News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 29, 2012

Vigo played crucial role in Lincoln’s journey to the presidency

Howard Greninger
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Vigo County played a vital role in Abraham Lincoln becoming a U.S. president, according to Guy C. Fraker, author of “Lincoln’s Ladder to the Presidency,” which outlines Lincoln’s growth as a lawyer in the Eighth Judicial Circuit.

Republican lawyers from Terre Haute, who also practiced in Paris, Ill., in the Eighth Judicial Circuit, helped Lincoln secure a presidential nomination in the 1860 party convention.

Lawyers such as Richard W. Thompson, who had served in Congress with Lincoln and was Terre Haute city attorney in 1846 and 1847 and who later served as Secretary of the Navy under President Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th U.S. president. Also, William P. Dole a merchant from Terre Haute who moved to Paris, Ill., and “was a stronger supporter and a great go-between and able to work both sides of the Wabash River for Lincoln,” Fraker said.

One of the most prominent was John P. User, who later became Secretary of Interior under Lincoln’s presidency.

“I have studied this enough to believe it was the Vigo County connection that gave Lincoln the leg up he needed,” from the Indiana convention delegates, Fraker said Wednesday as part of a brown bag luncheon series at the Vigo County Public Library.  

“The reason is we see a letter from Lincoln to a senator from Ohio before the convention, which was mid-May 1860, saying ‘I have Indiana sewn up,’” Fraker said. “On the first ballot at the convention, Lincoln got 103 votes. So 26 votes, which was huge and represented nearly 25 percent of his votes, came from Indiana. It is far and away the largest unanimous vote cast for someone who wasn’t a favorite son (a resident of the state at the time of election),” Fraker said.

Lincoln served as a lawyer in the circuit for 10 to 12 weeks, both in the spring and the fall, so he was away from home at least half the year, Fraker said. However, that allowed Lincoln to build a circuit of contacts that served him professionally and personally, with friends and associates.

While not in his book, Fraker speculates that Lincoln might not have gotten to the presidency if he had lived in a place like Columbus, Ohio. “He would not have had the opportunities he had [in the Eighth Judicial Circuit].” Fraker said.

The fact, Fraker said, is the Eighth Judicial Circuit, where Lincoln practiced as a lawyer from 1837 until 1860 when elected president, had a large population base.

Lincoln as a young boy moved from Indiana to Decatur, Ill., in 1830, which was a town of less than 100 people, but by 1860 was a town of 4,000 people, Fraker said. The judicial circuit in 1840 had a population of about 69,000, bigger than Cook County, which then had a population of 10,000. Today, Cook County has the largest population in Illinois.

By 1850, the circuit had 107,000 people, compared to 43,000 in Cook County and by 1860, the circuit had 236,000 people, compared to 140,000 for Cook County, Fraker said.

Interest in the 16th U.S. president is high now with Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln.” Fraker said the film’s crew did its homework, pointing to one anecdote referred to in the movie.

It addressed Lincoln as a lawyer in Metamora, defending Melissa Goings, 70, on a charge of murder in 1857. The wife of Roswell Goings, 77, had used a piece of firewood striking her husband, known around town to have beaten her, to defend herself.

“I loved it because it does bring the Eighth Judicial Circuit into the movie and sort of the fabric of Lincoln,” Fraker said. “During a trial, Lincoln took a recess and went downstairs with Goings. David Davis [who had led Lincoln’s convention strategy in 1860 and was later named to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Lincoln in 1862 and later served as executor of Lincoln’s estate after his assassination] was not the judge,” Fraker said.

“It was a different judge (James Harriott) and Lincoln had a sense that the judge wanted to see Goings hung. We can’t have women killing their husbands you know,” Fraker said.

When Lincoln returned to the courtroom, the bailiff accused Lincoln of running her off to avoid justice, Fraker said.

Lincoln is said to have told the judge that he did not run her off. “She simply asked me where she could get a good drink of water and I said Tennessee has mighty fine drinkin water,” Fraker said of popular versions of the event.

Goings “surfaced in California a year later. Lincoln had told the story to a clerk. The verification of the story is there is a Goings name on her bond, which means a member of her husband’s family bonded her out,” Fraker said. “Also, when Lincoln was back to Metamora in 1858 for the [Lincoln-]Douglas debate, he took the time to go over the state’s attorney and get the bond discharged,” Fraker said.

Fraker said he was at the University Club of Chicago in September “and a woman came up to me to buy a book and said, ‘Do you know Melissa Goings?’ and I said, ‘Sure.’ She said that was her great, great, grandma, which gives the story a lot of pizzazz,” Fraker said. “Central Illinois is full of people whose relatives knew Lincoln.”

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at (812) 231-4204 or