Newly found documents show Lincoln's agility as a lawyer in legal maneuvering

February 16, 1992|By Herbert Mitgang | Herbert Mitgang,New York Times News Service L

Two legal documents from the 1850s have been discovered in dusty cardboard and tin boxes in an overlooked county-records room and in an attic of a courthouse where A. Lincoln, Esq., practiced, enhancing his reputation as one of the leading trial and appeals lawyers of his era in Illinois.

Read together, the new finds serve to entomb the myth that Abraham Lincoln was simply a hick lawyer who handled only small-town, morally correct cases for his friends and neighbors in Springfield.

One document concerns a client of Lincoln's accused of murder. The other is of great significance because its 43 legal-size pages make it the longest one known to exist in Lincoln's own handwriting.

Sometime after 1855, when the document was filed, his signature was cut off, probably by an amateur collector who did not realize that the pages were written by Lincoln himself.

The official court document, which cannot be sold because it is a county document, is now being de-acidified and preserved. Scholars estimate that it could fetch $100,000 or more if it were auctioned.

This handwritten document concerns a complicated railroad ownership and fraud matter that dragged on for five years in federal and state courts. Lincoln represented the railroad's shady financiers and eventually lost the case.

The discovery was made in July by Dennis Suttles, Susan Krause and John Lupton, researchers with the Lincoln Legal Papers, a project of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which is housed in the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill.

The researchers were making a blanket search of all documents in the Macoupin County Courthouse in Carlinville, about 40 miles south of Springfield, when Ms. Krause spotted an old document in the Circuit Court clerk's office.

When she unfolded it her heart skipped a beat, she said. She immediately recognized Lincoln's clear, flowing handwriting.

"The 43-page document tells us a lot about Lincoln's mind and skills," said Cullom Davis, director and senior editor of the Lincoln Legal Papers.

"His writing is a reflection of his lucid thinking in a complex case. There are relatively few strikeovers. What we see is all original. He didn't use a secretary or have a word processor to conceal any changes or second thoughts. His penmanship is quite distinctive compared to the writing of other contemporary lawyers and clerks we've studied."

The document concerns litigation involving the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad in the case of Clark and Morrison vs. Page and Bacon.

Lincoln and another lawyer, William H. Underwood, defended Daniel D. Page and Henry D. Bacon, both St. Louis bankers. Two stockholders in the railroad accused the men of fraud and conflicts of interest over construction of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad, which ran through Illinois.

The central issue involved the financial dealings of Bacon, a board member and later president of the Ohio and Mississippi. His bank provided money to the railroad and later obtained money from the railroad for the bank.

The stockholders asked the court to name an independent receiver to run the railroad until the suit was settled. Lincoln's 43-page answer to the 102-page complaint avoided a direct rebuttal of the charges against Bacon, whose financial dealings appeared highly questionable.

Lincoln asked that the case be dismissed, arguing that only the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad, not individual stockholders, had a cause of action. In short, Lincoln did not question most of the facts but made his arguments on legal grounds.

Judge David M. Woodson did not agree with Lincoln's defense and ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. But in the view of the Lincoln Legal Papers experts, Lincoln did obtain a more favorable financial judgment than expected for his clients, considering the degree of their fraudulent activities.

The second document, part of Lincoln's defense of an accused murderer in 1857, also was found in July. Mr. Lupton, a graduate assistant at Sangamon State University in Springfield, said he discovered it in the Macoupin County Courthouse.

"The county clerk was surprised and pleased at our Lincoln discovery," Mr. Lupton said. "He didn't know it existed."

The two-page document includes an affidavit in Lincoln's handwriting addressed to the Sangamon County Circuit Court, in Springfield, asking to move the trial to a different county.

A second page includes a notice of additional witnesses by the state's attorney and acknowledged by Lincoln's signature. As defense counsel, he wrote, "Lincoln & Herndon." William Herndon was Lincoln's last law partner.

Criminal cases were actually a small part of Lincoln's practice, but they were notorious and kept his name before the public.

He ran for the U.S. Senate against Stephen A. Douglas a year after he took on this murder case. As a result of new research, it is now known that in his 24 years of practicing law before being elected president in 1860, Lincoln handled more than 400 criminal and civil appeals to the Illinois Supreme Court.

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