Edmund D. Taylor, (not the) ‘father of the greenback’

Front and back of a $10 U.S. demand note issued 1861-62, the first ‘greenback’ (Wikipedia)

Edmund “Dick” Taylor was a legislator, businessman and investor. He was one of the winners in the only direct election Abraham Lincoln ever lost. And he probably wasn’t “the father of the greenback.”

Taylor (1804-91) lived in Springfield in the 1820s and ‘30s. John Carroll Power reports Taylor engaged in “general merchandising” here. He also was active in Democratic Party politics and community affairs. In 1832, when promoters tried to bring a steamboat, the Talisman, up the Sangamon River to Springfield, Taylor was part of a three-man committee charged with rendering the effort “all the assistance we are capable of.”

Taylor’s business partners included pioneer Springfield merchant John Taylor. The Taylors apparently weren’t closely related by blood, since Dick Taylor married John Taylor’s daughter Margaret (1812-96) in 1829.

Dick Taylor was elected to the Illinois House from Springfield in 1830. He ran for re-election in 1832 and finshed first in the race for four seats in the Illinois House; Lincoln placed eighth. Two years later, Taylor was elected to the state Senate; among his disappointed rivals that time was the famous preacher Peter Cartwright.

Taylor resigned from the Senate in 1835 to become receiver of public moneys in Chicago. He later invested in businesses – mines, railroads, the Illinois & Michigan Canal, etc. – around Illinois and lived mostly in Chicago or Mendota.

Edmund “Dick” Taylor, undated (Wikipedia)

However, Taylor maintained his Springfield connections. From 1840 to 1844, for instance, Taylor was a partner in S.M. Tinsley’s store, which sold everything from hardware to clothing to barrels of salt. (The store building at Sixth and Adams streets today houses the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices State Historic Site.)

Taylor’s investments made him rich – until the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed much of his property. As a result, in 1887, Taylor applied to Congress to be reimbursed for expenses he said he had paid out during the Civil War.

Fifty-five Taylor supporters, one of them Robert Todd Lincoln, sent Congress a letter endorsing his petition. The letter claimed Taylor had been close to both Lincoln and Gen. U.S. Grant during the war, sometimes serving as a courier between Lincoln and Grant when Grant was headquartered at Cairo. Among the letter’s contentions:

That Mr. Lincoln on several occasions, by letter and telegraph, asked him (Taylor) to come to Washington to consult with him, and to become the bearer of messages, sometimes in writing and sometimes by parole, between the President and General Grant, and other officers, in a strictly private and confidential manner. That this was at a period when the Government was greatly straitened and embarrassed in its finances, and before the issuance of Treasury notes, commonly called “greenbacks,” which brought relief.

That he being then a man of considerable means, presented no bill to cover any part of his time or his expenses, Mr. Lincoln assuring him that he should be reasonably paid for the same.

That afterwards, in October, 1871, by the fire in Chicago, Col. Taylor lost his property, fourteen stores having been destroyed by fire, upon which, unfortunately, he was insured in Chicago companies alone, all of which were made insolvent by the same fire which took from Col. Taylor all the savings of his life-time.

We therefore respectfully ask Congress to pass a bill for the relief of Col. Taylor, by paying to him such sum as shall reasonably compensate him for the money and time thus actually spent by him in the service of the Government at the most trying crisis in its history.

During one of those trips back east, according to Taylor’s account, Taylor suggested to Lincoln a way for the cash-strapped Union to finance the war: issue paper money and declare it legal tender. In late 1864, Taylor said, the president wrote a letter to thank Taylor for the idea. Here’s the text Taylor presented.


I have long determined to make public the origin of the greenback and tell the world that it is one of Dick Taylor’s creations. You had always been friendly to me, and when troublous times fell on us, and my shoulders, though broad and willing, were weak, and myself surrounded by such circumstances and such people that I knew not whom to trust, then I said in my extremity, “I will send for Col. Taylor; he will know what to do.” I think it was in January, 1862, on or about the 16th, that I did so. You came, and I said to you, “What can we do?” Said you, “Why, issue Treasury notes bearing no interest, printed on the best banking paper. Issue enough to pay off the Army expenses, and declare it legal tender.” Chase (Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase – ed.) thought it a hazardous thing, but we finally accomplished it, and gave to the people of this Republic the greatest blessing they ever had — their own paper to pay their own debts. It is due to you, the father of the present greenback, that the people should know it, and I take great pleasure in making it known. How many times have I laughed at you telling me plainly that I was too lazy to be anything but a lawyer.

Yours truly,

A. LINCOLN, President.

The problem: As far as historians know, no one besides Taylor ever saw the original “letter.”  The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (Volume VIII, p. 570) categorizes the purported letter as “spurious.” Lincoln Day By Day, which attempts to document Lincoln’s actions every day of his life, lists no visits by E.D. Taylor to Lincoln at any point during the White House years, let alone on Jan. 16, 1862.

Former Illinois State historian Thomas F. Schwartz (as of 2023, he was the director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa) debunked the “greenback letter” in 2000 in For the People, the newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association.

“The letter lacks both the voice of typical Lincoln correspondence and the original has never been located,” Schwartz wrote.

… The claims made by Taylor are questionable on a number of grounds. Telegraph lines operated between Washington, D.C. and Cairo throughout the war. There was no reason to use a courier to send messages that were readily transmitted over the wires. Taylor does not appear as a correspondent in the Lincoln papers throughout the war years nor does he appear in the Grant papers.

John G. Nicolay, one of Lincoln’s White House secretaries, called the supposed Taylor letter “an unblushing forgery,” Schwartz wrote.

Taylor seems never to have taken credit for the “greenback” concept before he filed his reimbursement petition. But the Committee on War Claims was unpersuaded by Taylor’s plea anyway. Congressmen turned him down – twice.

“The committee are constrained to take this action for the want of proper evidence to warrant this claim,” lawmakers said in 1888.

Nonetheless, many obituaries of Taylor in 1891 – including in the Springfield Inewspapers – credited Taylor with coming up with the idea of the greenback. Some secondary Lincoln biographies published in the early 20th century repeated the statement. And, as of March 2024, the second sentence of Wikipedia’s entry on Taylor said, “He is remembered as the first person to suggest that the United States should issue paper currency (‘greenbacks’) during the Civil War.”

The U.S. government indeed did print paper money for the first time during the Civil War, first as “demand notes” and then as “U.S. notes.” (Relevant to Taylor’s claim, demand notes, first issued four months before Taylor’s supposed meeting with Lincoln, were the original “greenbacks,” so-called because they were printed with green ink.) Paper currency eventually provided about 15 percent of the funding needed for the war.

Paper money became a political issue after the war, and the pro-inflation Greenback Party sponsored presidential candidates in 1876, 1880 and 1884.

Dick and Margaret Taylor are buried at Oak Ridge Cemetery.

Taylor’s name

Some sources (again including Wikipedia) say Taylor was born Edmund Richard Taylor, but adopted “Dick” as his preferred name. It’s unclear how those determinations were made.

“Dick” typically is short for “Richard,” but every contemporary record SangamonLink could find – going back to Sangamon County land records from the 1820s and ‘30s – shows him using the names of “Edmund Taylor,” “Edmund Dick Taylor,” “Edmund D. Taylor,” “Dick Taylor” and “E.D. Taylor.” John Carroll Power’s profile of Taylor, which includes a number of precise facts about Taylor’s early life, uses the “Edmund Dick Taylor” variant, and Taylor’s gravestone at Oak Ridge Cemetery is engraved “Edmund D. Taylor.”

“Richard” and the middle initial “R.” are nowhere to be found.

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