James H. Matheny 1852 - 1856
James H. Matheny was a member of the constitutional convention of 1848. He was elected circuit clerk in 1852 for four years, after which he was commissioned Lieutenant Colonel of the 130th Illinois Infantry. After the capture of Vicksburg he was on detached duty, holding military courts until 1864 when his regiment was consolidated with another, and he resigned. In November 1873, he was elected Judge of Sangamon County for four years. James H. Matheny was Abraham Lincoln's best man.
Excerpted from History of the Early Settlers of Sangamon County A Centennial Record by John Carroll Power Published 1876
On the morning of his wedding on November 4, 1842, Mr. Lincoln woke up James Matheny, told him he was getting married that night and asked him to be his best man. At the home of Ninian Edwards later that day, Matheny and Beverly Powell stood up for Mr Lincoln at a ceremony presided over by an Episcopal minister, the Rev. Charles. Dresser. Matheny, a Springfield native and attorney, maintained to William Herndon that Mr. Lincoln claimed "that he was driven into the marriage," which had been arranged by Ninian and Elizabeth Todd Edwards.1
"Marriages in Springfield ," Matheny wrote contemporary biographer William H. Herndon, "up to that time had been rather commonplace affairs. Lincoln's was perhaps the first one ever performed with all the requirements of the Episcopal ceremony. A goodly number of friends had gathered, and while witnessing the ceremony one of the most amusing incidents imaginable occurred. No description on paper can do it justice. Among those present was Thomas C. Brown, one of the judges of the Supreme Court. He was in truth an 'old-timer,' and had the virtue of saying just what he thought, without regard to place or surroundings. He had been on the bench for many years and was not less rough than quaint and curious. There was, of course, a perfect hush in the room as the ceremony progressed. Brown was standing just behind Lincoln. Old Parson Dresser, in canonical robes, with much and impressive ceremony recited the Episcopal service. He handed Lincoln the ring, who, placing it on the bride's finger, repeated the church formula, 'With this ring I thee endow with all my goods and chattels, lands and tenements.' Brown, who had never witnessed such a proceeding, was struck with its utter absurdity. 'God Almighty! Lincoln,' he ejaculated, loud enough to be heard by all, 'the statute fixes all that!' This unlooked-for interruption almost upset the old parson; he had a keen sense of the ridiculous, and for the moment it seemed as if he would break down; but presently recovering his gravity, he hastily pronounced them husband and wife."2
Herndon's notes of an interview with Matheny stated that "Lincoln came to him one evening and said - Jim - 'I shall have to marry that girl.' Matheny says that on the same evening Mr & Mrs Lincoln were married - That Lincoln looked and acted as if he were going to the slaughter -: That Lincoln often told him directly & indirectly that he was driven into the marriage - said it was concocted & planned by the [Ninian and Elizabeth] Edwards family...." Matheny maintained that Mr. Lincoln told him that he was in love with [Mary Todd's niece] Matilda Edwards rather than Mary Todd.3 Ironically, other testimony by Edwards suggested that they were caught unawares.
"Herndon's notes suggest a credible context for Lincoln's having spoken candidly to Matheny on so personal and presumably so painful a subject - the galling imputation that he had married for social position 'in the aristocracy' when he had actually been maneuvered into a commitment he could not honorably evade," wrote historian Douglas L. Wilson in Honor's Voice. "At the same time, it should be noted that Lincoln had a political motive for putting this construction on his marriage, for Matheny was one of a group of young Sangamon County Whigs who resented the aristocratic wing of the party and whose support was apparently shifting from Lincoln to Edward D. Baker."4
In 1842, Mr. Lincoln lost out for the Whig nomination for Congress in a contest with John J. Hardin and Edward Baker. "He was no doubt greatly disappointed, but by no means soured," wrote William H. Herndon. "He conceived the strange notion that the publicity given, his so-called 'aristocratic family distinction' would cost him the friendship of his humbler constituents - his Clary's Grove friends. He took his friend James Matheny out into the woods with him one day and, calling up the bitter features of the canvass, protested 'vehemently and with great emphasis' that he was anything but aristocratic and proud. 'Why, Jim,' he said, 'I am now and always shall be the same Abe Lincoln I was when you first saw me."5
Decades later Matheny told William Herndon an illuminating story about the marriage. A man named Jacob "Tiger" Taggart arranged to have his niece Sarah work for Mrs. Lincoln. The relationship worked well until Mrs. Lincoln had "one of her insane mad spells" and slapped Sarah. She walked out of the Lincoln home and went crying to her uncle. Taggart went to the Lincoln home where he saw that Mrs. Lincoln had thrown Sarah's clothes and trunk out onto the street. When Taggart approached Mrs. Lincoln for an explanation, she went into a rage of abuse - finally hitting Taggart two or three times with a broom. Taggart finally escaped her wrath and took Sarah's clothing home.
But he thought he was owed some satisfaction for the abuse that had been heaped upon him and hunted down Mr. Lincoln in the Edwards' store. When Mr. Lincoln finished the story he was telling, Taggart asked him out of the store to explain what had occurred. Mr. Lincoln was clearly embarrassed by what happened and listened quietly until he calmly interrupted: "friend [Taggart], can't you endure this one wrong done you by a mad woman without much complaint for old friendship's sake while I have had to bear it without complaint and without a murmur for lo these last fifteen years." Taggart responded: "Friend give me your hand. I'll bear what has been done me by Mrs. Lincoln on your account and your account alone. I'll say no more about the matter, and now[,] Lincoln, let us be forever what we have been - friends." Mr. Lincoln took Taggart's hand and shook it "in a real friendly, wester style - saying - 'Agreed, friend [Taggart], and so let us be what we have always been, warm personal friends' and they were afterwards."6
Matheny was also a participant in an incident in which Lincoln, Matheny and Evan Butler tied up a repeated wife-beater so that his wife could beat him. Matheny told Herndon: "near Hoffman's Row, where the courts were held in 1839-40, lived a a shoemaker who frequently would get drunk and invariably whipped his wife. Lincoln, hearing of this, told the man if he ever repeated it he would thrash him soundly himself. Meanwhile he told Evan Butler, Noah Rickard, and myself of it, and we decided if the offense occurred again to join with Lincoln in suppressing it. In due course of time we heard of it. We dragged the offender up to the courthouse, stripped him of his shirt, and tied him to a post or pum which stood over the well in the yard back of the building. Then we sent for his wife and arming her with a good limb bade her 'light in'. We sat on our haunches and watched the performance. The wife did her work lustily and well. When we thought the culprit had had enough Lincoln released him; we helped him on with his shirt and he crept sorrowfully homeward. Of course, he threatened vengeance, but still we heard no further reports of wife-whipping from him."7
The two young men had met in the early 1830s when Mr. Lincoln came to Springfield - Matheny was the deputy post master there and Mr. Lincoln was the post master in New Salem. In his role, Matheny said he delivered "hundreds" of editorials written by Mr. Lincoln to the offices of the Sangamon Journal.8 Since Matheny also worked in the office of the county recorder and as court clerk, the two young men had frequent occasions to cross paths.
One crossroads was the clerk's office where Matheny worked under Clerk William Butler in the late 1830s. "Jim and I with other boys had been cronies - we were in the habit of running about together as boys do nights and Sundays, and we made the Clerks office a sort of headquarters," Milton Hay later told John G. Nicolay. "You know that in country towns young lawyers have a way of coming about the public offices, especially those of the Clerks of Courts, into which they are more or less called by business errands. In this way we boys being there together, Lincoln would often drop in on us. I remember the general impression I have that it was always a great treat when Lincoln got amongst us - we would always be sure to have some of those stories of his for which he had already got a reputation. And there was this about his stories - they were not only entertaining in themselves, but they were doubly interesting because they were always illustrative of some good point or hit."9
Matheny told Herndon that Mr. Lincoln was a "Curious Man," a "good Man," who always "Seemed Equal to the occasion."10 He thought Mr. Lincoln grew more "abstracted," more "tender & humane" and more "melancholy" as he grew older. On the other hand, Matheny thought Mr. Lincoln's humor "declined" with age. "When he first came among us his wit & humor boiled over."11 Herndon wrote that "No man is superior to Matheny's judgments...of human nature." He "knew Lincoln as well as I did."12 Several decades later, Henry C. Whitney wrote Herndon "Jim Matheney informed me in March that Lincoln was not mela[n]choly: that he was light-hearted & jovial always: I know better both from you & Stuart & from my own observation: but I am surprised exceedingly that a man of the opportunity to observe that Matheney had should say this..."13
Matheny maintained that Mr. Lincoln ridiculed religion and had a reputation as an "Infidel." and at one point wrote a "little book on Infidelity."14According to Matheny: "Lincoln often if not wholy was an atheist -: at least bordered on it. Lincoln was Enthusiastic in his infidelity. As he grew older he grew more discrete - didn't talk much before Strangers about his religion, but to friends - close and bosom ones he was always open & avowed - fair & honest, but to Strangers he held them off from Policy."15 William Herndon pressed Matheny on these religious points because they corroborated what Herndon already believed. Several years later, Herndon recorded: "Mr. Matheny told me that he said he understood that up to the time Lincoln left Springfield Ills in 1860 that he was a confirmed infidel, but that after he got to Washington and associating with religious People that he believes that Mr Lincoln [thought?] became a Christian...." Matheny's testimony was crucial to Herndon's thesis about Mr. Lincoln's religious beliefs but Matheny partially recanted in 1872.
"Jim Matheny thinks that Lincoln's mind ran to filthy stories - that a story had no fun in it unless it was dirty and I must admit it looks very plausible. I can't think he gloated over filth however," wrote Henry C. Whitney. I think he was some like Linder in that the he had great ideality and also a view of grossness which displaced the ideality."16
Lincoln biographer Richard Lawrence Miller wrote “James Matheny was in the first tier of Lincoln’s early Springfield friends. Matheny recalled Bible discussions among members of a Springfield poetry club, consisting of a few young men, including Matheny, Evan Butler, Newton Francis (brother of Simeon), and Lincoln.” Matheny’s friendship, however, was unsteady. Historian Donald W. Riddle wrote: “Matheny abandoned Mr. Lincoln at a crucial point in his career – when he was seeking Whig support for appointment as head of the General Land Office in 1848. Matheny was one of those Whig officials who signed a petition in favor of Justin Butterfield, who ultimately won the appointment.”
Matheny did not join Mr. Lincoln's move from the Whigs to the new Republican Party in 1856. Lincoln scholar Michael Burkhimer wrote: “Like Stuart, he too differed with Lincoln in politics in the 1850s. He supported the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party in the 1856 election. However, he did come to support Lincoln after the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court in 1857.” David Zarefsky wrote that Matheny “had supported Fillmore in 1856, not yet having become a Republican, and Lincoln opposed his nomination for Congress that year. Whatever bitterness had been between them, however, was past history by 1858, and Lincoln supported Matheny for Congress from the Springfield district.”
Instead, Matheny was the Whig candidate for Congress in 1856. He alleged a deal between Lincoln and Trumbull to split the Senate seats - with Trumbull getting the one in 1854 and Mr. Lincoln slated to get Douglas's seat in 1858. Matheny was briefly a Republican before switching to the Democratic Party. In March 1858, Mr. Lincoln wrote Richard Yates and made a proposal to use Matheny for Republican advantage:
If you approve of the following, continue to have it appear in some one of the anti-administration papers down your way--better there than here.
Why not all anti-administration men in the District vote for James H. Matheny, of Springfield, for Congress: He was opposed to the repeal of the Missouri compromise: was for Fillmore in 1856, but never was a Know-Nothing. He is now opposed to the Lecompton constitution, and the Dred Scott decision. Who can be more suitable, when a union of Fremont and Fillmore men, is indispensable? A republican'
We have thought this over here. The leading Fillmore men have wished to act with us, and they want a name upon which they can bring up their rank and file. It will help us in Sangamon, where we shall be hard run, about members of the Legislature. Think it over, and if you can approve it, give it a start as above.
I have not forgotten my course towards 'Jim' for a nomination 1856, which you also well know. The difficulty then was on a point which has since been measurably superseded by the Dred Scott decision, and he is with us on that.
[William] Butler says you rather have an eye to getting our old friend Bill Green on the track. Nothing would please me better, whenever he got on to ground that would suit you, except it would give us no access to the Fillmore votes. Dont you see? We must have some one who will reach the Fillmore men, both for the direct and the incidental effect. I wish you would see Nult-Green, and present this view to him. Point out to him the necessities of the case, and also how the question, as to 'Jim,' is varied since 1856.17
When Matheny retired as clerk of the Sangamon County Circuit Court in December 1856, Mr. Lincoln gave a brief speech to the Springfield Bar to honor his friend: “This is the first intimation I have had any such meeting as this was intended. It takes me considerably by surprise, particularly as it might be expected that I am to say something. Much could be said of the man named in the resolutions, and of his public services. Indeed, much could be said, which, if said of other men, would be sheer flattery, whilst in respect to him it falls far short of the whole truth. That I have long esteemed Mr. Matheny as a man and a friend, is known to you all. But that I should mete out to you the full measure of his worth, I shall not now attempt to do. Besides, much of this has already been beautifully and graphically done by my friend Mr. Herndon. Mr. Chairman, allow me in conclusion to say that I fully concur in all that has been said and done on this occasion.”
In the 1858 Jonesboro debate, Senator Stephen Douglas referred to Matheny as “Mr. Lincoln’s especial confidential friend for the last twenty years.” Lincoln himself questioned Matheny’s veracity in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Mr. Lincoln responded: “I can only ask him to show sort of evidence of the truth of his story. He brings forward here and reads from what he contends is a speech by James H. Matheny charging such a bargain between Trumbull and myself. My own opinion in that Matheny did do some such immoral thing as to tell a story that he knew nothing about. I believe he did. I contradicted it instantly and it has been contradicted by Judge Trumbull, while nobody has produced any proof, because there is none. Now whether the speech which the Judge brings forward here is really the one Matheny made I do not know, and I hope the Judge will pardon me for doubting the genuineness of this document, since his production of those Springfield Resolutions at Ottawa. [Laughter and cheers.] I do not wish to dwell at any great length upon this matter. I can say nothing when a long story like this is told except it is not true, and demand that he who insists upon it shall produce some proof. That is all any man can do, and I leave it that way for I know of no other way of dealing with it.”
Matheny told attorney Henry Clay Whitney “that Lincoln’s first real specific aspirations for the Presidency dated from the incident of his being named in the convention as a candidate for Vice-President...” Matheny later told Jesse Weik: “His tastes were proverbially simple; he indulged in no excess and his expenditures were kept to the minimum.”
Matheny served in the Union Army in the West, as an infantry colonel and judge advocate. He returned to the practice of the law before being elected county judge in 1873.
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