The Case of Abraham Lincoln
A Story of Adultery, Murder, and the Making of a Great President
By Julie M. Fenster
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2007 Julie M. Fenster
All rights reserved.
MARCH, 1856 Like a Cathedral
Dr. George Angell grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, and returned there to settle into a predictably comfortable life after graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1847. Six years later, in 1853, it occurred to him that his life was perhaps a little too predictable.
"About this time, many favorable reports were coming from the western country," he wrote, "and being seized with the land fever, I determined to go west and buy some land." No sooner did word spread that he was in the market, than a man named Remington K. Webster showed up at his door in Providence, offering a farm for sale in Logan County, in the heart of Illinois. Angell took note.
Central Illinois, a generation removed from its frontier days, was in the grip of a new kind of momentum, propelled by improvements in agriculture and enticed by the progress of the railroad. In the short time since Dr. Angell started his career, land prices in Springfield had more than doubled. Returns such as that looked slick in Providence, where money invested in a typical bond took almost twenty years to double. Even-beyond the rates and the numbers, though, Angell wanted to move out west someday.
Webster fully understood Dr. Angell's fascination with the West. He had likewise grown up in New England, a place that tied ambition to patience. In some hearts, however, the two traits resided as natural enemies. Illinois in the 1850s offered a more buoyant scenario. Its population was burgeoning with the usual migrants, of course, people bereft of prospects back home, but it also drew another sort: the well-educated and well-heeled, assured of success anywhere they chose to live. The difference was that in Illinois, they didn't have to wait their turn.
In 1848, Remington Webster had purchased three tracts in Logan County, Illinois, and as it turned out, he could hardly have chosen a better section. His land was close to the proposed route of Illinois' first north-south railroad. For years, the line had been delayed in a frustration of rumors and false starts. Webster bided his time. Then, in 1853, with the railroad not only under construction but nearing completion, he was ready to cash in. Moreover, he had a plan by which to improve on his windfall.
Webster was going to sell land he didn't own anymore. Someone else, a man named Gill, held an order of execution against the farm, the residue of a legal skirmish over an unpaid debt amounting to about one-sixth the value of the land. Within a few months, the deed would automatically transfer to Gill. So it was that in June 1853, Webster was rushing Dr. Angell out to Illinois from the east to see the land, sign the papers, and make payment.
Farmers in the older states devoted season after season, a whole life through, to making their fields more level and fertile, and less rocky. In central Illinois, the land beckoned as though the hard work had already been done. Webster's farm was uniformly flat and fertile. That was the geography of the place, all the way to the horizon. "Surpassingly beautiful," said a former settler, recalling his first sight of the Illinois prairie, "Covered with luxuriant grass, interspersed with flowers of every hue, which gracefully bent with every passing breeze."
As the two New Englanders stood on the prairie, looking over the acreage for sale, Dr. Angell had only one complaint: there wasn't enough of it. He had more money and he wanted more land. With a customer in that frame of mind, Webster just so happened to have another tract, and he offered it up at just $2.25 per acre—quite a bargain. Webster didn't own that tract, either, but at least he was on good terms with the man who did.
While Dr. Angell was scurrying around Logan County, marveling at the sheer infinity of the sky, and signing checks, he unexpectedly heard "that Webster's reputation was not of the best." Soon afterward, he learned that that assessment was, if anything, generous. A search of the county's court records revealed the looming specter of the execution order. Angell was aghast at the situation, but nonetheless he sprang all over it. For a medical man, he not only understood real estate law but something about combat. First, he paid off the old debt and obtained the execution order from Gill. While that wouldn't likewise convey the deed, it did mean that Gill, unwittingly cast as the tip of Webster's whip in the swindle, was effectively removed from the scenario. Then, before Angell left to return to his practice in Providence, he faced off with Webster. Producing a fresh agreement he said that he would let the matter drop without pressing charges if Webster signed it. The agreement stipulated that Dr. Angell didn't have to make further payment on the land until Webster provided a document proving his outright ownership. As Dr. Angell knew full well by that point, Webster didn't have any such document, nor could he get it without obtaining the execution order, which was in Angell's possession. Regardless, the agreement was signed. "Webster was now at my mercy," Angell concluded with a sinister air. If and when the doctor was ready to make payment on the land, the sale would be completed.
In March of 1856, Dr. Angell was ready. He returned to Logan County exquisitely prepared for his final triumph over R. K. Webster. On his arrival, though, he learned that his plans would have to change somewhat. Webster was in the process of suing him.
Webster's contention was that all previous agreements were void, since his wife, a co-owner of the farm, hadn't signed them.
"I was advised," Angell recalled, "to go to Springfield and consult Abraham Lincoln about the matter." He may well have wondered why he couldn't hire a local attorney. In truth, several lawyers operated offices in Logan County, but they had yet to match the reputation of anyone from Springfield, one of the three cities in the state that veritably collected great lawyers. The other two were Chicago and Bloomington. Springfield was the state capital and Chicago had grown into the biggest city in the region. Bloomington's legal strength was more of an anomaly, but in all three places, good lawyers apparently brought out the best in one other, raising expectations as they stirred competition. While some of Illinois' other cities had their stars, the serious work and the big cases typically found their way to the attorneys from the three towns that hit the hardest, when it came to legal matters.
Dr. Angell, as intent on victory as anyone who is being sued by their swindler, was on the next morning's train to Springfield. A little less than three hours later, he arrived, stepping down off a car at the Chicago, Alton, and St. Louis Railroad station, which consisted of a small warehouse and a place where the train could stop on the north side of town.
The whole city of Springfield, population 7,250, was only about fifteen blocks-square. From the station to Lincoln's office downtown was a distance of five blocks. It was a short walk, but probably an arduous one—in Springfield at the time, the only thing more stubborn than the mud was the city government's reluctance to spend money on sidewalks. Because Angell's path took him along several commercial blocks, he could depend in some measure on the plank-walks provided by building owners. That left him with only one problem: crossing the streets. When he made his way across the intersection of Jefferson and Fifth, he had to plan a route around a sink-hole big enough to have become a pond and old enough to have wildlife. It was the same all over the state; Chicago, already fond of superlatives, was said to have the streets with the deepest, stickiest mud of them all.
As Dr. Angell looked up and down the cross-streets of Madison, Jefferson, and Washington (with more presidents—Adams and Monroe—just beyond his route), he could see that most of Springfield was no more crowded than a village. Even near the center of the city, wide lawns surrounded most of the homes and empty lots aired out the rest. Before long, though, Angell would not be looking around, but up, as every visitor did when the State House came into view. The home of all Illinois' state government, the State House was very much the center of the city of Springfield, presiding from its own spacious square. The first part to come into view from a distance was the wooden dome, painted white and jutting up more than a hundred feet. Roundly colonial in style, it was anything but a harbinger of the building itself. Instead, it was a contrast to the main building, presiding so sternly in its Greek Revival style and buff-colored sandstone.
By the time Angell had a full look at the State House, he was in downtown Springfield, where rows of three- and even four-story buildings cradled the square. Directly across from where he stood was the County Courthouse, tall and thin in whitish brick. A veritable second home for Springfield's lawyers, it was as loyal to Greek architecture with its Doric columns and classic pediment as the State House before it.
Lincoln's office was on the opposite side of the square from the County Courthouse, on the second floor of a red brick building at 103 South Fifth Street. Dr. Angell was probably muddy by the time he reached the building, but it didn't matter much. Most business offices then, especially in the West, were little more than workrooms. Law offices tended to be even more rustic than others.
Dr. Angell disappeared into the building on the square and started up the stairs. The office that Lincoln shared with his partner, William Herndon, was at the back of the building. Spartan by any standards, it was decorated mostly by unfiled papers and abandoned books. The office consisted of just one room dominated by two long tables arranged in a "T" and covered by the coarse green felt known as baize. The comforts consisted of a wood-burning stove and a spittoon; pictures of George Washington and Andrew Jackson hung on the walls. Aside from some chairs and a bench, there were exactly two other pieces of furniture. The first was a bookcase and the second, a secretary. It was a modest secretary, at that, just an upright desk with pigeon-holes overlooking a writing surface.
Throughout the month of March, 1856, Lincoln was to be in court, either Federal or County, nearly every day. Although he handled dozens of matters during that span, most were dispatched rather quickly with individual filings or motions. Only eight went to trial, each typically lasting less than a half-day.
Lincoln was devoting a lot of time in March to questions of land use—ones on a grander scale than Angell's 380-acre squabble. He had been hired to compose two opinions on real estate law. Running to about a half-dozen handwritten pages each, they were on the subject of pre-emption, the right of settlers to claim ownership of lands ultimately sold by the government to, for example, a railroad. One was written for a lawyer representing such settlers in Beloit, Wisconsin; the other for the Illinois Central Railroad, Lincoln & Herndon's steadiest client.
Researching precedents on which to rest such opinions was not Lincoln's favorite aspect of the law. The year before, however, in a moment of self-doubt during a case in conjunction with a team of nationally known attorneys, he'd resolved to concentrate on his practice, "to study law," as he bluntly expressed it, more deeply than had been his habit. His objective was to keep from slipping in the profession as its standards rose. In that vein, he made a thorough survey for both of the opinions he wrote, delving into copies of Land Laws, Land Opinions or snatches copied from the U.S. statute books at the State Capitol library.
"I immediately went to his office and found him in," Angell recalled of his meeting with Lincoln,
He was seated with his arms resting on a table and his long legs crossed. He was so different from any person I had ever seen that for a moment I was dazed. The man looked like a cathedral.
I stated my business, and feeling in my vest pocket, produced a ten dollar gold piece which I offered him as a retainer's fee. He was silent for a moment, and then said as he pushed my money toward me, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, but that fellow [Webster] was here not half an hour ago and I took five dollars of his money. But I'll tell you what to do; you go see John T. Stewart [sic], he's a better lawyer than I am anyway."
Angell had lost the first round to Webster, and by a factor of only a half-hour. Within a few minutes of leaving Lincoln, though, he was at the office of Stuart & Edwards, around the corner, and just off the square. Both John Stuart and his younger partner, Benjamin S. Edwards, were socialites around Springfield. They were also both related to Lincoln's wife, Mary: Stuart as a cousin and Edwards as an in-law. That made them relatives of Lincoln's, as well, but the referral wasn't based on nepotism. For one thing, socialites who were related to Mary Lincoln were a remarkably common item in Springfield.
Anyway, Lincoln was not alone in his appraisal of John Stuart's ability. Usher Linder, a fellow lawyer from eastern Illinois, said of Stuart, "He had the reputation of being the ablest and most efficient lawyer in the State, especially in trespass and slander cases." Stuart, a college-educated lawyer from Kentucky, had been Lincoln's mentor and his first partner, nineteen years before. They dissolved the firm without rancor after four years; apparently because Stuart didn't believe in splitting fees equally and Lincoln couldn't live on his percentage.
Both Stuart and Lincoln had long been interested in politics, standing as candidates for various offices, though with no particular success on either side. Stuart had, however, accumulated a fortune, mostly through land investments. His house faced the governor's residence in Springfield and was next-door to the most stupendous residential construction project south of Chicago: the showplace mansion of the outgoing governor, Joel Matteson, who was planning to remain in the capital city after his term ended at the end of the year. Even half-finished, Matteson's house was impressive, with a four-story tower and a gaggle of outbuildings. Stuart lived in his own substantial house with his wife, Mary, and five of their six children; their oldest daughter, Betty, was away at boarding school.
"When I first saw him," said Linder of John Stuart, "which was in 1837, I thought him the handsomest man in Illinois. He had the mildest and most amiable expression of countenance I nearly ever saw. He is eminently cheerful, social and good-humored, and a man would be a fiend to pick a quarrel with him."
Stuart's amiability was sincere, but it was also a factor in his professional technique. Colleagues couldn't say what, if anything, was at work behind his playful nature. The same might be said for Lincoln, his former protégé, except that he was a much more moody man. Stuart was all smoothed out, and in a legal case he investigated his adversary's position meticulously without ever seeming to do anything of the kind. As a fellow lawyer, Joseph Gillespie, said, "He keeps his own batteries masked, while those of the opposite side are closely scrutinized."
Less fastidiously, other lawyers nicknamed him "Jerry Sly." In March 1856, Stuart was not investigating people, though, but pipes. He was on a special committee studying the feasibility of a water system for the city based on artesian wells. It was one of his frequent forays into civic issues—of the type that held no interest for Lincoln. The committee report was due on March 14, and so Stuart's desk was more likely piled with water-table charts and treatises on hydraulic engineering than with law books when Dr. Angell arrived.
Dr. Angell explained his case for the second time that morning and Stuart agreed to represent him. Then they sat talking. The conversation eventually turned to Lincoln, the only other person in Springfield that Angell knew.
"I have never seen Mr. Lincoln before, but he appears to me to be a remarkable man," Angell said, according to his account of the meeting.
"He is," Stuart agreed.
"Has he any political ambitions?" Dr. Angell asked.
Stuart replied in a stage whisper. His big eyes glistened. "I think," he said, "He has." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Case of Abraham Lincoln by Julie M. Fenster. Copyright © 2007 Julie M. Fenster. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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