Abraham Lincoln to William Fithian, 8 March 18551Springfield, March 8. 1855 Dear Doctor:
Your letter duly received–2 I guess you brought your suit wrong– No other than an action of Covenant— not debt— will lie on the Case a copy of which you sent me– With this is a set of papers complete, for a new suit in the right form–3 If, however, the only responsable man is dead, there is no use of bringing a new suit, or in prossecuting the old one– You can get no judgment against his estate in that way– You must file the claim in the Probate court; or wait the year & then sue his administrator–4Yours as everA. Lincoln
3Neither the copy of the case that Fithian sent Lincoln, nor the set of papers for a new suit that Lincoln sent Fithian, have been located.
In American law, covenant is an action “to enforce a contract under seal or to recover damages for the breach of a contract under seal.” Covenant actions can be used to enforce the payment of debts, provided that the plaintiff can prove the contract was under seal and was therefore legally binding.
“Covenant,” Reference, Glossary, Martha L. Benner and Cullom Davis et al., eds., The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition, 2d edition (Springfield: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, 2009), http://www.lawpracticeofabrahamlincoln.org/Reference.aspx?ref=Reference%20html%20files/Glossary.html.
4Since Fithian’s letter to Lincoln has not been located, some of the context for this reply that Lincoln gave Fithian is missing. However, extant legal documents reveal that in January 1855, Fithian sued William Carroll and Silas McDougal in the Vermilion County Circuit Court for a debt of $160 and another $100 in damages.
Fithian apparently heeded Lincoln’s advice. In May 1855, the Vermilion County Circuit Court dismissed the suit against Carroll and McDougal at Fithian’s expense. However, there is no evidence that Fithian filed a new suit in either an action of covenant or against the estate of the original debtor.
Summons, Document ID: 131950; Order, Document ID: 131951, Lincoln provided legal advice to Fithian, Martha L. Benner and Cullom Davis et al., eds., The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition, http://www.lawpracticeofabrahamlincoln.org/Details.aspx?case=141348.
Autograph Letter Signed, 2 page(s), Box 5, Lincoln Collection, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (Springfield, IL).