Benjamin F. Jonas to Abraham Lincoln, 4 June 18571New Orleans La
June 4th 1857Honl[Honorable] A. LincolnSpringfield IllinoisDear Sir
Your letter of the 27th ult, enclosing draft for $69.30 on the Metropolitan Bank of New York— in full for advances, and fee— in the matter of the colored boy John Shelby, has just been received—2 and permit me Dr[Dear] sir, to return my most sincere acknowledgments for your kind services in this matter–
I should never have ventured to trouble you, had not the boy mentioned your name, as that of one, who would take an interest in his behalf— and had I not recognized in you an old friend of my father–
I owe an apology to the lady for misinterpreting the cause of her silence— but I was of course disappointed, at receiving an answer to neither of my letters— and besides I thought my correspondent was a gentleman, as the boy spoke of Mr Grimsley–3
I am glad that he has returned safe— should he come south again— be sure and let him have his papers with him— and he must also be careful not to be away from the boat at night— without a pass— which it is the duty of the Captain to procure for him–
What right Col.[Colonel] A. P. Field had
<Page 2>to charge a fee of $25, I am at a loss to imagine as he had nothing to do with the matter— and so far as I know, rendered no service whatever–
Again sir permit me to thank you— and to assure you that any service I can render you in this part of the world will give me pleasure–With much respect
Truly yoursB. F. Jonas4
2Abraham Lincoln’s letter to Jonas of May 27, 1857, has not been located, nor has its enclosed draft. Lincoln withdrew $40.30 from his account at Springfield Marine & Fire Insurance on May 28, 1857, which likely constituted a portion of the $69.30 sent by draft to Jonas.
The funds related to the case of John A. Shelby, a free black man from Springfield employed on a Mississippi River boat who had been imprisoned in New Orleans for not carrying papers to prove that he was a free person. In addition to having been contacted by Jonas concerning the case, Lincoln seems also to have been approached by Shelby’s mother, Mary (Polly) Shelby. Lincoln was acquainted with Mary Shelby as she had retained his legal services in 1841. After being arrested, John Shelby wrote a letter to his mother in care of Lincoln’s brother-in-law, William S. Wallace, requesting assistance. According to Lincoln’s law partner, William H. Herndon, after she received her son’s letter, Mary Shelby asked Lincoln & Herndon to intervene on John’s behalf.
In the account of the case that Herndon included in his biography of Lincoln, Herndon and Lincoln appealed unsuccessfully to the governors of both Illinois and Louisiana to assist John Shelby. In Herndon’s telling, after a second fruitless appeal to Illinois governor William H. Bissell, Lincoln stormed out, proclaiming “By God, Governor, I’ll make the ground in this country too hot for the foot of a slave, whether you have the legal power to secure the release of this boy or not.” According to Herndon, the legal partners then ceased to attempt to secure Shelby’s release as attorneys on the case, and instead Lincoln drew up a subscription list which Herndon circulated in order to raise funds by which New Orleans attorney Alexander P. Field could purchase Shelby’s freedom.
Herndon asserted that Bissell claimed he had no right or power under the law to interfere in the case. However, when Springfield residents sent affidavits swearing to Shelby’s status as a free man under cover to New Orleans mayor Charles M. Waterman in February 1857, the affidavits included an attestation by Bissell. In his attestation, Bissell stated: “I Certify that from facts derived from others I have entire confidence in the correctness of the within statements.”
Harry E. Pratt, The Personal Finances of Abraham Lincoln (Springfield, IL: Abraham Lincoln Association, 1943), 166; Thomas Moffett to Charles M. Waterman, 20 February 1857, with enclosed affidavits of John C. Maxcy and Jacob C. Planck, 19 February 1857, both attested by William H. Bissell on the same date, Freedom Papers of New Orleans (La.), 1854-1858, Louisiana Division/City Archives, New Orleans Public Library, New Orleans, LA; Shelby v. Shelby, 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/Details.aspx?case=140397; William H. Herndon and Jesse William Weik, Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life (Chicago: Belford, Clarke, 1889), 2:378-79; Charles M. Segal, “Lincoln, Benjamin Jonas, and the Black Code,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 46 (Autumn, 1953), 277-82.
3The lady, apparently named Grimsley, who Jonas seems to have written to at John Shelby’s suggestion, may have been Elizabeth J. Todd Grimsley, wife of Harrison J. Grimsley, and cousin of Mary Lincoln.
Charles M. Segal, “Lincoln, Benjamin Jonas, and the Black Code,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 46 (Autumn, 1953), 282.
Autograph Letter Signed, 4 page(s), Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress (Washington, DC).