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Abraham Lincoln

ALS to Thomas Ewing re George Rives - 1849

Autograph Letter Signed by and in the full hand of Abraham Lincoln, dated 15 December 1849, Springfield, Ill., to Honorable Thomas Ewing, the first US Secretary of the Interior, containing a recommendation for appointment of a colleague, George W. Rives, to an Indian Agency post.


Long believed non-extant, this recently found letter was discovered in an attic in Providence, Rhode Island, during inventory for an estate sale by a local antique dealer, Frederick Schroeder of Armory Antiques in Newport, RI. Both the Abraham Lincoln Papers Project of Springfield, Ill., and the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia, now aware of the letter’s existence, requested and were sent scanned images for their archives. This letter completes the provenance of a pre-existing letter in the Rosenbach Collection, in which Lincoln writes to George W. Rives regarding a letter of recommendation Rives has requested.

As officially published in the January-March 2008 newsletter of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln:

Lincoln’s Reluctant Recommendation

The editors of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln periodically check online auctions for new documents that fall within the project’s scope. Occasionally, we find surprising new documents in unlikely places. In February, a new document appeared on eBay from a private seller in Providence, Rhode Island. According to the listing, the seller found the letter in a bundle of others in an attic in Newport. After failing to contact the seller, we were able to contact the winning bidder, [Vintage Memorabilia] in Seattle, Washington, [who] graciously provided the project with a high-resolution color image of the document…

The document is interesting for several reasons. First, it is a relatively early Lincoln letter, written in December 1849, after Lincoln had finished his one lackluster term in Congress. Second, it is a long-lost enclosure to a known Lincoln letter. Third, it demonstrates both Lincoln’s magnanimity in agreeing to provide a recommendation for someone whom he believed had openly criticized him and Lincoln’s caution in the rather muted letter of support.

On April 25, 1849, George W. Rives wrote to ex-Congressman Abraham Lincoln, asking for his assistance in obtaining an appointment as an Indian agent in Minnesota. Rives was a 34-year-old farmer living in Paris, the county seat of Edgar County in east-central Illinois bordering Indiana. Lincoln responded on May 7 that Rives overrated Lincoln’s “capacity to serve you. Not one man recommended by me has yet been appointed to any thing, little or big, except a few who had no opposition.” Since President Zachary Taylor’s inauguration in March, Lincoln had been trying to get an appointment for Anson G. Henry in Minnesota, without success. He declined to risk Henry’s chances by supporting another candidate for a position in Minnesota.

During May and June of 1849, Lincoln actively campaigned to become the Commissioner of the General Land Office and asked many friends for their support. His primary opponent was Chicago attorney Justin Butterfield of Chicago. The contest between Lincoln and Butterfield revealed and exacerbated divisions among Illinois Whigs, and Rives may have supported Butterfield. President Taylor appointed Butterfield to the post, and Lincoln was disappointed personally and worried that the appointment would undermine the Whigs in Illinois.

On November 7, Rives wrote to Lincoln asking for a letter of recommendation. Lincoln hesitated before replying, then sent the following letter on December 15.

Springfield, Decr. 15, 1849

G. W. Rives, Esq
Dear Sir:

On my return from Kentucky, I found your letter of the 7th. of November, and have delayed answering it till now, for the reason I now briefly state. From the beginning of our acquaintance I had felt the greatest kindness for you, and had supposed it was reciprocated on your part. Last summer, under circumstances which I mentioned to you, I was painfully constrained to withhold a recommendation which you desired; and shortly afterwards I learned, in such way as to believe it, that you were indulging open abuse of me. Of course my feelings were wounded. On receiving your last letter, the question occurred whether you were attempting to use me, at the same time you would injure me, or whether you might not have been misrepresented to me. If the former, I ought not to answer you; if the latter I ought, and so I have remained in suspense. I now enclose you a letter which you may use if you think fit.

Yours &c.
A. Lincoln

Roy P. Basler and his colleagues included this letter in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, published in 1953, and noted that the letter of recommendation that Lincoln mentions in the last sentence was “presumably not extant.” This long-lost letter is the one that appeared on eBay in February.

The text of Lincoln’s letter of recommendation, written to Secretary of the Interior Thomas Ewing, is as follows.

Springfield Ills. Decr 15, 1849

Hon. T. Ewing.
Secretary &c.
Dear Sir

I understand Mr G. W. Rives of Edgar county, Ills. is an applicant for an Indian Agency; and I wish to say that, while I think his appointment will be generally acceptable to the whigs, it will certainly be gratifying to me.

Your Obt Servt
A. Lincoln

Editors from the Papers of Abraham Lincoln scanned Lincoln’s letter to Rives at the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia in May 2007. [Vintage Memorabilia] sent the project a scan of Lincoln’s letter to Ewing in March of this year. Now, after more than a century and a half of separation, the two letters that Lincoln sent to Rives, one now in Philadelphia and the other in Seattle, are reunited virtually in the Papers of Abraham Lincoln.

George W. Rives was an active supporter of Lincoln’s bid for the United States Senate in 1858. After the election of a majority of Democratic representatives to the state legislature in November, Rives wrote to Lincoln a “word of consolation & comfort.” Rives was proud that Republicans did their “whole duty” in Edgar County by electing Republicans to the state legislature. Rives concluded his letter by assuring Lincoln that “we stand ready to aid you in 1860. We are for You first & last. . . . No man never had Such friends in Edgar as you have! Can we do you any Good[,] Command us & we will obey. We await your Command.” Rives also worked for Lincoln’s election to the Presidency in 1860. On August 28, 1862, Lincoln appointed Rives as the Assessor of Taxes for the Seventh Collection District of Illinois.

The document is in extraordinarily fine condition, having been protected in an envelope for some 140 years. As can be seen, the color, tone, London stationer’s embossing, and overall appearance are fresh and immaculate (notably so, as compared with the Rosenbach letter).


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