The Unlucky Seventh

Abraham Lincoln/tiles/non-collection/4/4-13-Lincoln_portrait_2004-099-000.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
The House's 21st century portrait of Lincoln shows him sitting at his desk in the old Hall of the House during his single term in Congress.
If you studied Latin in school you may recall the phrase, “Omne trium perfectum” (every set of three is complete). From history to pop culture, trios make for interesting stories. Ancient Rome had Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and Mark Antony. The antebellum Senate boasted its Great Triumvirate—Webster, Calhoun, and Clay. The Bee Gees laid down the beat for 1970s disco goers. Harry Potter and his friends, Ron and Hermione, spellbound a later generation.

The Illinois Seventh Congressional District of the 1840s spawned its own memorable political trio: John J. Hardin, Edward D. Baker, and Abraham Lincoln.

Illinois’ population had trebled in the 1830s, increasing its representation in Congress from three to seven seats after the 1840 Census. Reapportionment carved out the new Seventh District from 11 central-Illinois counties, taking in Springfield, the state capital. The Seventh was the only district in the Democrat-dominated state that tilted to the opposing Whig Party.

For up-and-coming Whig politicians looking to make their mark and advance past the state legislature, the Seventh had a funneling effect: multiple aspirants scrambled for the one viable seat in Congress. In 1843, the competitors—Hardin, Baker, and Lincoln—shared similar traits. They were thirty-somethings, with legislative experience in Springfield, tireless campaigners, solid stump speakers, and rising stars in the party.

Colonel Edward Baker/tiles/non-collection/4/4-13-Col_Edward_Baker_loc.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress Edward Baker was known in Congress for his stirring campaign speeches.
When the Whig nominating convention gathered that spring in Pekin, Illinois, Hardin had the votes to win. But immediately after that count had been tallied, Lincoln—who had been pledged to back Baker—did something amazing for its guile and political prowess. He moved that the convention approve Baker as a suitable candidate in 1844, thus setting in place a system of rotation in office. Each would serve a single term and yield to the next in line. This was common in many states, but Lincoln’s ability to apply it in the new district was masterful.

Hardin served in the 28th Congress (1843–1845) dutifully but with little fanfare, holding seats on the Military Affairs and the Post Office and Post Roads committees. From Hardin, however, we have one of the great descriptions of the House Chamber in that period. Of “all the places to speak or to try & do any business,” he wrote, “the Hall of the House is the worst I ever saw. I would prefer speaking in a pig pen with 500 hogs squealing . . . or talk to a mob when a fight is going on . . . no one but JQ Adams is even listened to by the House, unless there is a quarrel going on or the prospect of a row is brewing. Last week the scenes in the House would have disgraced the meanest western grocery. Bullying & Billingsgate are the only order of the day.”

Baker distinguished himself in 1844 with flamboyant, soaring oratory that drew crowds. Among his more outlandish campaign props, writes Carl Sandburg, was a pet eagle trained to turn its head downward pensively and droop its shoulders when Baker referenced Democrats’ failures. When Baker shifted to discuss Whig principles, the raptor spread its wings wide and screeched. Baker, too, had a seat on the Military Affairs Committee and, it was perhaps no coincidence, that shortly after Congress declared war on Mexico in 1846, the martial spirit moved him to resign his seat and join the fight.

John Hardin's Death/tiles/non-collection/4/4-13-Death_John_Hardin_loc.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress Colonel Hardin fought in the War with Mexico, and was killed at the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847.
Though Hardin toyed with the idea of running against Lincoln for the nomination in 1846, Lincoln outmaneuvered him by quietly rounding up support from local Whig leaders. Safely elected to the 30th Congress (1847–1849) by a wide margin, Lincoln held seats on the Post Office and Post Roads and the Expenditures in the Military Department committees. His term was more energetic—if tumultuous—than those of his predecessors. He introduced the “Spot Resolutions” questioning (like many other Whigs) President James K. Polk’s justifications for initiating the war with Mexico, promoted Zachary Taylor as his party’s successful presidential candidate, and authored a still-born proposal to end slavery in the District of Columbia.

But the tragic career trajectories of this political trio also bear out that old superstition that bad luck often comes in threes.

Shortly after the outbreak of the war with Mexico, Hardin raised and led a volunteer regiment of Illinoisans. At the Battle of Buena Vista in February 1847, a fatal bullet to the chest felled Colonel Hardin.

Edward Baker's Death/tiles/non-collection/4/4-13-Death_Edward_Baker_loc.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress Colonel Edward Baker, a close friend of Lincoln, lost his life at the Battle of Balls' Bluff during the Civil War—the only sitting U.S. Senator to die in battle.
Baker, who won re-election to the House from another Illinois district in 1848, followed his political aspirations westward to California and eventually Oregon. In the fall of 1860 he was appointed as a Republican to Oregon’s vacant U.S. Senate seat. On October 21, 1861, at the Civil War battle of Balls’ Bluff in Loudon County, Virginia, commanding a group of volunteers, Baker was shot and killed—the only sitting U.S. Senator to die in battle. His death stung Lincoln, a close friend who had named his second son for Baker.

Lincoln, as we well know, fit this tragic pattern, too. In 1848, he had declined to seek re-nomination to a second term in the House and returned home to Springfield. Later, after two failed Senate bids, he was elected President in 1860 as the country plunged into a fratricidal war. His skill as a wartime President drew upon cajoling, compromise, and patient determination—traits which he also displayed during his House service. This week, 150 years ago, an assassin’s bullet cut his life short just days after Confederate forces surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia.

All things being equal, some sets of three seem more complete—and consequential—than others.

Sources: Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life Vol. 1 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008): 213–308; David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995): 111–141; Donald W. Riddle, Lincoln Runs for Congress (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1948) and Congressman Abraham Lincoln (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1957); Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln, the Prairie Years and the War Years (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966); Paul Findley, A. Lincoln: The Crucible of Congress (New York: Crown Publishers, 1979); Albert J. Beveridge, Abraham Lincoln, 1809–1858 (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1928).

Categories: People, War, Presidents