Once Upon a Time

Colorful attorney formed bond of respect with Lincoln

This photograph of Archibald Williams was taken in his later years. He was known as a great storyteller with a biting wit. | Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County
Posted: Mar. 17, 2019 12:30 am Updated: Mar. 17, 2019 12:46 am

Archibald (Archie) Williams, a colorful character with a flair for law and politics, was 28 years old when he settled in Quincy in 1829. He was born June 10, 1801, into a large family of limited means in Montgomery County, Ky. His only formal education was in a country school. Beyond that, he was self-educated and devoted his free time to reading while working at manual labor. He trained himself in the study of the law and was admitted to the Tennessee bar in 1828.

Williams was one of Quincy's first lawyers and became involved in the political life of the frontier outpost. In 1834 he was elected a trustee of the city and in a brief effort to move the Adams County seat to the center of the county in 1840, represented the village of Columbus. Soon he had acquired the esteem of residents just as he had gained the admiration of fellow lawyer Abraham Lincoln. Williams and Lincoln were linchpins for each other for 30 years.

Within three years of settling in Quincy, Williams was elected to a term in the Illinois Senate and later to two terms in the House. Williams became acquainted with Lincoln at the state capital in Vandalia in 1834 when Lincoln was elected as a representative of the Springfield district. In Vandalia, the two legislators formed a bond of respect and friendship. Neither Lincoln nor Williams were noted for good looks, and one newcomer to the statehouse asked who "those two ugly men" were over in the corner. Both men were excellent storytellers, renowned for biting wit and careless in dress.

Usher Linder, a Coles County legislative colleague, described Williams as angular and ungainly, surpassing Lincoln when it came to homeliness.

Another account reported that Williams had a reputation for "ugliness accentuated by eccentricity in dress." Fond of wearing buckskin pants in early court appearances, fellow lawyers first smirked but quickly realized his uncommon intelligence. His striking appearance was overcome by his reasoned presentations in court and in the Legislature.

Through the 1840s Williams was chairman of statewide Whig conventions and a member of the state constitutional convention of 1847. He helped settle the Mormon conflict in Hancock County and was one of six attorneys hired to defend the five men accused of conspiring to murder Joseph Smith. From 1849-1853 he was U.S. Attorney for Illinois.

Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Williams and Lincoln practiced law, sometimes in the same courtroom either as allies or competitors. Only two of the letters Lincoln wrote to Williams remain. Lincoln's letter of March 1, 1845, addressed to "Friend Williams" is an update on several of Williams' cases. In the second, written April 30, 1848, Lincoln seeks to gain Williams' support for Zachary Taylor for president.

In 1854 Williams ran for U.S. representative from the Fifth District against William Richardson. Rather than run as a Whig, he ran as a Free Soil candidate opposing slavery in any new territories. The possibility of Nebraska becoming a slave state was central to the campaign. Lincoln spoke on Williams' behalf in Quincy on Nov. 1, 1854, in what was Lincoln's first visit to Quincy. In a letter to U.S. Representative Richard Yates, Lincoln wrote that he was going to Quincy to try to give Williams "a little life."

Lincoln spoke at Kendall Hall, at Sixth and Maine, to an enthusiastic crowd. The night before the election on Nov. 5, Williams, O.H. Browning, Abraham Jonas and others spoke at a final rally. Williams lost the election by a narrow margin to Richardson.

In subsequent years most anti-Nebraska supporters became Republicans, as did Williams. He was among the hundreds who attended the Anti-Nebraska Convention held in Bloomington in May 1856, and was the preliminary president. The Bloomington Convention is considered to be the birthplace of the Republican Party in Illinois. During this convention Lincoln delivered a mesmerizing speech on slavery that is referred to as "The Lost Speech" because the reporters listened so intently that they did not record the content.

As a staunch supporter of Lincoln, Williams was often a speaker at rallies during Lincoln's campaign for the presidency in the fall of 1860, as he had been during the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. Advancing the Republican platform, Williams spoke in Augusta in June stating he had "known him (Lincoln) for 27 years, and that he was as pure, honest and capable a man as ever lived…"

When Lincoln became U.S. president on March 4, 1861, Williams was one of the few Quincyans who attended the inauguration in Washington. Within days of the inauguration, Lincoln offered a surprise appointment for Williams as judge of the U.S. District Court for Kansas. He moved to Topeka and served from 1861 to 1863. Lincoln reportedly had offered Williams an appointment to the U. . Supreme Court in 1861, but Williams was said to have declined. Williams made his final trip to Washington to visit Lincoln in 1862.

Williams' legal career had been largely involved in real estate, especially the sale of military tract lands. Early land sales demanded solutions to important fundamental principles of common law. According to "Portraits of Eminent Americans Now Living" (1858) Williams was known to colleagues as a thinker and had the research skills and the "power of penetrating through ... to the very bottom of the subject." Williams' part in the argument of these early legal questions, and "the originality, vigor, and breadth of his views," commanded the admiration of his contemporaries and identified him with the history of the jurisprudence of the state.

Williams died in 1863 at his daughter's home and is buried in Woodland Cemetery (Block 2, Lot 66). Colleagues of the Adams County Bar recognized Williams as the first judge of the U.S. District Court in the State of Kansas by enlisting Quincy sculptor Cornelius Volk to create a gravestone dedicated to Williams. The gravestone featuring a stack of books representing a learned man reads "In Memory of our Brother."


Iris Nelson is a former reference librarian and archivist at the Quincy Public Library. She serves on boards for civic and historical organizations and has written articles for historical journals.




Asbury, Henry. "Reminiscences of Quincy, Illinois." Quincy, Ill.: D. Wilcox and Sons, 1882.


Basler, Roy P., editor. "Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln." Volume 1.


Livingston, John. "Portraits of Eminent Americans Now Living: biographical and historical memoirs of their lives and actions." New York, Cornish, Lamport & Co., 1853.


Loevy, Walton T., "Archibald Williams: A Friend of Abraham Lincoln." (paper)


Wilson, Douglas L. and Rodney D. Davis, editors, "Herndon's Informants." Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.


"Glorious Rally," Quincy Whig and Republican, June 16, 1860.


"Death of Judge Williams," Quincy Whig and Republican, Sept. 26, 1863.


Article revisited

An earlier version of this article was published in 2013.