Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sun-Times on Lincoln on his 200th

On 12 Feb. 09, the Chicago Sun-Times had a story including the text:

A new book, Fighting Slavery in Chicago by Tom Campbell, recounts how Lincoln, in a couple of cases, represented slave owners as a young lawyer.

In one 1847 case, a man named Robert Matson brought a group of slaves, including Jane Bryant and her children, to Illinois from Kentucky to help plant crops. But when Matson planned to take them back south, the woman refused. Lincoln argued that the law of free state Illinois did not protect slaves "in transit," but the judge noted that the woman and her children had been in Illinois for two years and rejected Lincoln's case. The family went free.

Lincoln then represented Matson in an unsuccessful case against people who had helped Bryant.

Rob Stroud, writing for a smaller newspaper about an upcoming program on the incident, suggested more complexity to the matter:

Jane Bryant and her four children were among the slaves that Robert Matson of Kentucky brought to work his farm east of Newman. Her husband, Anthony Bryant, a freedman and an African-American Methodist lay minister, also lived and worked on the farm.

Robert Matson’s future wife, Mary Corbin, will be portrayed in the program. Henry said Corbin’s threat to send the Bryant children to the South for sale prompted the family to seek help to escape from Matson in 1847.

Gideon Ashmore and Dr. Hiram Rutherford, who also will be portrayed, came forward to shelter the family in Oakland and fund their legal defense. Lincoln agreed to be the lawyer for Matson, the only slave owner he ever represented during his legal career.

“This program will explore Lincoln’s possible motives and shed light on the complexity of the man,” said Traci Montgomery, one of the program planning committee members.

The Bryants won their freedom in court and ultimately emigrated to Liberia. Henry said Lucy Dupree, matriarch of the Brushy Fork free black community near today’s Oakland, will be portrayed and explain why Illinois “black laws” at the time put free African-Americans at risk.

The legal case was captioned Ashmore v. Matson.

The Matson case is briefly discussed in the book by Brian Dirck, Lincoln the Lawyer (University of Illinois Press, 2007). At page 148, Dirck writes: "Some of Lincoln's critics, on the other hand, highlight the Matson case, in which Lincoln represented the interests of a slaveholder named Robert Matson, who in 1845 brought five slaves from the slave soil of Kentucky onto the free soil of Illinois." Dirck makes reference to "dedicated Lincoln haters" Thomas DiLorenzo and Lerone Bennett. Footnote 30 of Dirck's book references the case as Matson v. Bryant, although the internet citation of Ashmore v. Matson may be more accurate.

In passing, at page 87, Dirck discusses Lincoln's patent cases. Dirck wrote:

Patent litigation was an obscure little corner of antebellum law. Blackstone devoted all of one sentence to the subject, observing in a parenthetical aside on the illegitimacy of monopolies that this was so "except as to patents, not exceeding the grant of fourteen years, to the authors of new inventions." (...) There wasn't much reliable commentary on patents in the existing legal literature of the day, the available case law was relatively rare and scattershot--addressing, for example, the question of whether foreigners could be granted American patents--

Dirck is apparently unfamiliar with what Justice Story wrote.

Curiously, Dirck utilizes the word "thicket" in his discussion: Take all this together, and patent litigation was a foreboding thicket into which an attorney might wander. There may well have been an unspoken professional convention that only more experienced lawyers should try to do so.

Dirck does write about how Edwin Stanton (a Democrat, but later Lincoln's Secretary of War after the corrupt Cameron was removed) treated Lincoln in the Manny / McCormick patent case. McCormick's attorny was Reverdy Johnson, who would also be of note during the Civil War. [Separately, Stanton defended Daniel Sickles in what would be a landmark case on the insanity defense.] Footnote 32 of Dirck's text observes that William Seward litigated patent cases.

Although Dirck at least briefly mentioned the Matson matter, remarkably a book entitled "Lincoln and Freedom," edited by Holzer and Gabbard (Southern Illinois University Press, 2007) makes no mention of the case. The Holzer/Gabbard book does make reference to Stanton and his order to Rufus Saxton to raise black troops in South Carolina. The book also mentions Jefferson Davis's counterpoint to the Emancipation Proclamation, that effective February 22, 1863, all free blacks in the South would be enslaved. Davis also issued a general order that captured Union black soldiers would be enslaved.

Note that in 1860, New Jersey still had slaves. In 1864, New Jersey gave its electoral votes to McClellan (not Lincoln), but Princeton (then College of New Jersey) gave Lincoln an honorary degree after the election.

***Slashdot on Lincolnn-->

"On the 200th anniversary of his birth, President Abraham Lincoln's popular image as a log-splitting bumpkin is being re-assessed as historians have discovered that Lincoln had an avid interest in cutting-edge technology and its applications. During the war, Lincoln haunted the telegraph office (which provided the instant-messaging of its day) for the latest news from the front; he encouraged weapons development and even tested some new rifles himself on the White House lawn; and he is the only US president to hold a patent (No. 6469, granted May 22, 1849). It was for a device to lift riverboats over shoals. 'He not only created his own invention but had ideas for other inventions, such as an agricultural steam plow and a naval steam ram, [and] was fascinated by patent cases as an attorney and also by new innovations during the Civil War,' says Jason Emerson, author of Lincoln the Inventor. But Lincoln's greatest contribution to the war effort was his use of the telegraph. When Lincoln took office the White House had no telegraph connection. Lincoln 'developed the modern electronic leadership model, says Tom Wheeler, author of Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph To Win the Civil War. At a time when electricity was a vague scientific concept and sending signals through wires was 'mind boggling,' Lincoln was fascinated by the telegraph and developed it into a political and military tool that allowed him to project himself to the front to monitor and track what was going on. 'If he were alive today, we'd call him an early adopter,' says Wheeler."

IPBiz notes that Lincoln went to the War Dept office to get telegraph messages (a review notes: Initially an intermittent user, Lincoln at times was so reliant on rapid communication that he spent nights at the War Department's telegraph office.) None of this is an "untold story." Also, patent litigation over the telegraph is legendary.


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