Lincoln Legal Briefs

July - September, 1992, Number 23

On the Circuit

Steady progress in the counties of east central Illinois brought the document total close to 50,000 by the end of September. Among the many docket entries and other routine items were some notable cases and records, including nine newly discovered documents in Lincoln's handwriting. Participating part or full-time in this latest stage of the search were nearly all members of the Lincoln Legal Papers staff.

Shelby County proved a fruitful destination, as researchers eventually identified nearly three times as many Lincoln cases (34) as previous scholars had reported. Two documents in Lincoln's hand were among the 549 accessioned. Circuit Clerk Charles R. "Bob" Hayden and his staff generously provided work space and assistance.

Further east, in Sullivan, the Moultrie County courthouse yielded four cases and several dozen documents, including one Lincoln original. Circuit Clerk Linda Johnson, County Clerk Richard Purdeu, and their associates generously helped.

Douglas County still further east, was formed early in 1859 out of Coles County. Its establishment occurred too late for researchers to expect any evidence of Lincoln's circuit court practice, but they needed to make sure. An inspection of the dockets and case files for the 1859-1861 period uncovered no Lincoln cases, as suspected. Nevertheless their hosts Circuit Clerk Peggy Beetle and County Clerk Jim Ingram fully cooperated in the effort. A side trip to Cumberland County produced one document for a known Lincoln case.

Major discoveries marked the search in Charleston, seat of Coles County. Staff researchers identified more cases than previously reported, and accessioned over 1,000 documents. Six of these records were written by Lincoln. Another interesting feature of the search in Coles County was further evidence of Lincoln's extensive railroad practice in the 1850s; six of the 49 cases there involved the Illinois Central Railroad. Circuit Clerk Charles J. Authenreith and his staff hospitably lent space and counsel during the extended visit in their facility.

Staff members just completed their work in Edgar County, where Circuit Clerk Nancy Martin and her associates helped with arrangements. The tally from this extensive search was 46 cases and over 750 documents, including two in Lincoln's hand plus five docket book signatures.

Next on the itinerary is Clark County to the south and also along the Indiana border. Clark County was not part of the Eighth Judicial Circuit, but recently researchers discovered several Lincoln cases brought there on change of venue. This surprising development indicates the need for a complete blind search of this county. Another special initiative will be visits to several bordering Indiana counties where staff members suspect Lincoln may have obtained work during spare time between Eighth Circuit venues.


Welcome Support

During late summer good news came in the form of two timely grants in support of the document search. An award of $2,000 from IBM Corporation came through the initiative of Dan Lautenbach, General Manager of IBM's Springfield office. These funds supported the employment of a research assistant Stacy McDermott, who is a graduate student in History at Sangamon State University.

Treasurer Henry Ess of the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation in New York reported favorable action on a funding request of $15,000. This award at a critical time in the project's work ensured maintenance of our full research staff for several months of field work. The William Nelson Cromwell Foundation supports efforts in legal history and related subjects.

We acknowledge with deep gratitude the generosity of the following recent donors: Dennis Antonie, Paul Barker, Stephen P. Bartholf, Cullom Davis, Robert W. Dickerman, David B. Finley, Jr., Elbert F. Floyd, Henry C. Friend, James Hantschel, George J. Harding, III, Charles H. Kopke, Ron and Susan Krause, Michael Lennon, Lee C. Moorehead, Sella Morrison, Maxine Nolan, Dennis P. O'Reilly, Clifford P. Pease, Rayman L. Solomon, Dennis Suttles, Don Tracy, and Harlington Wood, Jr.


Staff News

Assistant Director Martha Benner will deliver a paper in October at the annual meeting of the Association for Documentary Editing, in Williamsburg, Virginia. At a session on computer applications for documentary editions, she will describe and illustrate the extensive database she has designed for The Lincoln Legal Papers.

Assistant Editor Bill Beard read a paper at the annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History. The title of his remarks was "Lincoln's Legal Legacy: Documenting the Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln."

In recognition of the growing magnitude and complexity of document accessioning, Susan Krause has been assigned general oversight of the work, and promoted to the rank of Research Associate. With assistance from her colleagues, Susan has developed standard procedures and classifications for identifying and cross-referencing all documents as they are entered in the database.

Receptionist-secretary Diane Saarinen resigned in September to accept an attractive job offer. With us for one and one-half years, she made important contributions in various areas. In bidding her thanks and farewell, we also welcome her successor, Mattie Grant. Mattie previously worked for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, and several years ago helped us on a part-time basis. We are pleased that she could join us.

Filling the position of Graduate Assistant this academic year is Teresa Kinney, a resident of neighboring Petersburg and recent B.A. graduate in History from Illinois State University. Teresa has begun graduate study in Public History at Sangamon State University.

Serving briefly but productively as a volunteer research assistant during August and September was Daniel McQuown, a recent graduate in History from the University of Illinois. Dan performed bibliographic and documentary research on Lincoln's involvement in debt and bankruptcy cases before the U. S. District court.

Cullom Davis spoke before numerous gatherings and at several special Lincoln conferences. At Ottawa, Illinois, for an anniversary celebration of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, he read a paper on Lincoln and legal rhetoric. In September he addressed a Lincoln symposium in Shreveport, Louisiana, on "Lincoln's Two Careers: Law and Politics." Later he spoke on Lincoln's debt and bankruptcy practice before a meeting of bankruptcy lawyers.


Modern Communications

We have recently expanded our contact with the outside world through the addition of a fax machine, and by the establishment of an electronic mail address. In addition to normal office use, the fax machine has improved communications with our field crew, and has enabled us to receive copies of Lincoln documents they find in the counties for verification by Lincoln Curator, Tom Schwartz, who is located near our main office. Our fax number is 217-524-6973.

Our E-mail address was set up courtesy of Sangamon State University, which allowed us a complimentary "mailbox" on their mainframe as a part of their support for the project. Although our computers are not connected to the SSU mainframe, we can access it through our computer, modem, and telephone lines. SSU's computer is on BITNET, which is a nation-wide network system that organizes electronic communication throughout the U.S. It also connects U.S. users to another network, INTERNET, which allows international communications, all through computers and telephone lines. Our E-mail address is: LLP@EAGLE.SANGAMON.EDU. Feel free to use our two new modes of communication when contacting us!


Lincoln Defends "Black Bill'

Among ten original Lincoln documents discovered last summer in the DeWitt County Courthouse is a bond for costs in William Dungey v. Joseph Spencer. Written but not signed by Lincoln, it was part of an interesting slander case. Family disputes that degenerated into slanderous, name-calling feuds frequently appeared in antebellum Illinois circuit courts. Such cases reflected the intent of American slander law to safeguard an individual's good reputation in the community against petty character assassination. Abraham Lincoln realized the value of reputation, and declared in his first printed political speech that, "Everyman is said to have his peculiar ambition . . . I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men. . . ."

One unique slander case Lincoln argued at the DeWitt County Circuit Court, Clinton, Illinois, in the May and October 1855 terms involved much more than a defamation of character, and suggested that Huck Finn's friend Jim might have reconsidered his plan of escape to freedom: "I reck'n'd at by fo' in the mawnin' I'd. . .slip in, jis b'fo daylight, en swim asho' en take to de woods on de Illinois side."

In August 1851, William Dungey, a dark-skinned young man of Portuguese descent, married Joseph Spencer's sister. A family quarrel ensued, which became so bitter that in January 1855, Spencer claimed throughout the community that his brother-in-law, "Black Bill," was a Negro.

Since 1819, Illinois laws permitted quasi-slavery and restricted the immigration of free blacks into the state. As other northern states passed personal liberty laws granting additional rights to free blacks, Illinois toughened its stance against them. The 1848 Illinois Constitution required the General Assembly to "pass such laws as will effectively prohibit free persons of color from immigrating to and settling in this state. . . ." Those prohibitions were passed as the "Black Laws" and went into force on February 12, 1853, the future Emancipator's forty-fourth birthday.

William Dungey faced losing not only his reputation, but his marriage, property, and right to remain in Illinois. Section 10 of the 1853 law stated that, "Every person who shall have one-fourth negro blood shall be deemed a mulatto." William Dungey retained Abraham Lincoln to quash the possibility that he might be judged a "negro" and therefore suffer the severe penalties under the 1853 act.

Lincoln filed his declaration charging Joseph Spencer with slander on April 17, 1855, and sought $1,000 in damages. A game of legal chess occurred during the first hearing in May. Spencer's attorneys, Clifton H. Moore and Lawrence Weldon, filed a demurrer to Lincoln's declaration, asserting that his charges were insufficient in law. Judge David Davis agreed that two of Lincoln's three charges were faulty. The case was continued and Lincoln was allowed to amend the declaration. At the next term of court, October 1855, the case was argued before a jury.

According to Lawrence Weldon, Lincoln's talents as a trial lawyer were evident in his argument for Dungey. Weldon stated that Lincoln questioned Spencer's character by demonstrating how Spencer went from house to house "gabbing" that Dungey was a "nigger." Weldon emphasized that Lincoln's tone and pronunciation had a "curious touch of the ludicrous. . . which, instead of detracting, seemed to add to the effect."

Lincoln further undermined Spencer by using humor to persuade the jury that there was reasonable doubt regarding Dungey's race. Weldon recalled Lincoln's statement:

"My client is not a Negro, though it is a crime to be a Negro--no crime to be born with a black skin. But my client is not a Negro. His skin may not be as white as ours, but I say he is not a Negro, though he may be a Moore." "Mr. Lincoln," interrupted Judge Davis, scarcely able to restrain a smile, "you mean a Moor, not Moore." "Well, your Honor, Moor, not C.H. Moore," replied Mr. Lincoln, with a sweep of his long arm toward the table where Moore and I sat. "I say my client may be a Moor, but he is not a Negro."

Though the account may be apocryphal, Weldon's recollection was characteristic of Lincoln's style.

Lincoln then demolished the defendant's witnesses' testimony. Moore and Weldon had secured several depositions from residents in Giles County, Tennessee, the Dungey family home. These witnesses stated that they had personally known the family, and that the white community had regarded the Dungeys as "negro," or of "mixed blood." Under cross examination, Lincoln argued that the testimony was hearsay as the witnesses admitted none of them lived within 30 miles of the Dungey residence.

On October 18, 1855, the jury returned a verdict of guilty and granted Dungey $600 in damages plus court costs of $137.50. Lincoln charged a $25 fee, which Lawrence Weldon considered minimal.

To avoid an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, Lincoln persuaded Dungey to remit $400 of the judgment in return for the defendant releasing "all errors which may exist in the court record. . ." Under Illinois law, the defendant could not appeal the verdict, but could appeal only on errors of procedure or evidence. Lincoln had taught Joseph Spencer an expensive lesson in domestic relations.

Copyright, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency
Springfield, Illinois