Reconstructing Lincoln's Law Practice

By Campbell, Paulette W. | Humanities, January/February 2001 | Go to article overview

Reconstructing Lincoln's Law Practice


Campbell, Paulette W., Humanities


Patrick Sullivan, a tavern keeper in Macon County, Illinois, underestimated antebellum America's determination to squash the manufacture and sale of alcohol. In 1853, he tried to skirt the law by selling liquor without a license and was indicted for the violation in eleven cases, He cut a deal with the state attorney, who dismissed all of the indictments-- except four to which Sullivan would plead guilty. They also left one indictment for trial to determine the practical consequences of several laws regarding the sale of liquor.

The jury found Sullivan guilty of violating the criminal code and fined him ten dollars. He hired Abraham Lincoln to appeal his case to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Lincoln had been practicing law for sixteen years. He was well into his third and final law partnership, and would practice law for another nine years before moving on to Congress, and eventually to serve as sixteenth president of the United States.

Lincoln himself rarely drank alcohol. But unlike William H. Hemdon, his law partner at the time, he was not active in the prohibition movement. Some documents suggest that Lincoln was wary of legislative action enforcing temperance. But it was the height of the prohibition movement-alcohol-related indictments in Sangamon County, Lincoln's home county, increased dramatically from the mid-1 840s through the late 1850s-and Lincoln would have been hard pressed to avoid such cases.

Lincoln found himself representing both sides of the prohibition issue on different occasions. In some instances he aided the state's attorney to prosecute individuals for selling liquor illegally; in others, he represented the defendants, such as in the 1853 case of Sullivan V. People.

Lincoln knew this case was a lost cause, says Daniel W. Stowell, director and editor of The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition, an NEH-funded series of DVDs. Stowell explains that in 1819, the first legislature of the new state of Illinois declared it illegal to sell liquor in quantities of less than one quart without a license. The state legislature reaffirmed this law in 1845. On February 1, 1851, amidst growing prohibitionist sentiment in the northern states, the Illinois legislature passed "An Act to Prohibit the Retailing of Intoxicating Drinks." Commonly known as the Quart Law, it replaced the licensing system with a total prohibition against the sale of alcohol in quantities of less than one quart. In 1853, a legislative committee-- spurred by the increasingly vocal prohibition movement-proposed a bill to ban the manufacture or sale of liquor completely. The legislature repealed the Quart Law to make way for the new legislation. However, to the dismay of the prohibitionists, the legislature rejected the prohibition bill and instead passed another bill reinstating the licensing system that had existed before 1851.

"So the courts briefly repealed the liquor license law, but reinstated it five days later," Stowell says. "But Lincoln argued-as if unaware of this turnaround-that the law was no longer in force, and that Sullivan could sell liquor without a license. It's no surprise that the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's judgment. But the case, however mundane, demonstrates Lincoln's determination to put his best face on a case, even when confronted with insurmountable odds. This goes against the belief of some historians that Lincoln was ineffective if he didn't believe in the rightness of a case."

Lincoln showed such obstinacy in other cases as well. Take, for instance, the 1847 case of Ashmore for use of Bryant et al. v. Matson, one of Lincoln's most controversial cases. In 1845, Robert Matson brought five of his slaves, Jane Bryant and her four children, into Illinois-a free state-to plant and harvest crops. In 1847, he planned to take these slaves back to Kentucky, a slave state. The slaves, believing they were free because they were in a free state, sought refuge with Hiram Rutherford and Gideon Ashmore. …

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