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Lincoln Apostate

Lincoln Apostate: The Matson Slave Case

CHARLES R. McKIRDY
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 176
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2tvdr2
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  • Book Info
    Lincoln Apostate
    Book Description:

    In 1847, in a small rural courthouse in Coles County, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln represented a Kentucky slave owner named Robert Matson in his attempt to recover a runaway slave woman and her four children. Most Americans, even those with a penchant for the nation's history, have never heard of this court case. This is no coincidence. Lincoln's involvement in the case has troubled and bewildered most students and biographers of the "Great Emancipator." In many assessments, the case inspires rationalizations and distortions; in others, avoidance and denial. These approaches are a disservice to the man and to those who seek to understand him.

    InLincoln Apostate: The Matson Slave Case, lawyer and historian Charles R. McKirdy digs behind the myths and evasions to determine why Lincoln chose to advocate property rights grounded in a system that he claimed to abhor and pursue the continued enslavement of five of its most vulnerable and sympathetic victims. In a careful and readable blend of narrative and analysis, the book finds the answer in the time and place that was Lincoln's Illinois in 1847, in the laws and judicial decisions that provided the legal backdrop against which the drama of the Matson case was played out, and in the man that Lincoln was thirteen years before he became president.

    The discussion of Lincoln's decision to represent Matson and the description of the trial itself take nothing at face value. The author examines primary and secondary sources for the ribbon of truth shorn of preconceptions and hollow justifications. Lincoln Apostate scrutinizes Lincoln's motives for choosing as he did and explores the ideals and fears of this very complex man.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-987-9
    Subjects: History, Sociology
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Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations
  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. ix-2)
  4. INTRODUCTION (pp. 3-5)

    Abraham Lincoln was dead. He had been dead for many years. The deification process had begun long ago. The old man did not care. He could not forgive. To his dying day, he maintained that “Lincoln arrived at the trial with chains to be used to take the slaves back to captivity.”¹ He could not forget. “[J]ustice demands,” he insisted, “that it be said that neither [Lincoln’s] speeches nor his conduct at or during the litigation was worthy of his name and subsequent fame.”²

    The old man was Dr. Hiram Rutherford. He died in 1900 after sixty years as a...

  5. CHAPTER 1 A DARK CANVAS (pp. 6-19)

    In 1847, the year that Abraham Lincoln tried the Matson case, Illinois purportedly was a “free” state. That status dated back to 1787 when the Congress of the United States adopted the Northwest Ordinance. This far-sighted legislation mandated a system for creating states out of the territory northwest of the Ohio River. Article VI of the ordinance provided that “[t]here shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted….” The ordinance made it clear that Article VI was one “of compact between the...

  6. CHAPTER 2 THE INITIAL HEARING (pp. 20-31)

    Most accounts of the Matson slave case begin with Robert Matson—the man who owned the slaves.¹ Whether this reflects nineteenth century prejudices, convenience of style, or mere coincidence, it would seem more appropriate to start with the slaves—Jane Bryant and her four children. After all, they had much more at stake in the proceedings. Matson stood to lose some valuable property; the Bryants stood to gain their freedom.

    Jane Bryant was a slave. She belonged to Robert Matson. At the time of the trial, Jane was in her late thirties or early forties.² According to one description, her...

  7. CHAPTER 3 THE LAWYERS—LINCOLN (pp. 32-43)

    In October of 1847, Abraham Lincoln was thirty-eight years old. He stooped a bit, but when he stood tall, he was six feet four, his height accentuated by the fact that he was very thin.¹ At most, he weighed about 180 pounds.² Lincoln was a homely man who did little to enhance his appearance.³ In 1847, he had yet to grow the beard that some thought would improve “his long sallow face” and, as his law partner put it, he “was not fastidious as to … dress.”⁴ Several months before the Matson trial, Lincoln spoke at the River and Harbor...

  8. CHAPTER 4 THE LAWYERS—FICKLIN, CONSTABLE, AND LINDER (pp. 44-56)

    All of the attorneys involved in the Matson trial were politicians with aspirations for higher office. At the time of the trial, the most successful in this respect was Orlando B. Ficklin, the lawyer who represented Jane and her children before the three justices of the peace. As noted earlier, in October 1847, Ficklin was a Democrat who represented Coles County and the rest of the Illinois Third Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.¹ He had done so since 1843.² Prior to this, he had served three terms in the Illinois house.³

    Ashmore’s and Rutherford’s choice of...

  9. CHAPTER 5 THE LAW (pp. 57-73)

    Jane and her four children were runaway slaves. In 1847, when it came to runaway slaves, the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and the United States Supreme Court’s decision inPrigg v. Pennsylvania(1842) dominated the legal landscape.¹ Congress had promulgated the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 to implement Section 2(3) of Article IV of the United States Constitution, which read as follows:

    No person held to service or labor in one State [“slaves”], under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall...

  10. CHAPTER 6 THE TRIAL (pp. 74-86)

    In early October 1847, as the days grew shorter and the wind carried a chill, the upcoming Matson trial monopolized conversation in the taverns and livery stables and by firesides in Coles County. The case was the biggest thing to happen there since, perhaps, the “winter of the deep snow” in 1830–31 or, maybe, “the night of the falling stars” on November 12, 1833, or the “sudden freeze” of December 20, 1836. It seemed that everyone was talking about the case.¹ Then, for a day or two, it looked as though the trial might not take place.

    Lewis Hutchason,...

  11. CHAPTER 7 THE COILS OF FRIENDSHIP (pp. 87-104)

    A few weeks after the Matson trial, Lincoln left for Washington to begin his term in Congress. Orlando Ficklin also was a member of the sevenman Illinois delegation. Soon after their arrival, the two men ran into each other on Pennsylvania Avenue, not far from Ford’s Theater. Their conversation turned to the Matson trial and, as Ficklin recalled years later, “Lincoln, with earnest tones remarked, ‘Ficklin, do you know that I think the latter part of your speech was as eloquent as I ever listened to?’”¹

    That’s it. His compliment to Ficklin is the only comment that we have from...

  12. POST TRIAL BRIEFS (pp. 105-113)
  13. NOTES (pp. 114-166)
  14. INDEX (pp. 167-171)