Lincoln Pleads His Own Case
litigation . . . As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being
a good man.” — Abraham Lincoln, 1851
Lincoln worked on a ferryboat near Posey’s Landing on the Ohio
River in Spencer County, Indiana, in the fall and winter of
1826-27. The following spring, Lincoln
built a small flatboat for his own use at Bates’ Landing about a mile and a
half downriver. He intended to earn money by carrying produce down the river.
business languished, however, and Lincoln, his meager savings gone, turned to
carrying passengers to steamboats in the middle of the river. One day he was
motioned to the Kentucky
shore by John T. Dill and his brother who were operating a ferryboat nearby. A
tense confrontation occurred as the brothers accused Lincoln of infringing on their business. Lincoln’s obvious
strength may have encouraged a legal rather than a physical resolution; in any
event, Lincoln and the brothers turned to Samuel Pate, a farmer and justice of
brothers accused Lincoln
of interfering with their legally established business. Lincoln admitted to conveying passengers to
the middle of the river, but he argued that he had carried no one who was a
potential customer of the Dills’ ferry.
Pate decided the case for Lincoln
by narrowly interpreting the act from William Littell’s Statute Law of Kentucky
“respecting the Establishment of Ferries.” The law prohibited unauthorized
persons from carrying passengers “over” the river. Lincoln, however, had taken them only to the
middle of the river.
case, the first in which Lincoln
appeared as a defendant, led to a friendship between him and Samuel Pate which,
some have speculated, may have stimulated his initial interest in the law.
of Louisville steamboat passes the Ghent wharf and wharf
boat, ca. 1910s
River Collection, contributed by James Bond, Kentucky Historical Society