Abraham Lincoln

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Abraham Lincoln : biography

February 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865

Prairie lawyer

Lincoln returned to practicing law in Springfield, handling "every kind of business that could come before a prairie lawyer".Donald (1996), p. 96. Twice a year for 16 years, 10 weeks at a time, he appeared in county seats in the midstate region when the county courts were in session.Donald (1996), pp. 105–106, 158. Lincoln handled many transportation cases in the midst of the nation’s western expansion, particularly the conflicts arising from the operation of river barges under the many new railroad bridges. As a riverboat man, Lincoln initially favored those interests, but ultimately represented whoever hired him.Donald (1996), pp. 142–143. His reputation grew, and he appeared before the Supreme Court of the United States, arguing a case involving a canal boat that sank after hitting a bridge.Donald (1996), pp. 156–157. In 1849, he received a patent for a flotation device for the movement of boats in shallow water. The idea was never commercialized, but Lincoln is the only president to hold a patent.White, p. 163.

In 1851, he represented the Alton & Sangamon Railroad in a dispute with one of its shareholders, James A. Barret, who had refused to pay the balance on his pledge to buy shares in the railroad on the grounds that the company had changed its original train route.Donald (1996), p. 155.Dirck (2007), p. 92. Lincoln successfully argued that the railroad company was not bound by its original charter in existence at the time of Barret’s pledge; the charter was amended in the public interest to provide a newer, superior, and less expensive route, and the corporation retained the right to demand Barret’s payment. The decision by the Illinois Supreme Court has been cited by numerous other courts in the nation. Lincoln appeared before the Illinois Supreme Court in 175 cases, in 51 as sole counsel, of which 31 were decided in his favor.Handy, p. 440. From 1853 to 1860, another of Lincoln’s largest clients was the Illinois Central Railroad.Donald (1996), pp. 155–156, 196–197.

Lincoln’s most notable criminal trial occurred in 1858 when he defended William "Duff" Armstrong, who was on trial for the murder of James Preston Metzker.Donald (1996), pp. 150–151. The case is famous for Lincoln’s use of a fact established by judicial notice in order to challenge the credibility of an eyewitness. After an opposing witness testified seeing the crime in the moonlight, Lincoln produced a Farmers’ Almanac showing the moon was at a low angle, drastically reducing visibility. Based on this evidence, Armstrong was acquitted. Lincoln rarely raised objections in the courtroom; but in an 1859 case, where he defended a cousin, Peachy Harrison, who was accused of stabbing another to death, Lincoln angrily protested the judge’s decision to exclude evidence favorable to his client. Instead of holding Lincoln in contempt of court as was expected, the judge, a Democrat, reversed his ruling, allowing the evidence and acquitting Harrison.Harrison (1935), p. 270.

Family and childhood

Early life

Abraham Lincoln was born February 12, 1809, the second child of Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Lincoln (née Hanks), in a one-room log cabin on the Sinking Spring Farm in Hardin County, KentuckyDonald (1996), pp. 20–22. (now LaRue County). He is descended from Samuel Lincoln, who arrived in Hingham, Massachusetts, from Norfolk, England, in the 17th century.Donald (1996), p. 20. Lincoln’s paternal grandfather and namesake, Abraham, had moved his family from Virginia to Kentucky, where he was ambushed and killed in an Indian raid in 1786, with his children, including Lincoln’s father Thomas, looking on.White, pp. 12–13. Thomas was left to make his own way on the frontier.Donald (1996), p. 21. Lincoln’s mother, Nancy, was the daughter of Lucy Hanks, and was born in what is now Mineral County, West Virginia, then part of Virginia. Lucy moved with Nancy to Kentucky. Nancy Hanks married Thomas, who became a respected citizen. He bought or leased several farms, including Knob Creek Farm. The family attended a Separate Baptists church, which had restrictive moral standards and opposed alcohol, dancing, and slavery.Donald (1996), pp. 22–24. Thomas enjoyed considerable status in Kentucky—where he sat on juries, appraised estates, served on country slave patrols, and guarded prisoners. By the time his son Abraham was born, Thomas owned two farms, several town lots, livestock, and horses. He was among the richest men in the county. However, in 1816, Thomas lost all of his land in court cases because of faulty property titles.