Springfield back to life. At this point — 42 members of the House had voted to support Springfield on either Friday or Saturday (not necessarily the same 42). 18 of the 42 were Democrats. 38 of the 42 had an internal improvement in their County. 16 of the 18 Democrats also had an improvement in their County. 42 votes was a majority of the House.

Springfield’s supporters would go on to win several additional close votes on the state capital bill — and then the House voted 48–34 to send the bill to final passage. The final day of February would be the day that the legislature picked a new state capital.

Before the legislature turned to the state capital vote it had one other piece of business to attend to. The Governor had vetoed the internal improvements bill. On February 26th, 1837 the state of Illinois became liable for $10 million worth of debt after the legislature overrode the Gubernatorial veto — the House voted 52–20 (with 6 members voting to override the veto after voting against the underlying legislation). Before construction began the nation fell into a deep recession. Not a single project would be completed and the State would spend 30 years repaying the bonds it had issued. The plan was a catastrophe. But it might have helped Lincoln become President.

On Tuesday, Feb 28th — — Springfield was appointed the State Capital on the 4th round of balloting. It was the House of Representatives that put Springfield over the top. The tables below outline the four ballot rounds.

The balloting would consist of the combined members of the House and Senate. Springfield would start in the lead with 35 votes on the first ballot — taking ~29% of both the House and Senate. Springfield would finish with 73 votes (an increase of 38 votes) — representing 53% of the total — but propelled to victory by the 28-vote surge in the House — Springfield took 63% of the House. The 28 vote increase in the House would have been sufficient by itself to deliver the capital to Springfield without a single additional vote in the Senate. The table shows that Springfield was unable to take votes from supporters of the other two viable contenders (Jacksonville and Vandalia) — — Springfield carried the day because it consolidated the votes from the rest of the state (support for “favorite son” towns drops from 43 on the first ballot in the House to 12 votes by the 4th ballot — with the biggest fall off being between the decisive 3rd and 4th ballots). The 38 votes Springfield receives on the 3rd ballot in the House are almost identical to the 42 that supported Springfield in the preliminary parliamentary maneuvering. Springfield jumps from getting 34% of the House on the 2nd ballot to 46% on the 3rd ballot — while stagnating at 38% in the Senate. Seven House Whigs voted in the 3rd round for towns other than Springfield/Jacksonville/Vandalia (they all voted for places closer to their County compared to Springfield). Those Whigs alone would be sufficient to put Springfield over the top. The handwriting was on the wall.

Lincoln Logrolled — It Probably Helped Make Him President

Despite some historians’ claims that the passage of the internal improvements bill was an almost foregone conclusion, there is considerable evidence that the issue appeared to be in doubt until the very end. Lincoln’s own letter to Mary Owens is the first piece of evidence. As late as February 25th, the Sangamon Journal called the chances for passage of the internal improvements bill and the bill to move the state capital to Springfield as, in both cases, “doubtful”. Per the Sangamon Journal, the Internal Improvements Bill seemed dead in the Senate and Springfield had barely survived a near death experience.

Simon in his book Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness contends that there was no “logrolling” by Lincoln in order to secure victory. Modern historians have relied upon Simon’s interpretation for their own analysis of Lincoln’s first major floor fights in a legislative body. Simon bases his contention upon twenty-five roll call votes that took place over the course of the legislative session where he thought logrolling was possible. However, the twenty-five roll calls were listed “excluding the nineteen additional roll calls on internal improvements and the capital relocation”.

These are the very votes in which you would expect a leader seeking support to trade support for one amendment in return for support for Springfield. It is very easy imagine Lincoln saying to a legislator “Sangamon will support the addition of this trunk line into your county if you support Springfield on the second ballot” or “We’ll support the veto override if you do not actively oppose Springfield Mr. Speaker”. No one has looked at these votes for a pattern. Simon contends that Springfield’s selection was essentially a foregone conclusion and therefore did not need aggressive logrolling for its adoption. This overlooks the fact that Sangamon County was an overwhelmingly Whig county in a heavily Democratic state. The Speaker of the House was from rival Vandalia. The Governor was pushing for Jacksonville — — which was in the single largest County in the state and near the geographic center (like Sangamon County). The House was overwhelmingly Democratic. The Sangamon Journal predicted as late as February 1837 that Springfield would, in the end, fail in its efforts. How did a Whig delegation from a Whig county get a Democratic legislature to ignore a statewide referendum and buck their Speaker to give Springfield the state capital?

Twelve Democrats voted for the internal improvements bill, had an internal improvement in their County, and then supported Springfield before the penultimate 4th ballot. The other six Democrats that voted for the internal improvements bill started supporting Jacksonville and never wavered. Springfield had consolidated support from 75% of the Whig caucus by the 2nd ballot — but that alone did not make it the front runner. Democratic support for Springfield would go from 15% on the first ballot to 46% on the 4th ballot. The list of Democratic supports of Springfield on the 4th ballot is almost identical to the list of Democratic supporters of the internal improvements bill. The early support of the “logrolled 12”[5] was instrumental to making Springfield appear to be the inevitable victory.

The order of events is also remarkable. First — Lincoln and the Whigs send the internal improvements bill to the Governor’s desk with the help of a significant number of Democrats who were going to receive improvements in their home counties. Roughly a week later, those same Democrats save the bill moving the state capital from certain death. Roughly a week after that, the same coalition overturns the Governor’s veto. Two days later — Springfield wins. The Democrats controlled the House and Senate — they did not have to bring the State Capital bill to the floor — they had taken no action on the issue in the previous Legislature. Something had changed.

Morgan County Democrats wanted the internal improvements package because it was going to bring a railroad (which is why they narrowly supported it 4–2). The House Speaker knew Fayette County (Vandalia) was not large enough to deserve significant infrastructure investment. The Speaker also knew that Vandalia was too small and couldn’t realistically afford to build a new state capital. The capital was going to move sooner or later. Lincoln and the Sangamon County Whigs wanted the capital. Fayette County and other small, rural Democratic areas wanted railroads, canals, and roads. Rural Democrats agreed to allow Springfield to have the capital if the Whigs would deliver the votes for big ticket infrastructure projects in their backyard. Ten of the twenty-three (43%) House votes on the first ballot supporting Springfield were from Democrats — nine of the ten had an internal improvement in their County. All of them were from counties that were as close if not closer to Jacksonville or Vandalia. All of them were from counties that voted for Van Buren in the general election. There is no other logical conclusion — — no roads, no bridges, no railroads = no capital in Springfield.

Lincoln’s twin victories put him on the political map. The collapse of the infrastructure program was blamed on the economy and never became a partisan issue (partly because so many Democrats had supported it in the first place). Sangamon County Whigs never forgot who brought them the capital. Lincoln was catapulted to prominence in Whig statewide circles, ultimately landing him in the U.S. House of Representatives. His statewide profile was strong enough to make him an instant leader within the newly formed Republican Party of Illinois in the mid-1850s and the natural selection challenge Senator Stephen Douglass in the 1858 campaign. The 1858 Senate race would in turn lead to Lincoln’s nomination by the Republican Party for President.

President Lincoln would use the same horse-trading tactics he learned on the floor of the Illinois House to pass legislation that was integral in sustaining the Union war effort and secured the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (ending slavery). Lincoln was probably one of the few men in history with the moral compass and political skills to forge and sustain a majority coalition in the North that ultimately both saved the Union and ended slavery.

[1] 70% for the Democratic Presidential candidate Van Buren in 1836 out of 336 voters.

[2] 60% for the Whig Presidential candidate in 1836 out of 2,300 voters.

[3] 52% for Van Buren out of 3,300 voters.

[4] Official record says 39–38 — but counting each individual name gets to 38–37. The author is siding with the Excel spreadsheet.

[5] A phrase coined by the author.