"He was an intimate personal and political friend of Abraham Lincoln and was the man who framed for him the four questions propounded to Stephen A. Douglas at Freeport in the famous debates in 1858."
-- Quincy Daily Journal, Nov. 20, 1896
By CHUCK RADEL
Among the charter members of the Quincy Historical Society, founded in 1896 -- today's Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County -- was Henry Asbury. He was a Quincy lawyer, historian, and author. He also was one of the first Republicans to suggest in 1858 that his friend Abraham Lincoln had the makings to be the young party's presidential candidate in 1860.
Never elected to an executive office -- in fact, he was elected to only two offices in the 28 years before 1860, Lincoln was at best a long shot for the presidency. But Asbury's musings were realized when Lincoln won his party's nomination, then defeated the former Quincy Democrat, U.S. Stephen A. Douglas, for the nation's highest office.
Henry Asbury was born in Harrison (now Robertson) County, Kentucky on August 10, 1810, and came to Illinois in 1834, traveling on horseback and arriving in Quincy when it was "a thicket of hazel brush." His first home was a log cabin on the southeast corner of Seventh and Hampshire. Asbury began the study of law in 1834 with Quincy lawyer Orville H. Browning and was admitted to the bar in 1837. In 1843 he opened a law partnership with Abraham Jonas, whose friendship with Lincoln enabled Jonas to make the arrangements for the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debate in Quincy. For a time Asbury was a law partner of Col. Edward D. Baker, a Lincoln favorite, later U.S. senator from Oregon and killed at Ball's Bluff, Va., in 1862 during the Civil War.
Asbury was elected a justice of the peace in Quincy in 1836. In an 1841 election favoring a proposal to move the county seat from Quincy to Columbus, Justices of the Peace Asbury and W.D. McCann certified the election results, which were appealed and stopped by a major of Adams County commissioners. In 1842 Dr. Richard Eells was caught helping an escaped slave, arrested, and charged with harboring and secreting a fugitive slave under the Illinois Criminal Code. Eells was brought before Asbury, who ordered him bound for trial, a case heard the next year by Quincy Judge Stephen A. Douglas.
President Zachary Taylor appointed Asbury register of the federal land office in Quincy in 1849. In 1864 President Lincoln, who was his close personal friend, appointed Asbury the Quincy District provost marshal, which made him responsible for arresting deserters and investigating alleged acts of treason during the Civil War. He thereby obtained the title of "Captain," by which he became widely known. The position was not without its dangers, as a number of guards were shot outside his door. Asbury's success can be measured by the thousands of troops he recruited during the later years of the Civil War. Capt. Asbury later served for several years as registrar in bankruptcy at Quincy, his last official position.
Originally a Whig, Asbury was one of the founders of the Republican Party in Illinois along with Quincyans Abraham Jonas, Archibald Williams, Nehemiah Bushnell, and O. H. Browning and Abraham Lincoln, with whom he was a frequent correspondent. Horace Greeley, New York editor and prominent Republican, in Quincy on a speaking engagement met in the offices of Asbury and Jones with a group of local Republicans in December 1858. The discussion focused on Republican presidential candidates in 1860. Asbury suggested Lincoln's name as a possible candidate and the idea was endorsed by Jonas. This was one of the first endorsements by the local Republican power base, an important step if Lincoln was to become a presidential candidate.
Asbury is given credit for framing the four questions Lincoln asked Douglas to answer at Freeport during the second of their seven Great Debates in 1858. Asbury believed his most important question was: "Can the people of a United States territory in any lawful way against the wish of any citizen of the United States exclude Slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a state constitution?" In a letter to Asbury in 1858 Lincoln acknowledged the importance of Asbury's contribution: "The points you propose to press upon Douglas, he will be very hard to get up to." It was reported that a number of Republican leaders came to Lincoln's room the night before the speech, however, and strongly advised him not to put the interrogatories to Douglas, saying "If you do you can never be senator." "Gentlemen," replied Lincoln, "I am killing larger game; if Douglas answers, he can never be president, and the battle of 1860 is worth a hundred of this." Asbury was proud of his connection with that incident and believed he contributed greatly to the election of Lincoln as president. He also prized his correspondence with Lincoln and the letters he received from him.
Lincoln's regard for Asbury is seen in his presidential directive to Secretary of War Edward Stanton in December 1862 to have Asbury and Jonas decide the fate of a St. Joseph, Mo., man arrested for disloyalty. Lincoln described the character of his two Quincy friends "both of whom I know to be loyal and sensible men." Capt. Asbury often visited Lincoln in Washington and is believed to have been there when four of the eight Lincoln assassination conspirators were executed. Since he had been such an intimate friend of the president, it is believed that he was able to obtain without difficulty the relics connected with the assassination and now displayed in the Lincoln Gallery of the Historical Society.
Asbury wrote Illinois Form-book, a method of procedure for justice courts commonly referred to as Asbury's Justice, and Reminiscences of Quincy, Illinois, a history of the city's early years. When the Historical Society was formed, he was the first one selected as a corresponding member. Asbury moved to Chicago in 1886 and lived in the home of his daughter until his death on November 19, 1896. He is buried in Quincy's Woodland Cemetery in a plot adjoining the Browning family lot.
Chuck Radel is retired from the Quincy Public Schools and taught history for 20 years. He is a local historian, president of the Historical Society, and a member of the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Interpretive Center Advisory Board.
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Richardson, William A., Jr. "The County Seat of Adams County." Journal of the Illinois Historical Society 17 (October, 1924): 374.
"Valuable Abraham Lincoln Relics Pride of Quincy Historical Society." Quincy Herald-Whig. 13 Dec. 1949: 24, cols. 2-7.