“A base forgery”

Right now Americans have presidential politics on the brain. On this date in 1860, Abraham Lincoln was thinking about the same thing.

Having been selected as the Republican nominee, he had just discovered, via a letter from Anson G. Chester, that a Chicago newspaper had printed a speech purporting to be Lincoln’s own work.  The remarks criticized Thomas Jefferson as a “repulsive” character who profited from the bondage of his own illegitimate children.  Lincoln responded to Chester as follows:

The extract upon a newspaper slip which you sent, and which I herewith return, is a base forgery, so far as its authorship is imputed to me. I never said anything like it, at any time or place. I do not recognize it as anything I have ever seen before, emanating from any source. I wish my name not to be used; but my friends will be entirely safe in denouncing the thing as a forgery, so far as it is ascribed to me.

On September 6, the Illinois State Journal denounced the anti-Jefferson speech as a “bold and deliberate forgery,” claiming that “Mr. Lincoln has ever spoken of Mr. Jefferson in the most kindly and respectful manner, holding him up as one of the ablest statesmen of his own or any other age, and constantly referring to him as one of the greatest apostles of freedom and free labor.”

That wasn’t the end of Lincoln’s Jefferson problem; a few weeks later, he had to issue another denial.  His law partner William H. Herndon claimed that Lincoln did indeed have a low opinion of Jefferson, but in 1859 Lincoln praised the author of the Declaration of Independence:

All honor to Jefferson—to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyrany and oppression.

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