Maine attorney was close friend, political confidante of Abraham Lincoln

Posted Dec. 05, 2012, at 10:26 a.m.
Dr. Robert S. Eckley finished writing “Lincoln’s Forgotten Friend, Leonard Swett” before dying unexpectedly earlier this year. Published by Southern Illinois University Press, the book tells the story of Leonard Swett, a Maine attorney who moved to Illinois and ultimately became close friends with an aspiring politician named Abraham Lincoln. Swett was one of several Maine men who played key roles in Lincoln’s political career or presidency.
Courtesy of Southern Illinois University
Dr. Robert S. Eckley finished writing “Lincoln’s Forgotten Friend, Leonard Swett” before dying unexpectedly earlier this year. Published by Southern Illinois University Press, the book tells the story of Leonard Swett, a Maine attorney who moved to Illinois and ultimately became close friends with an aspiring politician named Abraham Lincoln. Swett was one of several Maine men who played key roles in Lincoln’s political career or presidency.

The story of Abraham Lincoln cannot be told adequately without including those Maine men who were close by his side. Among them was Leonard Swett, born and raised in Turner; he eventually became one of Lincoln’s closest advisors.

After graduating from Waterville College, Swett started his legal career at Howard & Shepley in Portland. That firm’s junior partner, George Foster Shepley, hired Swett to assist in the law practice. After moving to Illinois, Swett joined the Eighth Judicial Circuit; he heard legal cases in central and southern Illinois for 11 years with David Davis and Abraham Lincoln.

Sixteen years younger than Lincoln, Swett became his friend in 1849. Swett remained a Lincoln confidante until mid-April 1865.

Now Swett’s story has been told in “Lincoln’s Forgotten Friend, Leonard Swett,” written by the late Dr. Robert S. Eckley and published by Southern Illinois University. Eckley, who died after completing the book, earned his doctorate in economics from Harvard University and worked as the chief economist for Caterpillar for 14 years and as the president of Illinois Wesleyan University for 18 years.

“Lincoln’s Forgotten Friend” tells the story of Swett, a western Maine native who remained behind the scenes as Lincoln rose to fame. “This needed book reveals the important friendship — political and personal — that developed between the men during Lincoln’s midlife,” noted Robert Bray, who wrote “Reading with Lincoln.”

“And, just as important, Swett comes alive for the reader as a fascinating character in his own right,” Bray wrote.

“Robert Eckley’s biography of Leonard Swett brings a special perspective to Abraham Lincoln, focusing on the long friendship the men first forged during their days on the Eighth Judicial Circuit,” noted Ronald D. Rietveld, professor emeritus at California State University at Fullerton.

“Eckley portrays Swett as one of the leaders who was most active in securing Lincoln’s presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention in Chicago in 1860. Swett continued to serve as a very important working supporter through both of Lincoln’s presidential elections,” Rietveld wrote.

Among other Mainers connected to Lincoln were:

• Hannibal Hamlin, born and raised in Paris Hill. He practiced law in Hampden for almost 20 years before serving one term as Lincoln’s first vice president.

• Elihu Washburne, born and raised in Livermore. He served in the House of Representatives from 1853 to 1869 and became a close friend of Lincoln’s. Washburne played crucial roles in Lincoln’s rise from relative political obscurity in Illinois to winning the presidency in 1860.

The day after Lincoln delivered his famed Cooper Union speech in New York City, Washburne accompanied him to the notorious Five Points section of Manhattan to attend a Sunday School class. Tears filled the eyes of Lincoln as he spoke about his own childhood poverty.

Washburne lived in Galena, Ill., where he befriended Ulysses Simpson Grant, a neighbor. Recognizing Grant’s abilities as a winning warrior, Washburne championed Grant during the Civil War and recommended that Lincoln name him the commander of all Union land forces in 1864.

• Born and raised in Saco, George Foster Shepley practiced law in Bangor for five years before moving to Portland. He met Lincoln after Swett introduced them at the White House in 1862; Lincoln later appointed Shepley as a wartime governor of Louisiana.

“Lincoln’s Forgotten Friend, Leonard Swett” is available online at Amazon.com, the Southern Illinois University Press, Books-A-Million, and Barnes&Noble.com.

Jay Dresser, who lives in Bangor, became interested in Leonard Swett in 1994, after reading about him in a book about David Davis. While Robert Eckley was writing “Lincoln’s Forgotten Friend,” Dresser and his cousin, the late Ben Dresser of Old Town, assisted Eckley by doing research about Swett in Maine. The Maine Historical Society has published Jay Dresser’s essay titled “The Political Attitudes of Northern Industrialists and the Coming of the Civil War.”

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