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Presidents Day – Lincoln the Lawyer

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Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln portrait from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

This Presidents Day I would like to focus on one out of the forty-four.  The Law Library has a digital collection of items related to Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln and the Law presents items from our Rare Book Collection that highlight periods when Lincoln’s life (and death) were securely linked to the law.

Presented in three parts, this digital collection presents Lincoln the Lawyer, Habeas Corpus and the War Powers of the President, and The Assassination: Trials.

The first part, Lincoln the Lawyer, focuses on the pre-White House Lincoln.  The second is more subject specific, comprising material on habeas corpus and the war powers of the President.  The third part covers the trials following the assassination of Lincoln.

The collection is made up of a variety of material: books, pamphlets, transcripts, reports, and even a play.

The play, Trial of Abraham Lincoln, is  a curious piece, having an indictment of Lincoln for treasonous acts read by George Washington, an examination by the “Spirit of the Constitution,” and testimony by a cast of prominent Americans such as Alexander Hamilton, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, and many others.  Biting satire, yes, but also cleverly done.  The comments from the witnesses are actual snippets (did they have sound bites in 1863?) from the speeches and writings of these individuals.

As interesting as this piece is, I was most taken by the legal writ prepared and signed by Lincoln.  This is a simple piece really.  Handwritten by Lincoln, it is an application of issue of process in Sangamon County Circuit Court for the case of George M. Stockton vs. James Tolly, signed “Stuart & Lincoln.”  The piece was acquired by the Law Library in 1942 from The American Autograph Shop in Merion Station, Pennsylvania for the modest sum of $39.  What most appeals to me about this piece is the dealer’s description, “No finer wall decoration for an attorney’s office.”  I guess it just makes me smile.  Rest assured, this item is not hanging on anyone’s wall.  It is a treasured item in our Rare Book Collection.

Abraham Lincoln legal writ, 1839.
Abraham Lincoln legal writ, 1839.

Enjoy the Lincoln collection this Presidents Day and remember to come back as 2011 marks the sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War.

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