Abraham Lincoln in Illinois
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives

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January 10, 1853

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This letter is from Lincoln to Illinois' tenth governor, Joel A. Matteson. In this letter, Lincoln asks the governor to grant an early release from the penitentiary of William D. Davis, who had been convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to three years in jail. Davis was a Coles County resident who had lost an arm while serving in the Army during the Mexican War. Lincoln had served as one of the attorneys for Davis. However, Lincoln and Matteson were bitter opponents and Matteson did not grant clemency to Davis, who was released July 1, 1853 after serving his full sentence.

Matteson was a former state senator and a successful businessman from Joliet. During his term as governor (1853-1857) he helped create a statewide funding mechanism to support local schools and he led the efforts to build a governor's mansion in Springfield and a state prison in Joliet.

In 1855, Matteson was a behind-the-scenes candidate for the United States Senate at a time when the state legislature elected senators. Lincoln was the favorite candidate coming in to the vote but he didn't have the majority needed for election. When it became apparent he couldn't win and that Matteson might, he threw his support behind Lyman Trumbull, an Anti-Nebraska Democrat. Trumbull won and served three terms in the Senate. Of Matteson, Lincoln wrote, "his defeat gives me more pleasure than my own gives me pain."

After leaving office Matteson was charged with fraud and swindling the state out of as much as $388,000 at a time when the governor's salary was $1,500 a year. Although never convicted, it appears as if Matteson was guilty of the crime.

Matteson was the first governor in Illinois who came from the growing northern part of the state. He was also the last Democratic governor of Illinois for 36 years. He defeated a Whig opponent in 1852 but by 1856 the newly formed Republican Party would win the governor's mansion and the Whig Party would be extinct.

Points to Consider

What kinds of changes were occurring politically in the 1850s in Illinois?

Did Lincoln's letter have any influence on Matteson?

What are some arguments for and against allowing a governor or president the power to pardon people convicted of crimes?

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