Lincoln Legal Briefs

January - March, 1995, Number 33

The Lincoln Calendar

Lincoln and Civil War students can immerse themselves in a four day symposium, "The Last Full Measure: Abraham Lincoln and the End of the Civil War," April 19-23, in Arlington, Virginia. A dozen historians will offer lectures, tours, and panel discussions at this program, cosponsored by the Civil War Education Association, the Abraham Lincoln Association, and the American Blue & Gray Association. For further information contact the Civil War Education Association, (800) 298-1861.

 

Advisory Board

Meeting semiannually to hear progress reports and advise on policy matters, The Lincoln Legal Papers Advisory Board is a 30-member national body consisting of scholars, lawyers, judges, followers and friends of the project. At its February meeting the Advisory Board elected three new members. Dan Bannister is a former project volunteer and author of two books on Lincoln and the Illinois Supreme Court. Victor Lary, M.D., is a student of Lincoln and board member of the Abraham Lincoln Association. Robert Lawless is a former project volunteer and professor of law at the University of Missouri.

Among other matters discussed at the meeting were brief reports on the document search in Sangamon County and manuscript repositories, a discussion of the user interface under development for the complete edition on CD-ROM, and recent ideas pertaining to the contents of volume one of the book edition, covering Lincoln's partnerships with John T. Stuart and Stephen T. Logan.

 

"Too Deep for Me"

Although Abraham Lincoln was an outstanding trial and appellate lawyer, he was neither a diligent nor thorough student of the law. William H. Herndon noted that Lincoln "never read much law, and never did I see him read a law book through." Lincoln, said Herndon, "never studied law books unless a case was on hand for consideration." Stephen T. Logan also believed Lincoln never studied the law "very much"; Lincoln instead "learned his law more in the study of cases."

Herndon's and Logan's impressions of Lincoln's approach to the study of law are confirmed by a brief notation Lincoln made on the envelope that had contained a catalogue of over one thousand legal treatises. The catalogue, prepared by New York lawyer and entrepreneur John Livingston in 1859, listed virtually every American and English legal treatise then available. Lincoln's note: "Too deep for me."

 

Finances

Winter is our busiest fundraising season, as we solicit newsletter subscribers at that time, and also anxiously await word from Washington about pending grant proposals. In the latter case February brought wonderful news, as the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) announced renewal of our annual award. Best of all, we learned that we were one of only two proposals (out of 30) to receive an increase over the current level of support. With a diminished annual appropriation, NHPRC had to reduce its grants for most projects, but awarded The Lincoln Legal Papers a 20 per cent increase, to $60,000. For that emphatic vote of confidence we are deeply grateful.

Also heartening was an especially generous contribution of $10,000 from Mr. and Mrs. James Nance of Loveland, Colorado. Mr. Nance is a sculptor who has completed two notable Lincoln busts: "Prairie Lawyer" and "Immortal Conscience." He attended Lincoln's birthday festivities in Springfield, and was recognized for both his support and his creative achievement.

To date our annual donor campaign has brought $24,425 in contributions from donors. We acknowledge with gratitude the generosity of the following recent donors: Darrel R. Anderson, Lawrence Appel, Mrs. Harold W. Barner, J. Robert Barr, Kim M. Bauer, Ernest R. Betcke, Roger Billings, Jr., Glen L. Bower, Shawn L. Briese, Willard Bunn, III, John C. Burnett, Sr., Capitol Group, Sheldon S. Cohen, D. L. Coulter, George M. Craig, Richard N. Current, Walter Dallow, Brooks Davis, Cullom Davis, Rose Anne Davis, Dolores A. DeBenedictis, David Herbert Donald, Lawrence Elliott, Don E. Fehrenbacher, John M. Field, Albert L. Floyd, Tom Forgue, Guy C. Fraker, Roger Fruin, Harold Gross, William Hanchett, Bruce and Janice Hart, Patricia S. Henry, Diana Herzog, Gary L. Hoffman, Kathleen A. Hogge, Clifford R. Hope, Jr., Mr. & Mrs. G. William Horsley, Daniel W. Howe, Miriam G. Iben, John P. Kaminski, Charles Keaton, Louise Keckler, Robert C. Lanphier III, Lewis E. Lehrman, Harvey E. Lemmen, Claude B. Lilly, Arthur F. Loux, Virginia McConnell, Mrs. Peter McEnteggart, McGladrey & Pullen, Mike McReynolds, Janet W. Meyer, Mr. & Mrs. Larry K. Millstead, Charles Morrissey, James E. Myers, James J. Nance, M. G. Nelson, Edward H. Nichols, Paul L. Pascal, Richard W. Peterson, James R. Potter, Professor and Mrs. James Rawley, Mr. & Mrs. David Richert, Timothy J. Rigby, John C. Ryan, Donald Rydgren, Josephine Saner, Molly M. Schlich, John and Joyce Schmale, Chris Schnell, Helen A. Sclair, Benjamin Shapell, Alto Sneller, Harvey and Judy Stephens, Don Tracy, Sandra F. VanBurkles, Gregory N. VanWinkle, Joseph R. Victor, C. David Watson, Robert F. Wernle, Robert S. Willard, Frank J. Williams, Arthur R. Williams, Edward M. Wise, and Harlington Wood, Jr.

 

Rebecca Thomas v. Erastus Wright

(Editor's Note: We are grateful to Paul Verduin for submitting this report on Lincoln's legendary "SKIN DEFENDANT" case.)

Important facts surfaced in February about a Revolutionary War widow and her lawsuit in a dramatic jury trial made famous by several Lincoln biographies. Documents in the National Archives and Sangamon County court records in The Lincoln Legal Papers reveal the full story for the first time. The plaintiff was Rebecca Thomas (1770-1849) of Menard County, Illinois, the widow of Revolutionary War veteran Pvt. James Thomas, who served with the Fourth Continental Regiment of Light Dragoons under General Stephen Moylan. Her case, it is now determined, was decided in her favor through Lincoln's aid by a Sangamon County Circuit Court jury on November 16, 1846.

Biographers from Josiah Holland in 1866 to Michael Burlingame in 1994 have pondered the so-called "Wright Case," as have book-length assessments of the 16th president's legal career by Albert Woldman and John Frank. Archivists Shirley Burton and Kellee Blake at the Great Lakes Region of the National Archives had determined the widow's name in 1989, while researching records for their script, "Lincoln at the Bar."

When Lincoln's law partner William Herndon and Jesse Weik published their Lincoln biography in 1889, Herndon said of Lincoln's presentation to the jury: "I never, either on the stump or on other occasions in court, saw him so wrought up." According to Herndon, Lincoln's passionate performance in the Sangamon County Courthouse in Springfield, "skinning" Erastus Wright, the widow's pension agent, for charging her a fee of $200--half her pension-provoked the jury to tears. Millions have read Carl Sandburg's rendition of the story of Lincoln's gallant invective on behalf of the poor, frail widow.

Last December, Lincoln scholar Paul H. Verduin of Silver Spring, Maryland, who had begun researching the case in the National Archives in Washington, asked Lincoln Legal Papers staff for help in identifying persons who had sued Erastus Wright during the 1840s and '50s. Consultation with Associate Editor Mark Steiner soon determined that the Herndon-Weik account must have been flawed, since the 22 female pensioners most closely resembling Herndon and Weik's widow had never sued Wright, according to Sangamon court records. Steiner countered by offering the names of the only two women court records indicate had sued Wright during the period of Lincoln's law practice. Returning to the National Archives, Verduin quickly discovered that one of these two, Rebecca Thomas, was indeed a Revolutionary War widow, and that her pension file and payment vouchers contained three statements signed by Lincoln himself, documenting his interest in her pension for more than a year.

Working with records in Springfield, Steiner determined that the stakes in Rebecca Thomas v. Erastus Wright were more modest than Herndon had described. The Lincoln- Herndon case, he found, was appealed from the justice of the peace court in Springfield, so the suit could not have been for more than $100. The judge's docket reveals the appeal was successfully prosecuted against Wright in the circuit court of Sangamon County. Although the jury decided in favor of plaintiff Rebecca Thomas, the docket reveals a judgment of only $35--a far cry from the $200 remembered by Herndon.

Verduin thinks this discrepancy is due to Herndon's confusion of some of the case's details. The widow's pension rate was $100 per year, but since she did not marry James Thomas until 1793, well after the war's end, a technicality in the pension laws disallowed any benefits for a two-year period beginning in March of 1841. When the widow contacted Lincoln in mid-1845, Herndon may have overheard Rebecca Thomas mistakenly tell Lincoln that Wright had kept the $200 as a fee. Aside from the fees question, the wealth of new data uncovered will allow scholars to assess anew the accuracy of accounts of the famous case in the various biographies and studies of Lincoln the lawyer.

Copyright, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency
Springfield, Illinois
1995