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Daniel S. Dickinson (1806-1884)

Daniel S. Dickinson
Daniel Dickinson

Daniel Dickinson

Daniel Stevens Dickinson
“One of the most picturesque and popular stump speakers was Daniel S. Dickinson. He had been a United States senator and party leader, and was a national figure. His venerable appearance gave force to his oratory. He seemed to be of great age, but was remarkably vigorous. His speeches were made up of epigrams which were quotable and effective. He jumped rapidly from argument to anecdote and was vitriolic in attack,” recalled New York politician and businessman Chauncey M. Depew.1
Dickinson was indeed an orator who could change minds. Historian Sidney David Brummer noted that at the 1859 Democratic State Convention, “Dickinson had made a speech utterly reprobating the tactics of [New York City Mozart Hall leader Fernando] Wood and thus influenced many of the delegates to desert that wily leader. It was subsequently asserted that this effective aid from Dickinson was procured by the Regency leaders through an understanding that half of the delegation to the Charleston Convention should be ‘hard’, thus securing a chance for Dickinson’s presidential aspirations, but that have carried their point, the Regency had played false to the Sage of Binghampton [sic].”2
The erstwhile Senator was betrayed by the Regency’s commitment to the presidential candidacy of Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas. Supporters of Dickinson “claimed that as a Northern man who had consistently clung to Southern views for years and who had not bolted nor even revenged himself when Buchanan handed over the patronage to the ‘softs’, Dickinson would be very acceptable to the South. By invoking a unit rule, State Chairman Dean Richmond precluded any New York votes going to Dickinson at the April 1860 Convention. According to historian Sidney David Brummer: “Dickinson’s friends were active in his support. They claimed that as a Northern man who had consistently clung to Southern views for years and who had not bolted nor even revenged himself when Buchanan handed over the patronage to the ‘softs’, Dickinson would be very acceptable to the South. Moreover, they urged that he could carry New York against Seward.”3
Prior to the Civil War, Dickinson had been one of the state’s most prominent proponents of Southern states’ rights. And in 1860, he had reason to think he might emerge as both the candidate of the New York delegation and the compromise candidate of the Democratic National Convention. Past and present jealousies in the Democratic Party led to a rash of backstabbing that killed Dickinson’s potential candidacy. Stewart Mitchell, the biographer of Horatio Seymour, who was also mentioned as a possible Democratic presidential candidate, wrote critically of Dickinson: “With his fatal love for making trouble, Dickinson had flirted with Fernando Wood, for he hated Seymour, and President Buchanan had failed to satisfy his surly and often eccentric sense of political propriety. He still had his eye on the sole object of his ambition, but he always acted on the principle that an ‘opponent’ was ‘necessarily a blockhead or a scoundrel. Dean Richmond, however, knew how to handle Dickinson: apparently the chairman played up to the vanity of the former senator by hinting that he himself was not impossible as the national choice of the party at Charleston.”4 But such handling had an eventual downside for Richmond. Dickinson ended up backing Vice President John Breckinridge in the 1860 election. Though Dickinson placed some of the blame for Democratic division on Southerners, New York Republicans had reason to be grateful to dissident Democrats like Dickinson who helped delay the unification of New York Democratic factions behind one slate for the Electoral College. Historian Seymour Mitchell charged: “Dickinson had done his best to destroy the disabled party he was soon to desert and denounce.”
“Daniel S. Dickinson lived through the most turbulent period in the history of American politics,” wrote Dickinson’s more admiring biographer, Marjory B. Hinman. Dickinson’s political shifts typified the ways in which New York State politics shifted and new alliances were formed among old enemies. Hinman wrote: “Dickinson was not necessarily unique from other New York State politicians, but he was one, of the most outstanding orators of his day and he attempted, and sometimes succeeded, in changing the course of history. Philip Auchampaugh called him ‘A fearless and unceasing opponent to the demands of political radicalism of the period.’ But in many ways he was a radical, for his States’ Rights proclivities were a little too strong, his adherence to the Constitution a little too unyielding, his expansionist ideas a little too greedy, and his gift of oratory a little too overpowering.”5
Despite his prior positions, Dickinson became one of New York State’s most prominent War Democrats and supporters of President Lincoln after the South seceded — so much so that he himself was considered as a Republican candidate for Vice President in 1864. During the 1850s, Dickinson had been a leader of the “hardshell” faction of state Democrats and a backer of President James Buchanan. Dickinson had a distinguished political career as a state senator (1837-1840), lieutenant governor (1842) and U.S. Senator (1845-1851). Dickinson practiced law for a decade until returning to office as the state Attorney General in 1861 as a “Union” candidate. Historian Sidney David Brummer wrote that a “noteworthy feature of the contest was the able and stirring speeches of Daniel S. Dickinson.”6 It was his last electoral race. Dickinson refused to seek reelection, the nomination for Governor or any other office.
His speaking talents were put to use immediately after the fall of Fort Sumter — at the Union rally in Union Square on April 20, 1861. Dickinson proclaimed: “When the timid falter and the faithless fly — when the skies lower, the winds howl, the storm descends, and the tempest beats — when the lightnings flash, the thunders roar, the waves dash, and the good ship Union creaks and groans with the expiring throes of dissolution, I will cling to her still as the last refuge of hope from the fury of the storm and if she goes down I will go down with her, rather than survive to tell the story of her ignoble end. I will rally round the star-spangled banner so long as a single strip can be discovered, or a single star shall shimmer from the surrounding darkness.”7
Once again in 1862, Dickinson went to work, speaking on behalf of the Republican ticket in New York. Brummer wrote: “Dickinson was a man of eloquence and it must have been thrilling to hear this white-haired statesman, who had received at the hands of the Democracy the lieutenant-governorship and the United States senatorship, and who had been prominently mentioned in its councils for the presidential nomination, denounce his former associates for keeping up party spirit in such a crisis. In one speech he said: “These two men [James Wadsworth and Horatio Seymour] have been placed in nomination by opposing organizations…the one by the loyal masses acting as a Union organization, regardless and independent of former political opinion,…the other brought forward by political guerrillas, who had crawled from beneath the popular avalanche of last year to repeat their efforts at imposition under new and improved disguises — the peace party patriots of 1861, the apologists of rebellion and the villifiers of the administration….All loyal men are alike interested in putting down the rebellion,…and why should they not act together? The Republican party…in theory and practice lays aside for the occasion, as it did last year, its distinctive action as a party, and its members united in common with all loyal Democrats, and others who are so disposed, upon a platform inculcating no party ends….I defy and scorn all ringing of party gongs to gather the hungry and alarm the timid.”8 In another speech, Dickinson upheld the Emancipation Proclamation saying that “he was no political abolitionist, but in the exercise of the war power, he was for taking that thing [i.e. slavery] out by the roots.”9
Like most New York politicians, Dickinson wrote President Lincoln the usual introductions and references for acquaintances. Dickinson less frequently shared his opinions with Mr. Lincoln. But after Democrat Horatio Seymour defeated Republican James Wadsworth in the 1862 gubernatorial election, New York Attorney General Dickinson wrote President Lincoln:
Do not be alarmed at the result of the [gubernatorial] election in this state. You will see that the rural districts did well and that the large vote of this city and Brooklyn, which some think was an actual vote! was too heavy to overcome. To say nothing of the good elements it possessed there is no doubt that it embraced every evil over which the corruptions of a great city can furnish, and that drugged whisky was the best one amongst them.
I am glad you have relieved General [George B.] McClelland [sic] from the command of the army of the Potomac. I adhered to him to the last, though I would have contributed liberally a year since to have purchased him a pair of shoes. I have been forced to the conclusion that he is better suited to be superintendent of a cemetery where dead men require digging, than for the commander of an army of the living where movement is necessary to success. If you have any more dead wood on hand, as some believe you have, you cannot better serve your country than by letting it follow suite of Gen McClelland [sic].
I forgot to say that the New York campaign was early placed upon a ground which I did not approve. I mean a Legislative address. I forward the precise platform of last year. As they overw[h]elmed me I fought it on their plan as much as I could. I still think if my plan could have obtained they could not have overborne us. But in this I was liable to mistakes. I think Gen[.] Wadsworth did as well as any candidate could have done under the circumstances. The result means just nothing, except that a combination of mean politicians and demoralizing & unpatriotic influences have succeeded over men who can stand fire in a time of trial10
Dickinson also occasionally extended his congratulations — as on the occasion of Mr. Lincoln’s letter to Erastus Corning in June 1863: “I have been away from my office or I should have written you before. Your letter on the authority of Martial Law, will, as John Q. Adams said of an important act of his life,” stand the test of [talent?] and of time.” It will be read as an authority, and admired for its clearness and good sense, until Martial Law shall be abolished by the ushering in of the Millennium”.11
But unlike others Dickinson seemed to restrict his interest in patronage to his own needs. In early 1864, his name surfaced as a possible candidate to replace Hiram Barney as Collector of the Port of New York — a key patronage appointment for New York Republicans. One Republican leader sent a message to President Lincoln in February: “A majority of the stock-holders of the Tribune favor his appointment.”12 In January, Dickinson himself wrote President Lincoln to say he would accept appointment as “head of the Custom House.”13 Dickinson didn’t get the Collector’s appointment but he did receive the support of Senator Edwin D. Morgan to become U.S. Commissioner for the settlement of the Hudson Bay and Puget Sound Agricultural Claims later in the year. He turned down that appointment — as he did a later offer by New York Governor Reuben Fenton to appoint him to New York’s highest court. In 1865 Dickinson was appointed U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York; he died holding that position a year later.
Dickinson was at his best as a campaign speaker. Chauncey M. Depew recalled the role that Dickinson played in his own 1863 campaign:
I had an interesting experience with Mr. Dickinson when running for secretary of state in 1863. The drawing card for that year, and the most sought after and popular for campaign speaking, was Governor [John] Andrew, of Massachusetts. He had a series of appointments in New York State, but on account of some emergency cancelled them all. The national and State committees selected me to fill his appointments. The most unsatisfactory and disagreeable job in the world is to meet the appointments of a popular speaker. The expectations of the audience have been aroused to a degree by propaganda advertising the genius and accomplishments of the expected speaker. The substitute cannot meet those expectations, and an angry crowd holds him responsible for their disappointment.
When I left the train at the station I was in the midst of a mass meeting of several counties at Deposit, N. Y. A large committee, profusely decorated with campaign badges, were on the platform to welcome the distinguished war governor of Massachusetts. I did not meet physically their expectations of an impressive statesman of dignified presence, wearing a Prince Albert suit and a top hat. I had been long campaigning, my soft hat was disreputable, and I had added a large shawl to my campaigning equipment. Besides that, I was only twenty eight and looked much younger. The committee expected at least sixty. Finally the chairman rushed up to me and said: “You were on the train. Did you see Governor Andrew, of Massachusetts?” I answered him: “Governor Andrew is not coming; he has cancelled all his engagements, and I have been sent to take his place.” The chairman gasped and then exclaimed: “My God!” He very excitedly summoned his fellow members of the committee and said to them: “Gentlemen, Governor Andrew is not coming, but the State committee has sent THIS,” pointing to me. I was the party candidate as secretary of state, and at the head of the ticket, but nobody asked me who I was, nor did I tell them. I was left severely alone.
Some time after, the chairman of the committee came to me and said: “Young fellow, we won’t be hard on you, but the State committee has done this once before. We were promised a very popular speaker well known among us, but in his place they sent the damnedest fool who ever stood before an audience. However, we have sent to Binghamton for Daniel S. Dickinson, and he will be here in a short time and save our big mass meeting.”14
According to Chauncey M. Depew, he “delivered a typical speech; every sentence was a bombshell and its explosion very effective. He had the privilege of age, and told a story which I would not have dared to tell, the audience being half women. He said: ‘Those constitutional lawyers, who are proclaiming that all Mr. Lincoln’s acts are unconstitutional, don’t know any law. They remind me of a doctor we have up in Binghamton, who has a large practice because of his fine appearance, his big words, and gold-headed cane. He was called to see a young lad who was sitting on his grandmother’s lap. After looking at the boy’s tongue and feeling his pulse, he rested his head in deep thought for a while on his gold-headed cane and then said: ‘Madam, this boy has such difficulties with the epiglottis and such inflamed larynx that we will have to apply phlebotomy.’ The old lady clasped the boy frantically to her bosom and cried: ‘For heaven’s sake, doctor, what on earth can ail the boy that you are going to put all that on his bottom?”15
Although Dickinson had become estranged from New York Democrats, he was not quite a Republican, writing an erstwhile Democratic colleague: “I am so filled with disgust at the mean selfishness, and downright knavery of political parties, that were there no question beyond things of ordinary moment, I would not cross the street to turn the scale for or against either.”16 Dickinson wrote another friend: “I believe Mr. Lincoln to be honest and sincere — that he lacks the dignity, and many of the qualities of a great statesman…He would have stood much better, I think, had he escaped being managed by officer-holders into a premature second nomination. I have supported him up to this time, as an incident to the great question of the Union. The renewal of his lease is a different thing, and requires new resolutions.”17
But Dickinson was tempted by one political office — though he tried not to show it. During the June 1864 Union-Republican Convention, Dickinson was prominently mentioned as a possible nominee for Vice President. “There were rumors that Dickinson might be the man,” wrote biographer Marjory Hinman. “He did not take these rumors seriously until he read it in the Washington Tribune a week before the Baltimore Republican Convention early in June 1864. He did not desire the position, he told Judge [R.H.] Duell of Cortland, for he ‘sought repose and retirement from the political agitations and conflict which had absorbed so much’ of his life.”18
Nevertheless, Dickinson became the focal point of anti-Seward Republicans maneuvering to
replace Vice President Hannibal Hamlin on the Republican ticket. He was favored by many War Democrats and Republicans who had formerly been Democrats and who, according to historian Sidney David Brummer found “great strength not only in the New York delegation but also in those of others states.”19 Historian Benjamin Thomas observed that “Seward’s enemies, believing that Lincoln could scarcely keep two men from the same state in his official family, rallied behind the candidacy of the New Yorker Dickinson, with the slogan: ‘Dickinson in, Seward out.'”20 Naturally, allies of Secretary of State William H. Seward like Thurlow Weed, worked just as hard to keep Dickinson off the ticket. Weed biographer Glyndon Van Deusen wrote: “The threat to Seward was a serious one and Weed and [Henry J.] Raymond, now working hand in hand, fought hard against it. There is evidence that they engineered the admission of delegates from Tennessee, Louisiana and Arkansas in return for the promise of votes against Dickinson. They also brought Ohio into line against their fellow New Yorker. In accordance with Weed’s suggestions, minor concessions were made to the radicals.” Presidential aide John G. Nicolay reported:
Hamlin will in all probability be nominated V.P. New York does not want the nominee — hence neither [John A.] Dix nor Dickinson have any backers. Andy Johnson seems to have no strength whatever; even Dr[.] Breckenridge and the Kentuckians oppose him. [Simon] Cameron received no encouragement outside of Pennsylvania, and he is evidently too shrewd to bear an empty bush. The disposition of all the delegates was to take any war Democrat, provided he would add strength to the ticket. None of the names suggested seemed to meet this requirement, and the feeling therefore is to avoid any weakness. It strikes everybody that Hamlin fills this bill, and Pennsylvania has this afternoon broken ground on the subject by resolving, on Cameron’s own motion to cast her vote for him. New York will probably follow suit tonight, which will virtually decide the contest[.]
The delegations being so unanimous for Lincoln are in a great measure indifferent about the other matters. All the day, everybody has been asking advice — nobody making suggestions. The Convention is almost too passive to be interesting — certainly it is not at all [as] exciting as it was at Chicago…21
Biographer Thomas wrote: “The Weed-Seward faction in New York, throwing their strength behind Hamlin in order to head off Dickinson, split the New York delegation so irreparably that Dickinson’s dimmed.”22 Presidential aide John G. Nicolay wrote his colleague John Hay from the convention: “Hamlin will in all probability be nominated V.P.[.] New York does not want the nominee — hence neither Dix nor Dickinson have any backers.”23 Dickinson apparently became concerned about how such maneuvering might affect his reputation so he published some correspondence with R. H. Duell in which Duell attested to a conversation they had at Lewis House in Binghamton before the convention. “You assured me that you had not expected your name was to be seriously mentioned in connection with the Vice-Presidency, until you saw a dispatch in the Tribune from Washington, a week before the sitting of the Convention. If your name was to be before either the Delegation or Convention, or both, you desired me to state your views and wishes, especially to the delegation.” Duell wrote:
You further stated that you did not aspire to the office — did not desire it, and should be better pleased if the Convention should not name you, for you sought repose and retirement from the political agitations and conflicts which had absorbed so much of your life, but, at the same time, the office of Vice President was one of too much dignity to be refused in such times, when generously tendered, and if tendered you should not feel at liberty to decline it. But you would not consent to leave your name made a subject of strife and contention; that you must be assured it was the spontaneous offering of the popular will and that your name was selected entirely for public reasons.
You further stated in the expectation your name was [to] be mentioned, you would best consult your sense of propriety by absenting yourself from the Convention, that delegates might act free from any restraint in canvassing.24
Dickinson’s professed lack of ambition was not matched by an exhibition of loyalty that summer. He was drawn into the conspiracy which anti-Seward Republicans launched in August 1864 to replace Mr. Lincoln at the head of the ticket. When he was invited to a late August meeting, according to historian Allan Nevins, “Dickinson, a compromiser by nature, long wavering between men and parties, expressed his belief that if Lincoln were fully advised of the dismal state of party affairs, he might withdraw.”25 Dickinson himself wrote: “The war has been protracted beyond popular expectation. Men and money have been given freely. The helm has not been held with a firm and steady grasp, and there is a cry of change, which, no matter whether wise or ill-founded, should be both heard and headed.”26


  1. Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 50.
  2. Stewart Mitchell, Horatio Seymour of New York, p. 210.
  3. Marjory B. Hinman, Daniel S. Dickinson: Defender of the Constitution, p. ix-x.
  4. Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 175.
  5. Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, Volume I, p. 220-221.
  6. Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 233-234.
  7. Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 239 (New York Herald, October 25, 1862).
  8. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Daniel S. Dickinson to Abraham Lincoln, November 9, 1862).
  9. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Daniel S. Dickinson to Abraham Lincoln, June 19, 1863).
  10. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from John D. Defrees to John P. Usher, February 16, 1864).
  11. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Daniel S. Dickinson to Abraham Lincoln, January 7, 1864).
  12. Chauncey M. Depew, My Memories of Eighty Years, p. 333-334.
  13. Chauncey M. Depew, My Memories of Eighty Years, p. 334-335.
  14. Marjory B. Hinman, Daniel S. Dickinson: Defender of the Constitution, p. 198.
  15. Marjory B. Hinman, Daniel S. Dickinson: Defender of the Constitution, p. 197.
  16. Marjory B. Hinman, Daniel S. Dickinson: Defender of the Constitution, p. 199.
  17. Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 381.
  18. Benjamin Thomas, Abraham Lincoln, p. 428-429.
  19. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 145 (Letter to John Hay, June 6, 1864).
  20. Benjamin Thomas, Abraham Lincoln, p. 429.
  21. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 145 (June 6, 1864).
  22. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Printed correspondence with Daniel S. Dickinson, June 1864).
  23. Allan Nevins, The War for the Union: The Organized War to Victory, 1864-1865, p. 91.
  24. Charles M. Segal, editor, Conversations with Lincoln, p. 351 (Daniel S. Dickinson, August 26, 1864).
  25. Chauncey M. Depew, My Memories of Eighty Years, p. 333.
  26. Sidney David Brummer, Political History of New York State During the Period of the Civil War, p. 49.