Lincoln the Litigant

By William H. Townsend

Union, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange, 2000. viii p., 117 (17) pp., illus. ISBN 1-58477-021-X. $60.00.

With the release of The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition, the three-volume DVD-ROM publication that completely documents all know Lincoln legal cases, new attention is being turned toward exploring Lincoln legal profession. Not only will new books and monographs be written using this gold mine of primary source material, but also older groundbreaking works on Lincoln legal career will gain renewed interest. To that end, The Lawbook Exchange of Union, New Jersey has begun reprinting early books examining Lincoln the lawyer.

The first reprint by the Lawbook Exchange is William H. Townsend's Lincoln the Litigant. Originally published in 1925 in a limited edition of 1,050 copies, the book, along with a companion title, Lincoln the Defendant, has become scarce and collectable. The reprint of Lincoln the Litigant will be welcomed by Lincoln students who find the original edition difficult to find or prohibitively expensive to acquire.

A lawyer himself, Townsend was the first author to systematically search for and use documentary evidence of Lincoln's practice. Just as the Lincoln Legals team would do some 70 years later, though on a much more limited scale, Townsend searched through courthouse records in the areas in which Lincoln lived and practiced, looking for evidence of Lincoln's transactions in court cases. Relying on his earlier book Lincoln the Defendant, Townsend shows that much of Lincoln's early experience with the legal profession came about through action in which he was a defendant. The first such case, The Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. Abraham Lincoln, in which Lincoln was accused of operating an illegal ferry service across the Ohio River at Posey's Landing in Spencer County, Indiana. A brief trial was held before Samuel Pate, a Kentucky Justice of the Peace. While Lincoln was acquitted in the case, he came away from the experience with a valuable lesson. After the hearing, Squire Pate urged Lincoln to familiarize himself with the laws of any business or pursuit in which he should find himself.

Lincoln took the advice to heart, and set to studying a copy of The Revised Laws of Indiana, which was owned by an intimate friend, David Turnham. Lincoln also made frequent trips across the Ohio River to attend court sessions held by Samuel Pate. While he had not yet formally decided to become a lawyer, Lincoln did have a natural curiosity for legal matters.

And Lincoln hapless pursuit of a career in which he could prosper had the unfortunate consequence of keeping him in court as a defendant in lawsuits. Lincoln was sued a number of times in attempts to collect notes and other debts he had incurred. He had defaulted on notes signed in support of the failed venture of bringing the steamer Talisman up the Sangamon River, in land speculation in the community of New Salem, and his failed attempt at being a storekeeper. So overwhelming were his obligations from the failed store that it took Lincoln several years to pay them off, and he came to refer to the obligations as his "National Debt." By the time of the lawsuits over his business debt, Lincoln had been elected to the Illinois State Legislature and was persuaded to study law. Not only was he defending himself in the actions brought against him, he was also drawing up contracts and legal documents for others in the New Salem area.

Townsend devotes a great deal of this book to a case Lincoln to look on shortly before he was admitted to the bar. Largely a war of words, and one at that resulted in a very little actual litigation, Lincoln sought the return of a tract of land that he claimed rightfully belonged to a widow woman. Lincoln accused General James Adams, a veteran of the Winnebago and Black Hawk Wars, of defrauding the widow of the land by forging her dead husband's name on a legal document.

In an effort to win public support for the widow's cause, Lincoln had circulated a single page flyer outlining his accusations against General Adams, which Townsend prints in full. The story was picked up in the local newspapers, which prompted a vehement reply by Adams. A heated war of words ensued, with charges and replies from both sides, all of which is reported by Townsend. For all the energy and newsprint consumed in the controversy, little came from the suit. The case was abated on November 29, 1843, due to the death of General Adams. As no suit was pursued against Adams heirs, Townsend concludes that some sort of settlement was reached out of court.

Author Townsend also reexamines the lawsuit brought against Lincoln by his brother-in-law, Levi Todd, which claimed that Lincoln failed to turn over monies he collected for his father-in-law, Robert S. Todd. Townsend discovered the facts surrounding this case during research conducted in the Fayette County, Kentucky, archives, and publish the facts in the book Abraham Lincoln, Defendant.

Lincoln the Litigant represents the very beginning of the process of examining the actual records of Lincoln's legal practice in order to fully understand the scope and range of his profession. Its importance cannot be overlooked, particularly in light of the Lincoln Legals Project, which fully carried out the concept to present a complete understanding begun by William H. Townsend.

A brief word may be said about the Lawbook Exchange's reprint of this volume. Though not in expensive, the final product is a very handsome and rugged volume. Bound in blue buckram with guilt stamped titles, the text is printed acid free paper. The illustrations are reproduced on high-quality coated papers. And considering the high cost of obtaining an original edition of this scarce book, the price of the reprint represents an outstanding value.

This book can be ordered directly from the Lawbook Exchange at:
965 Jefferson Ave.
Union, NJ 07083

Or you can call 800-422-6686. You can also order through their website at

© Copyright Daniel E. Pearson, 2000