ABRAHAM LINCOLN still talks to us from rural Illinois, where undiscovered writings are turning up like Indian arrowheads during spring plowing.
Case files dated 1857 discovered in the Macoupin County courthouse during July 1991 show how Lincoln freed a clearly guilty murderer on a legal technicality. After postponing the trial of John Brantzhouse in Sangamon County with at least one request for a continuance, Lincoln moved for a change of venue to Carlinville, the county seat, where he felt his client would get a sympathetic jury from the large German population.
But Brantzhouse never saw trial. Because of "Honest Abe stalling tactics, two terms of the court passed and the defendant, accused of killing his neighbor with a shotgun, was freed because his due process right to a speedy trial was denied.
"This find is significant because it shows Lincoln's knowledge of how to use pleadings to win a case that wouldn't be winnable if the case were actually tried," says Bill Beard, assistant editor of the Lincoln Legal Papers, a state-funded study of the 16th president's legal practice in Illinois from 1836 to 1860.
The project is under way, with researchers poring over some 70,000 legal documents. Most of the papers are in century-old binders, filed in about 30 central-Illinois counties. The result will be a multivolume tome on Lincoln's extensive legal career.
"Lincoln was not a criminal lawyer," Mr. Beard says, "though those cases may be his most famous. His practice revolved mostly around civil matters."
Abraham Lincoln's formal entry into the realm of jurisprudence apparently occurred Oct. 5, 1836. On that day his name appears as attorney for the plaintiff in the case of Hawthorn v. Wooldridge. He filed the plea in his hand, although it was signed by his senior partner and former comrade in the Black Hawk wars, John Todd Stuart.
Lincoln spent up to six months a year traveling through the 8th Judicial Circuit, which sprawled across 14 Illinois counties. He represented clients in literally thousands of common law - or what was then called chancery law - cases.
Writes Russell Freeman in his book "Lincoln, A Photobiography,Every spring, and again in the fall, the presiding judge left his Springfield headquarters to make a swing around the circuit, holding court for a few days in each county seat. Lincoln and other Springfield lawyers went along to try cases in remote prairie courthouses.
"Lincoln," Freeman continues, "rode from town to town along empty trails in an old horse-drawn rig, his legal papers and a change of clothing in his carpetbag. Lodging was primitive. Lawyers slept two to a bed, with three or four beds to a room in crude country inns. Criminals and judges often ate at the same table. Sometimes, Lincoln had just minutes to confer with a client before going to trial."
One revelatory case file was exhumed in April 1991. Two hitherto undiscovered legal papers from Lincoln's circuit-riding period turned up in the stacks of yellowing files in the back of the Mason County courthouse. Lincoln penned them in 1845, when he was a highly ambitious 36-year-old attorney.
Havana is now the seat of Mason County, but when Lincoln was a whiskerless lawyer in these parts, the seat was the neighboring village of Bath.
Sometime later, the Mason County seat was moved to Havana, a sleepy town on the banks of the Illinois, where the courthouse, as always, sits in the center of town. In the far back room of the Circuit Clerk's office where files and books reach the ceiling, Susan Krause, a research associate for the Lincoln Legal Papers, points to a drawer among drawers and says, "This is where Mike found them." She is referring to Mike Bonansinga, another Lincoln Legal who is off hunting more Lincoln papers this day.
Mr. Bonansinga had turned up another Lincoln document a few months earlier while rummaging in the files of the Morgan County Courthouse in Jacksonville, some 30 miles east of Springfield. He may have a sixth sense for such things.
What was his reaction when he first saw what he had? "Mike hums when he works," says Ms. Krause, "and the pitch of his hum changed slightly."
Krause says they didn't want to get too excited at first, but when word came that Thomas Schwartz and James T. Hickey, curator and past curator, respectively, of the State Historic Library in Springfield, had verified the documents as authentic, the Lincoln Legals started to celebrate.
"This is a unique discovery," Beard says. "We don't expect to find any originals, because most files have been combed through by collectors and historians. These look like they were written yesterday."
Beard adds that Lincoln documents are the No. 1 collectible item among American historic manuscripts. Copies of the Gettysburg Address, of which there are five, are valued at $10 million apiece. Beard declined to place a value on the Mason County finds.
Although the manuscripts in Lincoln's loopy penmanship were in good condition, having been folded 146 years, they were dispatched to the state archives in Springfield, where conservators will administer a chemical bath and repair any tears or creases. The papers will be returned to Mason County for display.
The Havana case concerned a minor civil squabble. In the suit, landowner John Ritter sued three men who built a dam near his property in 1841. That Ritter's land would become flooded was expected, though how much damage it would cause, how much Ritter should be compensated, and whether it should be in lumber or in cash were issues in dispute. Lincoln defended the builders from whom Ritter demanded $300.
In the first document, Lincoln argues that no contract had been entered into as the two parties had not willingly reached an agreement based on mutual consideration. The second document outlines his jury instructions. The jury ultimately found in favor of Ritter, but only awarded $168 in damages.
Although Lincoln lost the case, he did get the damages reduced. Not bad for a "backwoods country lawyer," as some make him out to be. In fact, says Beard, Lincoln was exceptionally well read in the law, "a lawyer's lawyer."
The Legal Papers project aims to fill in the gaps of Lincoln's scholarship and to dispel the belief that Lincoln merely eked out a modest living litigating petty civil cases. As these finds occur, it becomes apparent that Lincoln did represent friends and neighbors, but also represented large manufacturers and the railroads. The legal issues he argued included personal disputes, questions of individual freedom, social order, taxation, personal liability, and corporate behavior - all important issues for
a future head of state.
The task set for the Lincoln Legal Papers staff is formidable. In his 24 years as an Illinois lawyer, Lincoln is thought to have handled 3,000 or more cases at all levels of the state and federal court system. But it's not just legal papers they're after. Letters, bills of sale, and even shopping lists all shed light on the man's character.
Lincoln is still vastly popular today, Beard says, because "he is the epitome of the self-made man, the most eloquent president we've ever had, and the best writer among the presidents."