Abraham Lincoln and Vermont

Abraham Lincoln and Vermont

Vermont copy
Abraham Lincoln never visited Vermont, although the state became the longtime summer home, Hildene, of his eldest son Robert Todd Lincoln. But no state gave President Lincoln larger victory margins in the presidential elections of 1860 and 1864 than did Vermont. Three quarters of the state’s voters cast their ballots for the Republican presidential nominee. Perhaps no other northern state gave President Lincoln less aggravation. The state’s political leadership was reliably Republican and relatively united when compared to dissension that wrecked the party in other states.

On the first ballot at the 1860 Republican National Convention at Chicago, all of Vermont’s ten votes went to Senator Jacob Collamer, the state’s favorite son. The delegation had been courted by both New York Senator William H. Seward and Massachusetts Governor Nathaniel Banks. They decided to protect their influence and options by supporting Collamer. But support for Collamer was only a holding action. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote that Lincoln campaign manager David “Davis designated specific tasks to each member of his team. Maine’s Leonard Swett was charged with making inroads in the Maine delegations. Samuel Parks, a native Vermonter, was dispatched to the delegation of the Green Mountain State.”1

Parks did his work. On the second ballot, Peter B. Washburn, a Woodstock attorney, announced all of the ten state’s votes would go to Abraham Lincoln – a man with whom few in the state were then familiar. Vermont was the third state to vote and the first to record a significant shift to the former Illinois congressman Ohio journalist Murat Halstead wrote that “This was a blighting blow upon the Seward interest.”2

Vermont’s gubernatorial election was scheduled for September, 1860 Wealthy Republican businessman Erastus Fairbanks easily defeated his Democratic opponent. In the presidential election. in November 1860, Abraham Lincoln did the same – receiving more that 75% of the state’s votes.

Vermont’s real influence during the Civil War was felt through its congressional delegation. Solomon Foot was first elected to the Senate as a Whig and continued as a Republican until his death in 1866. Illinois Congressman Isaac N. Arnold called him “dignified, urbane, and somewhat formal.”3 Lincoln aide John Hay wrote that Foot was “a man of very striking and patriarchal beauty.”4 When the American consul general to Canada died in the spring of 1864, Foot was offered the post but wrote President Lincoln that he had “conclude[d] to retain my position in the Senate for the present, at least, and desire that the vacancy in the Consul Genlship of Canada, will not be kept open any time longer, on my account.”5

But it was two other Vermont representatives who exercised the state’s real influence and power. Justin Lot Morrill was an influential member of the House during the Civil War and later went on to be an equally influential senator. Like President Lincoln, he had spent years as a rural store clerk and store owner. Indeed, Morrill had little experience in politics before he narrowly won his congressional seat in 1854 at age 45. Despite a delicate constitution, he spent the next 44 years in Congress as a tireless legislature. Morrill was described by journalist Noah Brooks as “tall, elegant, affected in speech, frequently engaged in debate, and a good financier.”6 He served on the House Ways and Means Committee, whose chairman, Thaddeus Stevens, gave Morrill leadership over federal revenue measures.

Historian William B. Hesseltine wrote: “Morrill sponsored two measures that were ultimately to become cardinal tenets of the Republican creed. One was a protective tariff, which delighted Pennsylvania’s avid ironmongers; the other a bill to promote agricultural education in the states by federal loans. When Buchanan vetoed the second of these measures, the Republican Party promptly became the farmer’s friend and added education to its ever lengthening agenda.”7 Both measures were again sponsored by Morrill under the Lincoln Administration. Both the Morrill Tariff (1861) and the Morrill Land Grant College (1862) legislation passed quickly.

Morrill was a legislative mechanic, not an orator, but in January 1865, Morrill delivered a powerful speech on the House floor in favor of passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. He noted: “If it had not been for the disclosure of the diabolical purpose of slavery to destroy our Government, the people of the United States would doubtless have tolerated the institution wherever States chose to continue and shield it…..But since this disclosure we should be cowards… if we were to surrender our grip upon the throat of the monster.”8

Unlike Morrill, Senator Jacob Collamer was known more for his wisdom than for his legislation. In the late 1840s, Collamer had served in Washington with fellow Whig Congressman Abraham Lincoln. Unlike Mr. Lincoln who left Congress to return to his law practice, Collamer was appointed by President Zachary Taylor as the nation’s postmaster general. Outgoing Congressman Lincoln prevailed upon Postmaster General Collamer to appoint his Whig friend Abner Y. Ellis as postmaster of Springfield.

Collamer came back to Washington as a Senator in 1855. Isaac N. Arnold described him as “a gentleman of the old school, who had been a member of cabinets, and was one of the wisest jurists and statesmen of our country.”9 Lincoln aide John aide wrote that Collamer was “one of the soundest and clearest heads in the Senate, resembles [Foot] somewhat in appearance. Seward once said, with that dry humor which in earlier days was oftener employed than now,’ that Collamer was a man of very fine parts, but was ruining himself by trying to look as handsome as Foot.'”10 Like President Lincoln, “Judge” Collamer had a keen legal mind and an unimpeachable reputation for integrity. Edmund C. Mower wrote: “No senator of his time appears to have won more completely the esteem of his colleagues, or to have established a more enviable reputation for the wisdom that penetrates to the heart of a question.” 11 Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner eulogized Collamer as “the Green Mountain Socrates.”12

Collamer wrote President-elect Lincoln on January 20, 1861 to object to the possible appointment of Pennsylvania’s Simon Cameron to the Cabinet: “My official position is holden on the expectation & intention of being a supporter of your Administration, and I…therefore feel a deep interest as to the composition of your Cabinet, on your own account and for the public interest, as well as to insure cordiality in my duty. This must be my apology for this intrusion of an unasked opinion.”

“I understand that Mr. Seward and Mr. Bates have been definitely selected for positions in the Cabinet. Rumor reports some others not so satisfactory. Now Dear Sir, permit me respectfully to solicit you to make no other appointments but the two first named, until your friends here, whom you regard as reliable and on whose positions you rely for cordial support, may be, by you, consulted, at least so far as to ascertain whether they entertain any reasonable objections.13

President Lincoln showed unusual interest in Collamer’s good opinion, writing him a week after his inauguration: “God help me! It is said I have offended you. Please tell me how.” 14 Collamer replied the same day: “I am entirely insensible that you have, in any way, offended me. I cherish no sentiment toward you but that of kindness and confidence…” Mr. Lincoln replied: “I am much relieved to learn that I have been misinformed as to your having been offended.”15

When Senate Republicans met in caucus in December 1862 to air their grievances about the Lincoln Administration, they decided on a nine-member delegation to go to the White House. The selection of the “moderate” Collamer as chairman was “astute stroke,” according to historian Allan Nevins. The delegation met at the White House on December 18. Another meeting was held on December 20. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles wrote: “Senator Collamer, the chairman of the committee, succeeded the President and calmly and fairly presented the views of the committee and of those whom they represented. They wanted united counsels, combined wisdom, and energetic action. If there is truth in the maxim that in a multitude of counselors there is safety, it might be well that those advisers who were near the President and selected by him, and all of whom were more or less responsible, should be consulted on the great questions which affected the national welfare, and that the ear of the Executive should be open to all and that he should have the minds of all.”16

Illinois Senator Orville H. Browning wrote of another meeting with the Senate delegation on December 22: “Chase, Blair and Bates made speeches — the others said nothing. The purport of the speeches was to prove that the cabinet did hold meetings, and did every thing properly, and that there were no dissentions [sic] among them — Mr Chase among others stating that the cabinet were all harmonious. I asked Judge Collamer how Mr Chase could venture to make such a statement in the presence of Senators to whom he had said that Seward exercised a back stair and malign influence upon the President, and thwarted all the measure of the Cabinet. He answered ‘He lied.'” 17

Railroad executive John Gregory Smith was elected Vermont’s governor in 1863. In March 1864, Governor Gregory sent President Lincoln “a can of maple honey and a few pounds of maple sugar. Will you please accept these products of Vermont as a trifling testimonial to my high regard and esteem.” 18 A year later, President Lincoln easily defeated George B. McClellan in Vermont with 76% of the votes. Three months after the election, Governor Smith asked permission from President Lincoln to publish the following letter from Mr. Lincoln concerning the most recent call for army recruits in Vermont. Smith had come to Washington personally to plead the state’s case, to which Mr. Lincoln replied:

“Complaint is made to me by Vermont that the assignment of her quota for the draft on the pending call is intrinsically unjust, and also in bad faith of the government’s promise to fairly allow credits for men previously furnished — To illustrate a supposed case is stated as follows.”
“Vermont and New Hampshire must between them furnish 6000 men on the pending call, and being equals each must furnish as many as the other in the long run. But the Government finds that on former calls, Vermont furnished a surplus of 500, and New Hampshire a surplus of 1500. These two surpluses making 2000 are added to the 6000, making 8000 to be furnished by the two states or 4000 each less by fair credits. Then subtract Vermont’s surplus of 500 from her 4000, leaves 3500 as her quota on the pending call; and likewise subtract New Hampshire’s surplus of 1500 from her 4000 leaves 2500 as her quota on the pending call These 3500 & 2500 make precisely the 6000 which the supposed case requires from the two states; and it is just — equal — for Vermont to furnish 1000 more now than New Hampshire, because New Hampshire has heretofore furnished a 1000 more than Vermont which equalizes the burthens of the two in the long run. And this result so far from being bad faith to Vermont is indispensable to keeping good faith with New Hampshire — By no other result can the 6000 men be obtained from the two states and at the same time deal justly and keep faith with both; and we do but confuse ourselves in questioning the process by which the right result is reached. The supposed case is perfect as an illustration.”
“The pending call is not for 300,000 men subject to fair credits, but is for 300,000 remaining after all fair credits have been deducted; and it is impossible to concede what Vermont asks, without coming out short of the 300.000 men, or making other localities pay for the partiality shown her.”
“This upon the case stated — if there be different reasons for making an allowance to Vermont let them be presented and considered.”19

Undoubtedly more pleasant for President Lincoln was a telegram from Governor Smith on March 10, 1865 announcing that his state had become the 19th to ratify the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery: “Vermont by her Legislature in special session yesterday evening set her seal of ratification to the great principles of constitutional liberty by a unanimous vote”.20


  1. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, p. 245.
  2. Paul M. Angle and Earl Schenck Miers, editors, The Salute: Murat Halstead Report the Republican National Convention in Chicago, May 16, 17, & 18, 1860, p.40.
  3. Isaac N. Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 221.
  4. Michael Burlingame, Lincoln’s Journalist: John Hay’s Anonymous Writings for the Press, 1860-1864, p. 276 (June 26, 1862).
  5. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois (Letter from Solomon Foot to Abraham Lincoln, June 6, 1864).
  6. Noah Brooks, Mr. Lincoln’s Washington, February 15, 1863, p.114.
  7. William B. Hesseltine, Lincoln and the War Governors, pp. 26-27.
  8. William Belmont Parker The Life and Public Services of Justin Smith Morrill, p. 163.
  9. Isaac N. Arnold, The Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 221.
  10. Michael Burlingame, Lincoln’s Journalist: John Hay’s Anonymous Writings for the Press, 1860-1864, p. 276 (June 26, 1862).
  11. Walter H. Crockett, editor, Vermonters: A Book of Biographies, p. 51.
  12. Walter H. Crockett, editor, Vermonters: A Book of Biographies, p. 52.
  13. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. (Letter from Jacob Collamer to Abraham Lincoln, January 20, 1861).
  14. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume IV, p. 282 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Jacob Collamer, March 12, 1861).
  15. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln , Volume IV, p. 284. (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Jacob Collamer, March 15, 1861).
  16. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume I, pp. 196-197 (December 20, 1862).
  17. Theodore Calvin Pease, editor, Diary of Orville Hickman Browning, December 22, 1862, Volume I, pp. 602-603.
  18. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from J. Gregory Smith to Abraham Lincoln, March 19, 1864).
  19. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to John Gregory Smith, February 8, 1865).
  20. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from John Gregory Smith to Abraham Lincoln, March 10, 1865).