Lincoln, Abraham. Letter. 1851. - Peter Harrington Blog

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Lincoln, Abraham. Letter. 1851.

Presented by Adam Douglas, Senior Rare Book Specialist at Peter Harrington.

A fascinating legal document entirely in Lincoln’s hand and showing him as the hard-working “prairie lawyer” involved in the minutiae of the law: signed three times in the main deposition and again at the foot, “Abraham Lincoln Commissioner”; also signed by Thomas Lewis – one of the patentees of the “atmospheric churn” at lower right, as witness to his own statement transcribed by Lincoln. The document opens: “Deposition of Willis H. Johnson, and Thomas Lewis, witnesses produced, sworn, and examined on oath on the 20th day of February, in the year of our Lord one thousand, eight hundred and fifty one, at the Office of Abraham Lincoln, in Springfield, in the State of Illinois, by me Abraham Lincoln, by virtue of a commission issuing out of the Supreme Court of Judicature of the People of the State of New York, to me, Abraham Lincoln”.brbrThis deposition is linked to a patent case that was long-winded and far from straightforward; it is discussed in some detail in Brian Dirck’s Lincoln the Lawyer: “In 1849 Lincoln was hired by John Moffett, part of a three-man partnership to market and sell an ‘atmospheric churn,’ a device that created butter more quickly than conventional churns by injecting air directly into the cream. Moffett was not the churn’s designer, that honor belonged to his partner Willis Johnson, a creative and busy Springfield inventor who also came up with new ways of processing flax and hemp, pumping water, and mixing cement. Moffett and a third party, Thomas Lewis, did the sales work, selling churns in Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Lewis racked up over 50,000 worth of sales. St. Louis had been particularly fertile ground, where he displayed the churn in front of a saloon and on the sidewalk by his hotel. Moffett’s understanding was that the partners’ arrangement called for selling the machine without him or Lewis earning any commission. He was therefore dismayed to learn that Lewis paid himself a 4,000 commission from the proceeds of his efforts”. After the court decided Lewis should pay Moffett 1,300 Lewis appealed and the case went up to the state supreme court, “which ruled that he did not need to pay Moffett anything at all. It would have been difficult for Lincoln to find a clear distinction between progressive economic development and its retardation in this case. Nor did the patent laws seem to do much for the ‘fire of genius’ behind the atmospheric churn. Willis Johnson did not get anything out of the lawsuit (he tried to bring his own case against Lewis, but failed). The churn itself was worthless. During the appeal, the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court marveled at Lewis’s ingenuity in earning so much money from peddling what was a dismal failure of a machine” (Chapter 4: ‘The Energy Man’, p. 89).brbrIn his deposition, Lewis states: “I am one of the patentees of what is called Johnson & Lewis’ Atmospheric Churn I, for myself and partners, did sell and transfer the principal part of our interest under the patent for said churn, in the year 1848 I sold to” and then lists 35 individuals to whom transfers were made and names the territories they have rights to: “all England, all Canada, all Oregon, and all the United States excepting twenty counties in Illinois”. Thomas Lewis (b. 1808) was a native of New Jersey. He arrived in Springfield with his family in 1837, shortly after Lincoln himself had moved there. He was originally a shoemaker but accumulated some money in banking and studied law; he was admitted to the bar but his law practice seems to have been unsuccessful. Next he tried his hand at the newspaper business and became editor and publisher of the Illinois Atlas, based in Springfield. Things were improving and he became a key figure in the foundation of Illinois State University before joining in partnership with Willis Johnson and a Lucien Adams to establish a dry goods business. He reputedly owned real estate worth 22,000, and, with Lewis and Adams, a foundry and a mill. As a substantial figure in Springfield society, Lewis would certainly have been known to Lincoln. In fact, nearly a decade earlier, in 1842, Lincoln had represented Lewis in a foreclosure suit concerning a general store that Lewis had owned, the inventory of which had been impounded. At that time Lincoln was in partnership with Stephen T. Logan. Lewis asked Lincoln to represent him and “Lincoln and Logan had to file an action against the constable to force him to release the inventory. The jury ruled for Lewis and awarded 1 in damages. Of course, the damages were unimportant. What Lewis wanted, and what Logan and Lincoln got for him, was the right to seize and sell the inventory” (Billings and Williams, eds, Abraham Lincoln, Esq.: The Legal Career of America’s Greatest President, 2010, pp. 113-14).brbrA legal document of real immediacy from the years when Lincoln was making his reputation as “Honest Abe” in his adopted “home state” of Illinois, where, as a lawyer, “he rose to front rank” (Dictionary of American Biography).

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