Gustavus Philip Koerner, a prominent German-American leader, is remembered as a friend and correspondent of Abraham Lincoln. At the 1860 Republican National Convention, Koerner was Lincoln’s first choice as the Illinois delegate, and his involvement at a crucial moment during the convention opened the door to Lincoln’s presidential nomination. What began as a professional acquaintance between two lawyers gradually became an important friendship that shaped Lincoln’s political opinions and instigated his journey to the presidency.
Born in Frankfurt am Main in Germany on November 20, 1809, Koerner chose to become a lawyer and graduated with his degree from the University of Heidelberg in 1832. Both a humanist and a revolutionary, he became a leader of a student revolution in Frankfurt, but when the action failed, Koerner was forced to flee the country in 1833. Receiving a poor welcome in Switzerland, France, and England, he finally decided to travel to America.
Koerner began his professional and political career by practicing law in Belleville, Illinois. Rising up the political ladder, he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1842, and he served as a State Supreme Court judge from 1845 to 1848. Before the national convention, he was the lieutenant governor of Illinois for four years. He was later appointed the United States ambassador to Spain at the start of the Civil War.
Having worked together on lawsuits involving railroads, Koerner and Lincoln began to exchange letters that discussed the ideals of liberty, the institution of slavery, and Koerner’s radical sentiments about American values. Although originally a Democrat, Koerner joined the Republican Party and became one of the two Germans who helped formulate and advocate the abolition of slavery platform.
Koerner’s letters to Lincoln at this time and his pivotal role in the republican convention acted as major forces in Lincoln’s life and political career. By influencing Lincoln’s journey to the presidency and proclaiming “We must make them understand Lincoln is our man,” Koerner created an important legacy in American history before his death in 1896.