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Simeon Draper (1804-1866)

Simeon Draper
Real estate businessman Simeon Draper was “an active politician, very popular with his fellow workers in the Republican organization, and prominent in the movements of the party,” according to William Allen Butler.1 Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had a bad opinion of many people — Draper included. He wrote in his January 3, 1865 diary: “Simeon Draper, Collector of Customs at New York, called on me a few days since, stating that he had been appointed cotton agent by the Secretary of the Treasury, to proceed to Savannah and dispose of the captured cotton recently taken by Sherman. Draper called to get from me a letter of introduction to Rear-Admiral [John] Dahlgren, as he would be likely to be thrown in Dahlgren’s company. Of course, I could not refuse. But the idea of sending such a man on such a mission, when he has more than any one honest man can do to discharge his duties as a collector faithfully, sickened me. [Secretary of the Treasury William P.] Fessenden certainly knows as little of men as Chase. This mission of Draper will be a swindle, I can scarcely doubt. A ring will be formed for the purchase of the cotton, regardless of public or private rights.”2
“Mr. Draper was impulsive and demonstrative,” wrote Republican political boss Thurlow Weed, with whom Draper was politically allied. “With the advantages of a fine person, good conversational powers, and ready wit, his genial presence and cheerful voice imparted life and spirit to the numerous social circles in which he was ever a welcome guest. But it was not at club dinners, nor at the dinners of his numerous friends, that Mr. Draper appeared at his best. It was at the head of his own table, surrounded by his estimable family and a few chosen friends, that ‘Richard was himself.’ On these occasions his cheerfulness and humor seasoned the dishes and flavored the wines. Next to the luxury of eating a canvas-back duck, was that of seeing one gracefully carved by Mr. Draper.”3
As chairman of the New York State Republican Party during 1860-1862, as a political ally of Weed and William H. Seward, and as a candidate for New York’s most important patronage position in 1864, Draper was at the center of the New York political scene. As president of the Bank Commerce, Draper was at the center of the business scene. Draper actually played a role in paying off a swindler — former White House gardener John Watt who was seeking $20,000 for the return of three of Mary Todd Lincoln’s letters in which the First Lady requested that Watt “commit forgery and perjury for purpose of defrauding the Government.”4 Commissioner of Agriculture Isaac Newton asked Draper to pay Watt a visit and give him an offer he couldn’t refuse. As Newton later told the story to presidential aide John Hay, Draper “went to Watt in his greenhouse on 14th Street & told him he was come to take him to Fort Lafayette, with much bluster & great oaths as Simeon’s wont….” The gardener, who had helped Mrs. Lincoln, with flowers, favors and finances at the White House “fell on his literal marrow bones & begged, & gave up the letters & the conspiracy got demoralized & came down, down, to 1500 dollars, which was paid, and the whole thing settled.”5
But another story involving Draper reflected less credit on Draper’s bluster. The story — repeated by Supreme Court Justice David Davis — was that Draper paid Mary Todd Lincoln the same sum that Mrs. Lincoln had demanded — $20,000 — in order to be appointed as Collector of the Port of New York.6 Draper received the appointment on September 7, 1864 after his predecessor, Hiram Barney, had been forced from his post. “Shortly after becoming collector, Draper also won the valuable privilege of selling the cotton that General [William T.] Sherman had captured in Savannah in December 1864,” wrote historian Michael Burlingame.7 Although there was great competition for the post, there is no other testimony that Mary Todd Lincoln had any influence on the appointment — which was designed to mollify the Weed-Seward wing of the Republican Party.
Draper was active in the political machinations of New York Republican politics during the Civil War. In early March, 1864 he wrote Commissioner of Indian Affairs William P. Dole, who often acted as a conduit for political information for the President about the presidential boomlet for Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase. The campaign had collapsed because of the publication of a circular letter from Kansas Senator Samuel Pomeroy:
Every thing is progressive save the settled purpose of our friends in the Contest before us, Mr Chas Lawson who is a Signer of our Circular, and is a partner and son in law of Chas H Marshall informed me last Evening, that, a Paper was presented to him by Senator Pomroys [sic] Committee Agent for subscription to the Chase fund that Mr [George] Opdyke had headed it with One thousand Dollars, I learned also that Mr [Thurlow] Weed made application # (# at Quarter master’ Dept) for names of parties to assess for the coming contest,
These important preliminaries, go on without the friends, the sure friends of Mr Lincoln being consulted or notified.
The New Orleans accounts give evidence of Lincolns strength, and it is understood to be endorsed by Genl Banks. The only thing I care to know of all these movements, is do they accord with the understanding of Mr Lincolns friends in Washington, does Mr Weed[‘]s movements mean as surely delegates to the Convention for Mr Lincoln, as Mr Chase[‘]s do for him. If so all that is required is to know it, and act in conformity thereto. Suggestions, are thrown out that Mr W means Seward, possibly, Banks probably. I am at a loss to judge for I get nothing from Washington except I dig it out of some of my friends that I can rely upon The underground movements have been so successful, that as far as I can learn, no two men think and act alike. The monopoly of Washington opinion, which adroit [travellers?] have secured, is just on the Eve of doing immense mischeif.[sic] It is a sharp fact, that all the near dear, and personal friends of Mr Weed, & Mr [Abram] Wakeman, are absent at their Lincoln Roll Call, wherever it is. Yet the Taxed fund is to be gathered and applied personally by them for delegates. Now if you are all satisfied and will write me a line to say so, I will “fall in”, but under a quiet confidential notice that in June Mr Lincoln will have a pretty poor set of delegates. They will I prognosticate be “weak kneed,” and not stand firm from beginning to End, and end in voting for if not nominating, some other man. Tell me how We are to act and satisfy the true friends of the President. If fair play is had, we are sure. I do not see much in that friendship which carrys with it, and keeps with it It a muffled mystery, at a time when the Cannon should be brought out and every man woman and child made to hear it. There is too much rush about the matter, too much dodging too much insincerity. The friends of [Senator Edwin D.] Morgan and [Senator Ira] Harris are both holding, some say for one some for another, I presume they are really waiting for control, Well let them wait if you please untill [sic] they move with grandeur, strength and patriotism, but not so long as to let all three spoil in keeping
The Books are out, and the official patronage is being collected in the shape of Greenbacks. Whether for whiskey speculation or to pay back debts contracted in 1860 at Chicago or what, no man yet know here.8
Although Draper’s case for a patronage appointment was made by political friends like businessman Moses H. Grinnell and Senator Edwin D. Morgan, Draper himself presented his own case in a personal letter to President Lincoln the same day that he wrote Dole:
When I had the pleasure to see you last, I had no Idea that my name would come before you directly or indirectly for any appointment whatever.
I was in Washington on a matter of comparitive [sic] unimportance, and frequently came in contact with Senators, and Representatives, as well as officers of the Government representing the different departments. In a careful comparison of the Individual and representative opinions of those I saw I came to the conclusion, that, the over confidence of some, and the deception, not to say perfidy of others, was leading us into a most dangerous inactivity, and promised to destroy our hopes of success in the great struggle before us, acting under this fear and belief, I made a call upon you and became acquainted with your friend, In accordance with the note of approbation which I struck in these Interviews, I commenced the patriotic service as I esteemed it of bringing forward the organization of a ‘Union Lincoln Association” I think there can be no two opinions as to the character of the men who came forward and lent their names to the motive, and the organization which was established, by the union of good men, in a good cause.
The work that has been done gives evidence of the necessity of the organization, and the work that is to be done needs the encouragement of every sympathizing friend in the Union. We need as early as practicable evidence of recognition, and support from the Administration, in the most politic form it can be had. As to my name in connection with the Collectorship, I hope sincerely that it may not be permitted to embarrass you, I assure you upon the honour of a man, I had not the least thought of an appointment of any kind, I had no knowledge whatever of any Custom house dificulties [sic] which promised to result in the vacancy now anticipated, and nothing would be more in violation of my own feelings than to even ask it at your hand.
Whatever may be said or done, or has been said or done to belittle me in your opinion must eminate [sic] from the most unjust action that man can be guilty of
I am ready to meet any complaint at a minute[‘]s warning, as to my personal or public carreer [sic] . I am ready to be tried by a jury of my Enemies, if I have them, In open day and without counsel. but I am not willing to be buried beneath the calumnies of those whose success in dishonest action has made them chiefs of Bureaus in high quarters.
Whatever may be said of my personal embarrassments, I am without them , I am clear of debt, and with health and vigor. aside from the ample income of my family, can pass with comfort the summers heat, and winters cold of my closing years of human existence [sic] , I have passed 12 or 14 years of public scrutiny in the Public Charities of this City and defy the slightest imputation upon my fidelity efficiency and probity. I am and shall continue to be whatever becomes of the Collectorship a zealous champion of your patriotic service.9
Abram Wakeman, who was close to Mrs. Lincoln, was a competitor to Draper to succeed Hiram Barney as Collectors of the Customs for New York. But Wakeman had enemies. Attorney William M. “Evarts is very earnest that Draper should be made collector instead of Wakeman,” presidential aide John G. Nicolay wrote President Lincoln on August 30, 1864.10 Nicolay had been sent to New York City to arrange for needed changes in the Customs office before the fall presidential campaign. But Draper was causing trouble, warned Nicolay:
The conference of [Henry J.] Raymond and [New York businessman Isaac] Sherman with him this morning of course apprised him that the step was in contemplation. I do not know through whose instrumentality it was, but somehow Mr. Draper has been informed that you were thinking of appointed him Surveyor, and he and some of his friends are stirring up a new difficulty by announcing and insisting that he will decline it. I enclose a letter to you on the subject from Draper’s bosom fiend, Moses H. Grinnell, who had just brought it to Mr. Weed to be forwarded to you when I saw him.
There is however still a chance that Draper will re-consider this determination. If he does not then I advise, on the strength of what I have heard today, that you accept his declension as final, and leave him out in the cold until he becomes more tractable. I will write more fully of this tomorrow.11
Nicolay continued to try to arrange patronage in a way that would unite New York Republicans for the fall campaign. The game of musical patronage chairs in New York was complicated — as Nicolay indicated in a letter to President Lincoln the next day:
My impression tonight is that you will do best to adhere to your original programme, although Mr. Weed and some of his friends have mooted the proposition to make [George] Dennison collector, Draper Naval Officer, and Wakeman Surveyor. Weed told me this afternoon that he thought Draper would agree to this. I am also informed that Wakeman would be satisfied with it.
But I still think that if you adhere to the original plan, Mr. Draper will finally acquiesce, although he now seems firm in his determination to decline.12
Draper’s appeals, however, seemed to have prevailed. Draper was duly appointed Collector and Abram Wakeman got the Surveyor’s post. Historians Harry J. Carman and Reinhard H. Luthin wrote: “Draper, friend and ally of Seward and Weed, had long been combating the Chase movement in New York and had been a pro-Lincoln delegate to the Baltimore Convention. Lincoln’s opponents were quick to emphasize his possible motives in replacing Barney with Draper. An anti-Lincoln New York journal commented: ‘Mr. Barney’s…incompetency to distribute the patronage of the Custom-House and use the services of its officials to aid the re-election of Mr. Lincoln were deemed a sufficient reason for his removal. Mr. Barney’s resignation was therefore procured, and Mr. Simeon Draper, an abler politician, now reigns in his stead.”13
Chase biographer Frederick J. Blue noted: “As Barney explained to Chase, the president requested his resignation ‘as a personal and political favor of great value and importance to him.’ A Seward man, Simeon Draper, was named in his place and other Chase partisans were also replaced. Although Chase’s friends in the Senate managed to prevent confirmation of Draper until the last day of the congressional session in March 1865, the delay could not hide the fact that the last vestige of Chase’s influence in New York was disappearing.”14
“Lincoln lost no time in utilizing the Custom House,” wrote Carman and Luthin. “On the day following the accession of the new Collector, the President instructed Draper to aid the New Jersey leader, former Governor W.A. Newell. Utmost excitement prevailed among Custom House employees, who feared that their official heads were by no means safe under the new regime. There were, indeed, some removals of deputy collectors, weighers, inspectors, and debenture officers immediately upon the appointment of Draper. These few dismissals seem to have been sufficient to bring all into line. ‘It is remarkable to note,’ one New York reporter observed, ‘the change which has taken place in the political sentiments of some of these gentlemen within the last forty-eight hours — in fact, an anti-Lincoln man could not be found in any of the departments yesterday.'”15 Draper himself did not last long in the Collector’s job. After his resignation in 1865, he became a federal cotton agent for New York City.
Draper’s relationship with Mrs. Lincoln appears to have been complicated. After President Lincoln’s death, according to historian Michael Burlingame, “Draper may have been one of the targets of Mary Todd Lincoln’s attempt at a ‘shakedown’ that ‘smacked more than slightly of blackmail.’ In 1867, assuming ‘an attitude of threat very strongly savoring of extortion,’ she demanded that men appointed to high office by her husband aid her financially by purchasing her old clothes, which she was selling in New York. She agreed to write letters to be shown to political figures who had benefited from her husband’s patronage. If those gentlemen did not then offer assistance, her brokers — S.C. Keyes and William Brady — would threaten to expose them by publishing the letters.”16
In November 1865, however, she wrote one of her allies: “Do not approach [Isaac] Newton or [Simeon] Draper, about my affairs.”17 A year later, she wrote: “It has been three years since I have laid eyes on S. Draper & never saw him — but two or three times, in my life[.] I never saw one of his family, in my life — I never received a line from him or a cent in my life.”18 By that time, Draper’s own fortunes had declined and he had died. He had lasted less than a year in the Collector’s post before being replaced by Preston King in August 1865. However, before President Lincoln died, Mrs. Lincoln herself had written Draper in January 1865: “I am very desirous of placing under your auspices, in some sphere of usefulness to the government, either in the Custom House at New York or Savannah, a gentleman who is a personal friend of the President and our family from our own state ‘Illinois.'”19


  1. Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 187 (Michael Burlingame, “Mary Todd Lincoln’s Unethical Conduct as First Lady”).
  2. Gideon Welles, Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume II, p. 219-220 (January 3, 1865).
  3. Thurlow Weed Barnes, editor, Memoir of Thurlow Weed, Volume II, p. 483.
  4. Michael Burlingame, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, p. 303 (Diary of John Hay, February 13, 1867).
  5. Margaret Leech, Reveille in Washington, p. 301 (Diary of John Hay, February 13, 1867).
  6. Michael Burlingame, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, p. 333 (Diary of Orville H. Browning, July 3, 1873).
  7. Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 188 (Michael Burlingame, “Mary Todd Lincoln’s Unethical Conduct as First Lady”).
  8. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 154 (Letter to President Lincoln, August 29,1864).
  9. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 156 (Letter to President Lincoln, August 31, 1864).
  10. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Simeon Draper to William P. Dole, March 3, 1864).
  11. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois. (Letter from Simeon Draper to Abraham Lincoln, March 3, 1864).
  12. Michael Burlingame, editor, With Lincoln in the White House: Letters, Memoranda, and Other Writings of John G. Nicolay, 1860-1865, p. 155 (Letter from John G. Nicolay to Abraham Lincoln, August 30, 1864).
  13. Harry J. Carman and Reinhard H. Luthin, Lincoln and the Patronage, p. 280.
  14. Frederick J. Blue, Salmon P. Chase: A Life in Politics, p. 241.
  15. Harry J. Carman and Reinhard H. Luthin, Lincoln and the Patronage, p. 281.
  16. Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 188 (Michael Burlingame, “Mary Todd Lincoln’s Unethical Conduct as First Lady”).
  17. Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, editor, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, p. 285 (Letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to Alexander Williamson, November 19, 1865).
  18. Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, editor, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, p. 285 (Letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to Alexander Williamson, December 17, 1866).
  19. Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner, editor, Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, p. 199 (Letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to Simeon Draper, January 26, 1865).