Archibald Williams (judge)

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Archibald Williams (June 10, 1801 – September 21, 1863) was a United States federal judge.

Born in Montgomery County, Kentucky, Williams read law to enter the bar in 1828. He was in private practice in Quincy, Illinois beginning in 1829. He was the United States Attorney for the District of Illinois from 1849 to 1853. He served in both the Illinois House of Representatives and the Illinois State Senate.

On March 8, 1861, Williams was nominated by President Abraham Lincoln to a new seat on the United States District Court for the District of Kansas created by 12 Stat. 126. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on March 12, 1861, and received his commission the same day. Williams served in that capacity until his death, in 1863, in Quincy, Illinois.

Archibald Williams's historical significance was based on his close friendship with Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves. Lincoln was from Springfield, Illinois, and Williams was from Quincy, Illinois, a port city on the Mississippi River along the western border of the state. The two men were close political allies in the Whig Party and, later on, in the newly founded Republican Party. They first met when serving in the Illinois state legislature in the early 1830's. They were compatriots for 29 years.

Archibald Williams led the life of a political party workhorse, first for the Whig Party and then the Republicans. He served in the Illinois state legislature, made two unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Senate as a Whig, played a leading role at the Illinois state Constitutional Convention of 1847, chaired many important political meetings in Quincy, Illinois, attended many state political party conventions, made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. House of Representatives, and in 1858 campaigned in Illinois for his friend Abraham Lincoln. In all recorded instances, Archibald Williams gave Abraham Lincoln his true and unwavering support.

Archibald Williams died in 1863. By that time, Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States and the leader of the Northern states during the American Civil War.

Birth and Early Life

Archibald Williams was born in Montgomery County, Kentucky, on June 10, 1801. He was the son of John Williams and Amelia Gill Williams. He grew up in Kentucky, qualified to be a lawyer in the neighboring state of Tennessee, and then moved west with some of his brothers and sisters to Quincy, Illinois. As a young attorney, he rode circuit, going from county court to county court arguing legal cases. He was particularly noted for taking cases on appeal, and he argued many cases before the Illinois state Supreme Court.

He married Nancy Kemp, who also had come from Kentucky, on July 28, 1831. They had nine children, but only five grew up to be adults. For several months in early 1832 he served as a volunteer in the Black Hawk War against Native Americans. In the fall of 1832 he strongly supported Henry Clay for President of the United States.

At the Illinois State Legislature

Archibald Williams was elected to the Illinois state Senate in 1832. He studied and reported on School Financing to the state Senate, arguing for local control of schools rather than establishing a statewide system. Later in his legislative career, he labeled the Illinois Internal Improvements program "Infernal Improvements" due to its financial difficulties leading to bankruptcy.

Abraham Lincoln was elected to the state legislature in 1834. Archibald Williams and Lincoln became good friends and both subsequently joined the Whig Party. Lincoln was said to have seen Archibald Williams as a great "reasoner." The two men were described as "sitting next to each other in the southeast corner of the statehouse." It was noted: "Lincoln did not hesitate to consult Williams at all times, and the two men were often associated in legal work."

Twice the Whig Candidate for U.S. Senator

Archibald Williams ran for the United States Senate as a Whig in 1836 and in 1842. At those times the selection of U.S. senators was made by both houses of the state legislature. Lincoln voted for Archibald Williams the first time he ran for U.S. Senator in 1836. The second time Archibald Williams ran, in 1842, Lincoln was no longer in the state legislature and thus could not vote for his friend. In both instances, Archibald Williams was not elected.

Witnessed Abraham Lincoln's Admission to U.S. Courts

Abraham Lincoln was admitted to practice law in the United States Circuit Court on December 3, 1839. U.S Court Judge Nathaniel Pope presided over the ceremony. A Quincy, Illinois, newspaper noted that Archibald Williams was present at the ceremony.

Presided Over Whig Party State Conventions in Illinois

Archibald Williams presided over a Whig Party state convention meeting in Springfield, Illinois, in 1843. Abraham Lincoln attended the convention and was elected a Whig Party presidential elector for the 1844 presidential election. Unfortunately for the Whigs, Democrat James K. Polk of Tennessee won the presidential election.

In June of 1844, Archibald Williams was elected president of an Illinois state Whig Party convention in Peoria, Illinois. Abraham Lincoln spoke to the convention in support of the United States charging higher tariffs on imported goods, a major Whig position at the time.

Supported African Colonization of Freed Slaves

Along with Abraham Lincoln, Archibald Williams in the 1840's supported the African colonization of freed slaves by joining the Illinois colonization society. Although opposed to slavery, both men believed Southerners should be allowed to keep their slaves but also should be urged to free their slaves voluntarily and return them to Africa. This was thought to be a reasonable and non-coercive solution to the slavery problem.

The Mormon Problem in Illinois

Joining with his friend and fellow Quincy lawyer Orville Browning, Archibald Williams in 1840 helped to defend Mormon leader Joseph Smith from being extradited to Missouri to face possible execution for alleged crimes. Joseph Smith was the founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons), and he and his church were unpopular because of the voting power of his supporters and their belief in men having multiple wives. Thanks to Browning's and Williams's arguments in court, Smith was not extradited to Missouri but remained in Illinois and founded a Mormon colony at Nauvoo, Illinois.

Four years later, in 1844, Smith and his brother Hyrum were murdered by a mob while incarcerated in the jail at Carthage, Illinois. Williams and Browning switched sides and helped to defend in court the accused murderers of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. The murderers were all found not-guilty.

Shortly afterward, Archibald Williams chaired a meeting in Quincy, Illinois, that sought to arrange for a peaceful departure of the Mormons from Illinois to the far western state of Utah. Archibald Williams appointed a delegation of Quincy citizens that traveled to Nauvoo and convinced the new Mormon leader, Brigham Young, to leave Illinois for Utah in an orderly manner. Brigham Young said the Mormons could not leave immediately, but when "grass grows and water runs," both signs of spring. The following spring the Mormons peacefully left Illinois for Utah, traveling mainly by wagon train.

The Illinois Constitutional Convention of 1847

Archibald Williams was elected to the Illinois state Constitutional Convention of 1847 as a Whig. The convention met in the state capitol in Springfield, Illinois, and proceeded to write an improved state constitution. Williams was elected in a Democratic district against a Democratic candidate. Although the Democrats had a majority of the delegates to the convention, the Whigs could break away Democratic votes when they needed them and ended up dominating the convention. A historian noted: "James W. Singleton of Mount Sterling, Archibald Williams of Quincy, and David M. Woodson of Carrollton aggressively upheld the Whig cause against the attacks of various capable Democratic opponents."

At the constitutional convention, Archibald Williams and the Whig Party supported the rights of property, strict voting requirements in state elections, and allowing the state legislature to override the governor's veto by a majority vote rather than a two-thirds vote. Two issues were sent to the state's voters - one calling for the creation of an Illinois state bank and the other limiting the immigration into Illinois of freed slaves from the slave states. The voters of Illinois rejected the idea of an Illinois state bank but approved limiting the immigration of freed slaves.

Archibald Williams gave a major speech at the constitutional convention opposing the idea that the Illinois Supreme Court should meet at various locations throughout the state rather than only in the state capital of Springfield. After the constitutional convention adjourned, the voters of Illinois approved the new constitution by a ratio of almost 4 to 1.

The Constitutional Convention of 1847 was a landmark in the legal and political career of Archibald Williams. He succeeded in furthering the ideals and policies of the Whig Party against stiff Democratic Party opposition. He was three months in Springfield, the state capital, meeting and working with many of the leading politicians and government officials from throughout the state. It helped to make him a significant figure in Illinois political and governmental history.

The "Lincoln Letter" to Archibald Williams

In the 1848 presidential election, Abraham Lincoln was backing General Zachary Taylor, a Mexican War hero, for the Whig Party nomination. A problem developed when Orville H. Browning, a Whig Party leader in Quincy, Illinois, supported the nomination of past Whig Party favorite Henry Clay. On April 30, 1848, Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to Archibald Williams urging him to support Zachary Taylor and, if possible, also enlist the support of Browning. The letter read:

Washington, April 30, 1848 Dear Williams,

I have not seen in the papers and evidence of a movement to send a delegate from your circuit to the June convention - I wish to say that I think it all important that a delegate should be sent - Mr. Clay's chance for election is just no chance at all. He might get New York, and that would have elected in 1844 but it will not now; because he must now at the least, have Tennessee, which he had then and, in addition, the fifteen new votes of Florida, Texas, Iowa, and Wisconsin. I know that our good friend Browning is a great admirer of Mr. Clay, and I therefore fear he is favoring his nomination. If he is, ask him to discard feeling, and try if he can possibly, as a matter of judgement, count the votes necessary to elect him.

In my judgment, we can elect nobody but Gen. Taylor, and we cannot elect him without a nomination - Therefore don't fail to send a delegation -

Your friend as ever, A. Lincoln

This letter demonstrates the close friendship and easygoing familiarity between Abraham Lincoln and Archibald Williams. It also reveals Lincoln's developing skills as an up and coming Illinois politician. It is not known whether Archibald Williams prevailed on Orville Browning to support Zachary Taylor for the Whig nomination for president in 1848. What is known is that Zachary Taylor not only gained the Whig Party nomination but also won the presidency.

Named U.S. District Attorney for Illinois

Once in the White House in Washington, D.C., newly elected President Zachary Taylor appointed Archibald Williams the United States District Attorney for the state of Illinois. Abraham Lincoln had sent the following letter in support of Williams's nomination:

Washington, March 8, 1849 Hon: John M. Clayton Secretary of State

Dear Sir: We Recommend that Archibald Williams, of Quincy, Illinois, be appointed U.S. District Attorney for the District of Illinois, when that office shall become vacant.

Your Obt. Servts. A. Lincoln

As U.S. District Attorney for Illinois, it was Archibald Williams's job to prosecute cases in the U.S. District Court. The job became more difficult for Williams in 1850 when Congress enacted the Compromise of 1850, which included a new Fugitive Slave Law. This law required Williams, in his role as U.S. District Attorney, to oversee the capture of runaway slaves and their return to their owners in the South. Williams was opposed to slavery personally but, in the 1850's, acknowledged the right of slave owners in the South to keep their slaves. He fully discharged his duties under the Fugitive Slave Act.

Death of Nancy Kemp Williams

Archibald Williams's wife, Nancy Kemp Williams, died on March 16, 1854, giving birth to a daughter, Nancy Williams. The baby survived the birth and lived to be an adult. Archibald and Nancy Williams had been married for 22 years.

Candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1854

In the early 1850's, U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois sought the adoption of the Kansas and Nebraska acts. The bills provided for Kansas and Nebraska to become territories with provision for "popular sovereignty," the idea that the citizens of each new territory would be allowed to vote on whether the territory should be slave or free. This produced a sharp reaction on the part of those opposed to slavery in the territories, because the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had stated that the lands that comprised Kansas and Nebraska should be free territory, not slave territory.

The result was the anti-Nebraska movement, which opposed popular sovereignty for Nebraska on the grounds that the citizens of the territory might vote for slavery and thereby spread slavery further into the territories. Archibald Williams and Abraham Lincoln both became anti-Nebraska men. For his part, Archibald Williams ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1854 on a strong anti-Nebraska platform.

Williams was running against incumbent Democratic Representative William A. Richardson, a formidable opponent. The U.S. House district that comprised Quincy, Illinois, was strongly Democratic. On the other hand, Richardson was a close political ally of Stephen Douglas and had strongly backed popular sovereignty for Nebraska in the U.S. House. Williams and his supporters hoped the wave of anti-Nebraska sentiment sweeping the northern states might just be strong enough to defeat Richardson, despite the strong Democratic voting tendency of the House district.

On October 31, 1854, Abraham Lincoln arrived in Quincy, Illinois, to give a speech in support of Archibald Williams's candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives. It took two days for him to travel by railroad and stagecoach to Quincy. In a letter to a friend and political ally, Lincoln wrote: "I am here now going to Quincy, to try to give Mr. [Archibald] Williams a little life."

Even with Abraham Lincoln's help, Archibald Williams lost the election to William Richardson. The overall election was a success for the anti-Nebraska movement, however, as the anti-Nebraska forces won enough seats to gain a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. After 1854, Archibald Williams and Abraham Lincoln and other anti-Nebraskans took the lead in forming the Republican Party in Illinois around the issue of "no slavery in the territories."

An Archibald Williams Committee Influences Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter in which he said he was ready to "fuse" with other anti-slavery groups according to "principles" adopted at a public meeting in Quincy, Illinois. The purpose of fusion was to bring many disparate anti-slavery groups together to form the Republican Party. Lincoln's letter noted that the principles had been drawn up by a three-person committee led "by Mr. Archibald Williams." The principles centered on the idea that Southern slave owners could keep their slaves but that slavery would be forbidden in the territories.

Archibald Williams and his committee either influenced Lincoln directly on "fusion," or else they confirmed a position on "fusion" that Lincoln had already adopted.

At the United States Supreme Court

Archibald Williams argued a case before the United States Supreme Court on December 6 and 7, 1855. Orville Browning, Williams's good friend from Quincy, Illinois, was the opposing lawyer. The issue in dispute dealt with rival claims for lands and centered on whether the question of "bad faith" in the matter should be decided by a judge or by a jury. The Court ruled in Wright v. Mattison that "bad faith" should not be decided by the judge but by the jury, which had been the precedent. The Court ordered the case to be retried in a lower court. The outcome was a victory for Browning and a loss for Williams.

The Beginnings of the Republican Party in Illinois

In 1856, Archibald Williams was the temporary chairman at a major anti-Nebraska convention in Bloomington, Illinois. Williams led the convention until a permanent chairman had been elected. While attending the convention, Abraham Lincoln and Archibald Williams slept in the same bed at the Bloomington home of David Davis, a close friend of both men.A historian noted:

"At Bloomington, Lincoln, Archibald Williams, his old associate in the Legislature, [and] T. Lyle Dickey, of Ottawa [Illinois], a good lawyer, went to [David] Davis's house and lived there during the Convention. Lincoln and Williams slept in one bed and Dickey and Whitney in another... The course of the historic Bloomfield Convention was decisively influenced by the counsels that came from the steady men in the Davis House."

Although the name "Republican" was applied at a later date, the anti-Nebraska convention in Bloomington was considered the birthplace of the Republican Party in Illinois.

The Election of 1858

In 1858, at a state party convention in Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln was nominated to be the Republican candidate for U.S. Senator from Illinois. A resolution passed at the convention stated that Lincoln "was the first and only choice of the Republicans of Illinois for the U.S. Senate."

In the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates in the 1858 Illinois U.S. Senate race, Democratic candidate Stephen Douglas attacked Lincoln three times for having been described as "the first and only choice" of Illinois Republicans for the Senate seat. All three times, Douglas pointed to Archibald Williams as an Illinois Republican who would have been an acceptable alternate choice to Lincoln in that contest.

Archibald Williams traveled and spoke throughout the state of Illinois in Lincoln's behalf during the 1858 U.S. Senate race. A newspaper in Quincy, Illinois, allied with the Republican Party, printed: "Old Archie Williams is doing good service for the Republican cause... He has already spoken at Macomb, Oquawka, Monmouth, Cameron, Galesburg, and other large assemblages; and everywhere, he has created enthusiasm and confidence among our friends and animated the lukewarm... In the winter of his life...Mr. Williams is found battling for the cause of Republicanism."

The Illinois state legislature chose Stephen Douglas over Abraham Lincoln in the 1858 U.S. Senate race. A close friend of Lincoln's wrote: "In January, 1859, while the Democrats were celebrating the election of Stephen A. Douglas to the United States Senate, Archibald Williams...came into Lincoln's office and finding him writing said: 'Well, the Democrats are making a great noise over their victory.' Looking up Lincoln replied: 'Yes, Archie, Douglas has taken this trick, but the game is not played out.'"

The Lincoln-Douglas debates became so well-known that Lincoln gave personally signed presentation copies of the debates to his best friends and political associates. The one given to Archibald Williams was inscribed in Lincoln's handwriting: "To Hon: Archibald Williams, with respects of A. Lincoln." It was one more sign of Lincoln's close friendship and strong political alliance with Archibald Williams.

The Presidential Election of 1860

On December 25, 1859, a number of leading Republicans in Quincy, Illinois, including Archibald Williams, met with Horace Greeley, a prominent national journalist and editor of the New York Tribune. Greeley had famously stated "Go west, young man. Go west!" Williams and the other Quincy Republicans talked to Greeley about Abraham Lincoln possibly becoming the Republican candidate for President in 1860. Archibald Williams spoke throughout Illinois in behalf of Abraham Lincoln during Lincoln's successful 1860 campaign for the White House in Washington, D.C.

Almost on the Supreme Court, Then U.S. District Judge in Kansas

Following his election to the U.S. presidency in 1860, Abraham Lincoln offered Archibald Williams a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Williams refused the offer due to ill health and advanced age. Williams recommended that Lincoln appoint a younger court nominee who could live for more years and thereby serve longer on the Court.

Archibald Williams was then appointed by President Lincoln to be the Judge for the U.S. District Court of Kansas. Williams was the first person to hold the office of U.S. District Court Judge in Kansas, because Kansas had just been admitted to the Union as a state. Williams moved to Topeka, Kansas, the state capital, where he served more than two years as U.S. Judge. He moved back to Quincy, Illinois, shortly before his death on September 21, 1863.

During his tenure as the U.S. District Court Judge for Kansas, Archibald Williams worked on such issues as building a branch of the transcontinental railroad across Kansas, fair treatment of Native Americans in railroad matters, and the loyalty to the Union cause of a U.S. Army officer stationed in Kansas. Also while in Kansas, Williams married his second wife, Ellen M. Parker, on September 24, 1861. The marriage lasted a little less than two years until Archibald Williams death.

While serving as the U.S. Judge for Kansas, Archibald Williams traveled to Washington, D.C., and, on May 29, 1962, paid a last visit to his old friend Abraham Lincoln in the White House.

Death and Burial of Archibald Williams

Archibald Williams was praised in obituaries as a leading attorney in Illinois in the mid-19th Century. His many political and governmental activities were noted, along with his deep friendship with Abraham Lincoln. The bar association in Quincy, Illinois, donated a large marble grave marker for Williams. The base of the marker was a stack of law books; an obelisk was placed on top of the law books. He was buried in Woodland Cemetery in Quincy, Illinois, at a grave site that overlooks the Mississippi River.


Robert D. and Walton T. Loevy, "Archibald Williams: A Friend of Abraham Lincoln," unpublished manuscript (public domain), Brenner Library, Quincy University, Quincy, Illinois. Copies also at Historical Society of Quincy, Illinois, and Adams County; the Quincy, Illinois, Public Library; and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois.

Norma Lorene Johnston, "Lincoln's Relationships with Four Quincy Republicans," Masters Thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1955.

Maurice G. Baxter, Orville H. Browning: Lincoln's Friend and Critic (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1957).

Theodore C. Pease and James G. Randall, The Diary of Orville Hickman Browning (Springfield, IL: Illinois State Historical Library, 1925 and 1933), Volumes I-II.

Earl Schenck Myers, Ed., Lincoln Day by Day - A Chronology, 1809-1865 (Dayton, OH: Morningside, 1991).

Roy P. Basler, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (Springfield. IL: 1953), Volumes I-VI.

Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill, Carthage Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1975).

Arthur Charles Cole, Ed., The Constitutional Debates of 1847 (Springfield, IL: Illinois Historical Library, 1919).

Dennis J. Thavenet, "William Alexander Richardson, 1811-1875," PhD. dissertation, University of Nebraska, 1967.

Legal offices
Preceded by
new seat
Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Kansas
Succeeded by
Mark W. Delahay