Lincoln Legal Briefs

April - June, 1990, Number 14

Moonlight Over Mason County

Without doubt Lincoln's most famous case in popular history was his successful defense of William "Duff" Armstrong for the murder of James Metzker. Known generally as the "Almanac Trial," this case featured Lincoln's use of an almanac to discredit the testimony of a prosecution witness.

Astronomers as well as historians and lawyers continue to be drawn to this case. Two Texas physicists, Russell Doescher and Donald Olson, have performed astronomical calculations that support Lincoln's assertion that the moon was too low in the sky on August 29, 1857 for the eye-witness to have precisely observed the camp meeting altercation that ended later in James Metzker's death. Further, they note that a rare recurrence of the exact location of the moon will happen on the event's 133rd anniversary, August 29, 1990.

Lincoln buffs who want to judge the situation for themselves may want to observe the moon around midnight (CDT) this coming August 29. Such sightings properly should occur in southern Mason County, about 15 miles northeast of New Salem. Our expertise in history, not astronomy, leaves us unqualified to reveal the amount of distortion produced by sightings made elsewhere than the Mason County setting. Perhaps it will be a cloudy night anyway, thus forcing us to wait until the next opportunity, in 2006. Readers are invited to send us reports of their own observations and musings on this momentous issue.


Federal Funding

Vital and timely new support for accessioning records began this spring with the announcement of grants by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). A renewable one-year award of $30,000 from NHPRC covers the salary and related costs of an Assistant Editor to perform field work in county courthouses. The NEH grant runs for two years, and totals $65,000, including $25,000 in matching support. This latter amount requires that the project raise an equal sum in private grants and gifts. Efforts since April 1 to reach our $25,000 gift goal yielded nearly 10%, or $2,475, by June 30. All friends and supporters of the project now can have the added satisfaction of knowing that their donations will produce an equal amount of federal support, thus doubling the benefit. Send checks (made out to the Abraham Lincoln Association) to The Lincoln Legal Papers, Old State Capitol, Springfield, Illinois 62701.


Donors to the Project

Since the last newsletter, the following donors have provided financial support which qualifies for matching support from NEH: Judith H. Bartholf, George M. Craig, J. Robert Flandrick, Michelle Gillen, Arthur J. Greenbaum, Sherrill Halbert, Janis E. Harrison, James T. Hickey, Harvey E. Lemmen, Alan M. Levinsky, David K. Miller, Clifford P. Pease, Jane Salmon, Mr. & Mrs. William G. Shepherd, J.M. Slechta, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Taylor, Mr. & Mrs. Gregory N. Van Winkle, Theodore Wachs, Jr., Margaret R. Wann, and Helen H. Wineman.


Mead Data Central

In June project staff members Cullom Davis and Marty Benner visited the offices of Mead Data Central, a recognized leader in specialized information products and services. In touring the impressive facility, they were guests of Robert S. Willard, a company official, member of the Abraham Lincoln Association, and active Lincoln collector. Among the company's most important clients and customers are law offices and law-related government agencies, so they have a natural interest in our effort to document the legal practice of America's most revered lawyer-statesman. Through Bob Willard's assistance the project will have complimentary access to several valuable data bases, plus expert advice on the latest document imaging technology.


Staff News and Notes

Joanne Walroth was promoted to Assistant Editor in May, and shortly thereafter completed the four-month search for records in the Menard County Court House. This November she will give a paper on Lincoln's Menard County practice at the Illinois History Symposium in Springfield.

Assistant Director Marty Benner assumed complex new financial responsibilities that resulted from receipt of NEH and NHPRC grants. She also is implementing final refinements on the project's document data base in time to enter information for thousands of newly accessioned records. Early in July Ann Jenkins joined the project as secretary, assisting Marty with the growing data entry work load.

Assistant Editor Bill Beard visited Lincoln Memorial University, Lilly Library, and the Huntington Library to collect and copy legal records from their impressive Lincoln collections. In November he will read a paper on Lincoln's 1850s practice at the Illinois History Symposium.

Cullom Davis addressed five audiences this spring on various subjects related to Lincoln as a lawyer. In addition, he visited the Louis A. Warren Lincoln Library and Museum to locate and copy documents. His paper, "Crucible of Statesmanship: The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln," appeared in the winter issue of Tamkang Journal of American Studies.

Three temporary employees completed their term appointments at the end of June. Greg Olson and Leslie Wright made major contributions to our progress in searching for documents, and also performed many research and reference tasks. Margie Towery did bibliographic and research work, and also found time to write an article for The Lincoln Legacy and prepare papers for the National Women's Studies Conference and the Illinois History Symposium. Our thanks and best wishes go to these three valued colleagues.

The summer season brought three new temporary employees. Mike Bonansinga, a recent MA recipient in Legal Studies, was employed by Sangamon State University's Legal Studies Center to assist project staff with legal research on Herndon and Lincoln's Commonplace Book. Another SSU recruit is Dan Dixon, a History major who has performed a variety of useful tasks in the office and in Menard County. John Squibb, History instructor at Lincoln Land Community College, used his legal history expertise to assess the historical context and significance of Lincoln's Illinois Supreme Court cases.

Volunteers continue to devote their respective skills to certain project assignments. Dan Bannister worked many hours during the winter and spring to finish the arduous task of writing briefs for most of Lincoln's 250-odd Supreme Court cases. His singular dedication presently involves additional work on the Supreme Court material. Susan Krause, a History graduate student at SSU, is devoting several days per week this summer to biographical research on Illinois attorneys who were contemporaries of Lincoln. Bob Lawless, law clerk to U.S. Seventh Circuit Judge Harlington Wood, has written briefs of all of Lincoln's reported federal cases, and also provided other help.

The search for additional full-time staff ended successfully by late June, with the appointment of Dennis Suttles and Leslie Wright as Research Associates. A former manuscripts curator at the Illinois State Historical Library, Dennis brings both a graduate degree in history and extensive archival experience to his new job as a specialist in collecting county courthouse records. Sharing this work will be Leslie, who holds advanced degrees in both anthropology and history, and previously served the project as a volunteer and a temporary assistant. With these appointments the project is adequately staffed to complete its ambitious accessioning work on schedule.


Accessioning Update

Since our last report, the search for documents has taken project staff to four of the major Lincoln repositories plus Menard County, one of the largest courthouse collections.

At Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, Bill Beard found numerous records, notably court orders by Judge David Davis. While there, he had help from Steve Wilson, director of the Abraham Lincoln Museum. Bill also visited Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana, where curator Sandra Taylor assisted in locating a large number of declarations and bills of complaint from diverse cases.

The Huntington Library of San Marino, California, has a rich collection of Lincolniana. There Bill worked with curator John Rhodehamel to select nearly 200 documents and case-related correspondence from several different manuscript collections.

At the Louis A. Warren Lincoln Library and Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Cullom Davis had the help of Mark Neely and Marilyn Tolbert in selecting over three dozen case documents plus many useful clippings and related information.

All spring Joanne Walroth led a project team conducting an exhaustive search of Menard County records, including all case files and docket books from the 1836-61 period. This effort yielded over 10,000 records pertaining to 361 cases, nearly triple the number of previously reported partnership cases in Menard County. Staff finished photocopying all of this material, except for several fragile docket books which they soon will return to photograph. Providing work space and valuable assistance were Circuit Clerk David Hitchcock, County Clerk Marge O'Brien, and the following office personnel: Georgia Ed, Joann Hollis, Marilyn Montgomery, and Diane Ottino. Our deep thanks go to these individuals and others who helped launch the accessioning work in successful fashion.


Lincoln as a Member of the Bar

One of the primary goals of The Lincoln Legal Papers project is to illuminate Lincoln's standing within the membership of the Illinois bar. We would like to know how his peers perceived him and when they began to seek his help on complicated cases. At what point in his career did Lincoln assume a leadership role among his colleagues?

Supporters of this project are aware that authors have tended to neglect Lincoln's legal career. Those books that address the subject focus on his personal relationships with various contemporary attorneys and judges or on his individual cases. Very little attention has been paid to the important question of Lincoln's growing stature within his profession.

John P. Frank, in his admirable Lincoln as a Lawyer, even claimed that Lincoln "apparently had absolutely no interest in bar activities of any sort or in the bar as an institution." Frederick Trevor Hill's Lincoln the Lawyer discusses Lincoln's emergence as a leader of the bar in greater detail than other authors. But Hill dates it after Lincoln's return from Congress in 1849, when he "set to work with a singleness of purpose which had not previously characterized his interest in the law." Evidence from the Menard County Courthouse search now suggests that Hill erred significantly in dating Lincoln's rise to prominence.

The circuit court clerk's record of proceedings from October 28, 1848, indirectly reveals much about the relative standing of various members of the Menard County bar. The new Illinois Constitution of 1848 had mandated several important changes for the courts, and the members of the bar apparently met to discuss them. One of the most important consequences for this particular group was the decision of Judge Samuel D. Lockwood to retire. Lockwood had been an associate justice of the state Supreme Court since 1825, and had been assigned to the circuit that included Sangamon and present-day Menard counties for much of that time.

The minutes of the meeting begin: "On motion of Thomas L. Harris, A. Lincoln was called to the chair, and on motion of John T. Stewart [sic], W. H. Macon & Wm. J. Ferguson were appointed Secretary. The Objects of the meeting having been explained by Thomas L. Harris on his motion a committee of three were appointed to draft and report resolutions expressive of the sense entertained by the bar of the character and services of his Honor Samuel D. Lockwood."

At this time Lincoln was a lame-duck Congressman whose term expired in March 1849. He had honored a previous agreement not to run for reelection, instead supporting his former partner and fellow Whig, Stephen T. Logan. In August 1848, however, Logan had been defeated by the Democratic candidate, Thomas L. Harris. Within this context, the brief words of the minutes suggest much about the relative positions of these men in the eyes of their community. While Harris was clearly in charge, Lincoln's standing was such that he could not be denied a role; in fact, he was given the highest honor.

Although politics played a role in these selections, it is important to remember that the men attending were all attorneys. It is not unreasonable to infer that Lincoln's selection as chair was based at least in part on his standing among peers. Would a group of lawyers choose someone who did not command their respect to chair their meeting? The staff of this project hopes to explore such ideas as our documentation of Lincoln's legal career grows.

Copyright, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency
Springfield, Illinois