Mansfield’s Role in the Lincoln Legend

Mansfield, Ohio is just a small city on the edge of the Midwest, and in many ways it is just like any number of other places on the map; but it has long been one of the unique crossroads of the US, and has a most interesting way of intersecting with American History.

One of these stories has to do with Abraham Lincoln.  He never set foot in this town, and yet in a small but significant way, his whole Presidential career, and hence, his epic legend, hinged on our town.

The Monument

If you’re in downtown Mansfield on Main Street at the Square sitting at the light, take a look to your left and you can’t miss the Monument.  It is a big granite slab with a large bronze tablet showing the head of Lincoln—looking like a copper penny only weathered and discolored since its placement in 1925.

In the 1920s when the Lincoln Highway was connecting automobile drivers from coast to coast, every town along that 3,142 mile road was eager to have itself associated in some way with Abraham Lincoln. 

It was around this time that Lincoln scholars dug up an old newspaper clipping from the Mansfield Herald in 1858, clearly stating that the very first endorsement of Lincoln for President anywhere in the country, took place right here in our town.

Eager to capitalize on this historic Lincoln connection, city fathers arranged for Mansfield to receive the designation as having launched Lincoln’s career, and then commemorated it in granite and bronze for the ages.  On Emancipation Day in 1925 dignitaries from near and far set foot on the Square to unveil the Monument, and hallow the memory of the city’s milestone in American History.

The Lincoln Endorsement monument has faced Main & Park Avenue since 1925. 
Though Emancipation Day in our times is recognized in April, its original observance was on September 22, the date on which Lincoln issued his initial executive order freeing the slaves.

This clipping from November 4, 1858 was the first notification people in America had that a monumental moment in history had taken place in Mansfield.
Newspapers all over the country picked up the story, and the only newspaper men who didn’t seem to know anything about the event were the ones in Mansfield.

The Irony

Abraham Lincoln was the first president to come from the Republican Party, and Republicans today are more than happy to claim him for their own.  There is an odd discrepancy in this, however, because Republicans today are viewed as conservative, but in the 1850s Republicans were seen as wily liberals.  Mansfield, and Richland County, is today considered a conservative district, and it was also considered conservative in the 1850s.  The conservative party at the time that Lincoln was president, however, was the Democratic Party.

In no election did Mansfield or Richland County go for Lincoln.  Not even close.

Scholars of political history in the 1920s could easily recognize that the idea of Mansfield endorsing Lincoln for president was clearly outrageous, and they assumed that the origin of the story must have been some kind of joke.

The first ‘hoax’ headlines started showing up not long after the monument was dedicated.  After the story became enshrined in several Lincoln biographies as historic documentation, no one every questioned that the story of Lincoln’s Mansfield endorsement might actually be true.

The Dispute

After the official unveiling in the Square, there were historians who were sure the monument commemorated a hoax.

They had ample evidence to power their arguments, because in the 1850s Mansfield had been home to a newspaper writer whose subsequent national fame was all based on his terrific talent as a practical joker.  He was, in fact, the most popular practical joker in the country.

His name was David Ross Locke, and he was famous for making fun of politics through his fictional character known as Petroleum V. Nasby.  Shortly after he left Mansfield, his Nasby columns catapulted him to national celebrity, and his humorous stories were carried by newspapers all over the country.  Lincoln himself thought they were so funny he read some of the jokes to his Cabinet.

By the 1920s it was not a difficult leap to assume that somehow it was the political jokester who had set in motion the Mansfield ‘Lincoln for President’ hoax.

The main problem they had with documenting the Lincoln Endorsement was that in 1858 every politically-motivated meeting, rally, convention or tea party that took place was clearly announced or reported in the daily papers…and there was no record of any notice—before hand or afterward—that the Republicans had hosted a get-together in Mansfield.  Yet the ‘Lincoln for President’ clipping clearly stated that “an enthusiastic political meeting” took place on November 5.

Political conventions in Mansfield were not uncommon in the 1800s, and they were always big news in the papers.  On the day of the Lincoln endorsement there was no Republican gathering advertised, so folks assumed any reporting of a convention must be erroneous, or fake news.

For a number of decades historians laid the responsibility for Mansfield’s Lincoln Endorsement at the feet of author David Ross Locke, whose comic character Petroleum V. Nasby was always turning politics upside down. 
Nasby was portrayed as a drunken, shiftless and self-important bumpkin in such a way as to make any politician he supported look ridiculous.
Historians believed that the author intended the Lincoln endorsement as a practical joke, in spite of all corroborating evidence.  It was the only explanation they could come up with.

The Discovery

Sometime in the 1950s a Mansfield rare book dealer named Ernest Wessen happened upon a hotel register for the largest hotel on Main Street from the year 1858.  In the Wiler House register he found a list of names of men who had checked into the place, and were in residence there on November 5, 1858.

To his amazement he recognized that all of these guests at the Wiler House were prominent railroad owners and promoters.  They were in Mansfield to discuss details of a new railroad coming to town, and other railroad magnates had taken the opportunity to convene with them, because Mansfield was a convenient midway point between New York and Chicago.

On the day of the famous Lincoln Endorsement there was, indeed, an enthusiastic meeting in Mansfield—not by the Republican Party—but by the leaders of US railroads.

The old Wiler House hotel, where Lincoln’s first endorsement for President occurred, stood on Main Street in the lot just south of where the Richland Carrousel Park is today.

All of the major railroad owners, who met in Mansfield in 1858, left evidence of their presence by signing the hotel guest register.

The Power Behind the Throne

In 1858 Abraham Lincoln was not a well-known man in Ohio—he was just some not-overly-successful lawyer from Illinois.  But he was a railroad lawyer.  The presidents of railroads, who met in Mansfield, had every reason to know him, and to want him in a position to make decisions.  In 1858 there were two different main railroad routes driving toward the American West—a Northern one, and a Southern one—but neither of them had yet been granted official authority to become the first trans-continental connector.

Boiled down to the essential bones of the story, it is all quite simple: if the Democrats gained power then the Southern railroad route would be built; if the Republicans had their say then the Northern railroad would triumph.

So it was that in Mansfield, Ohio, where those New York and Chicago railroad men had no hesitation at all in loudly and enthusiastically endorsing their attorney for President of the United States.

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