Lincoln's Legal Papers Are a Case in Shrewdness

As an attorney, he defended all comers in a broad practice

AN enraged man storms out of his home in New Berlin, Il. during a raucous party and, in front of several witnesses, fatally shoots one of his guests through an open window.

From jail the ungracious host hires a shrewd attorney who persuades the court to move the case to a less hostile county and grant several trial delays.

After many months the lawyer takes advantage of a callow state's attorney and wins a dismissal of the case on the grounds that his client was denied a speedy trial.

The slick feints by the lawyer are the sort of technical maneuvers that sully the popular image of the legal profession today.

But the case known as ``People vs. John Bantzhouse'' originated in 1857. And the attorney was an eloquent Republican politician with backwoods beginnings named Abraham Lincoln. The Bantzhouse case is described in one of more than 100,000 legal documents that were discovered in the past five years by the state-supported Lincoln Legal Papers Project.

``We have begun to document what will end up being a dramatically different portrait of the career at law that consumed a quarter century of Lincoln's life,'' says Cullom Davis, the project director.

Picking through neglected papers in court storerooms, attics, and basements across Illinois, researchers have found that attorney Lincoln was much busier and more far ranging than previously believed.

The project also has uncovered substantial evidence affirming that Lincoln intimately and exhaustively mixed politics with his legal practice.

Moreover, the researchers have found evidence similar to the Bantzhouse case showing that Lincoln provided rigorous legal services to clients regardless of their morality. Although lauded since his assassination for his wisdom and rectitude, ``Honest Abe'' often represented unsavory individuals.

For instance, Lincoln served slave owners as well as slaves, consistently placing the imperative of ensuring a fair trial above any personal ethical concerns, says Dr. Davis, a legal historian and professor at Sangamon State University.

Among the documents, researchers found some 150 legal manuscripts that were either written by Lincoln or feature his handwritten notes. It was widely believed that any such documents not already accounted for were lost to fire, flood, vermin, or decay from age.

The first systematic search for all papers from Lincoln's legal practice has proven especially grueling, Davis says.

Researchers had to carefully scan hundreds of thousands of papers in search of any inkling of the 16th president, either in name or in his own penmanship. The documents are often damp, dusty, or brittle. Many of them are rolled, tied by ribbon, and stored in vertical case files in archives kept by circuit clerks.

Lincoln handled cases to at least a degree from the day he opened a law office in Springfield, Ill. in 1837 until he entered the White House in 1861.

Even when Lincoln served in Congress from 1847 until 1849 he continued to correspond with junior partners. And as late as the summer of 1860, after he had been nominated as the Republican presidential candidate, Lincoln was still arguing cases.

Moreover, Lincoln symbiotically allied his lawyering with his politicking. While working on cases throughout the Eighth Judicial Circuit he regularly electioneered or caucused with local Whigs. Many times he traveled far beyond the circuit to take up a case in an area promising for a political campaign. ``There is no doubt now that Lincoln used his political and legal careers almost interchangeably'' Davis says. His ``political connections nourished his law practice, and his legal work nourished his political ambitions.''

Despite the painstaking search by the project staff, legal documents pertaining to Lincoln may still be at large in Illinois, Davis says. ``I wouldn't want to guarantee we found everything; it's just awfully difficult work. But I do know our search has been as exhaustive and as productive as could reasonably be expected,'' he says.

With more time and funding, the project would check archives in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Indiana counties that border Illinois. Lincoln represented a client in St. Louis and is said to have accepted cases in other states neighboring Illinois, Davis says.

In the next two years the project will copy the more than 100,000 documents onto CD-ROM. It will also begin releasing a five-volume book collection in 1998 detailing 150 legal cases that best represent the style and range of Lincoln's legal practice.

Nearly half of the funding for the project comes from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. The Abraham Lincoln Association, Sangamon State University, and the University of Illinois provide additional support for the project.

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