By Kevin Orlin Johnson, Ph.D.
On July 17, 1849, Robert Smith Todd of Lexington, Kentucky, died suddenly of cholera. He was among thousands who’d die in the world-wide epidemic that had already killed former president James K. Polk a month before and would be blamed for the death of Edgar Allan Poe a bit later.
Todd’s hasty death-bed will was endorsed by only one witness; Kentucky law required two. Effectively, Robert Smith Todd, one of the richest men in the state and the largest slaveholder, had died intestate. His estate was referred to a board of commissioners for settlement.
It was complicated. He left thirteen surviving children, five from his first wife and eight from his second. Nine of those surviving heirs were spread across the South. Four of Todd’s daughters lived 400 miles to the north, in Springfield, the capital of Illinois. Elizabeth had married Ninian Wirt Edwards, son of the first governor of Illinois. Ann was Mrs. Clark M. Smith, Frances was Mrs. William Wallace, and Mary was Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. They would have to negotiate their way through the settlement of the estate by correspondence with lawyers in Kentucky, or rather their husbands would.
The law at the time followed the principle of the feme covert, legalese for “covered woman”: women, along with infants, dotards, imbeciles, drunkards, and the mentally ill, were considered constitutionally unable to handle their own affairs. So a woman couldn’t own or sell property in her own right: it was held for her in her father’s name if she was single, and in her husband’s name if she was married, and the man made the decisions. When Robert Smith Todd died, then, Abraham Lincoln owned slaves.
That much is unarguable. In fact inheritance through a wife was a common way for men in those days to acquire slaves, as many men in the Lincolns’ social and political circles did ― Senator Douglas of the debates, for one, who obtained a plantation of 2,500 acres and a hundred slaves through his wife, Martha Martin of North Carolina.
But what happened to Lincoln’s slaves? The family had none in Springfield, except possibly the girls whom they leased from their owners to help with the cooking and housekeeping. That, too, was common practice in Illinois and across the Union, North and South, as common then as leasing a car is now. Unlike every previous presidential family, they certainly didn’t bring any slaves with them to the White House or employ any there, as far as we can tell.
Lincoln could have emancipated them. Other Todd heirs did. Many were eager to prevent the liquidation of those human assets and redeem the slaves by purchase from the estate, settling them for retirement in rent-free houses or giving them life tenancy in workable farms. Some simply bought particular slaves from the estate and emancipated them and their spouses and children, with ample provision, after their years of faithful service as nannies, butlers, valets, cooks, or managers of their father’s various business enterprises.
Lincoln might have sold those slaves to one or another of the Todd heirs, and, if so, it’s likely that they were humanely treated as so many of the others were. No record of any such sale has come to light yet. But it’s also worth noting that Lincoln could have emancipated them at no cost to himself, really, offsetting their price by exchanging other assets that had fallen to his portion as, again, his co-heirs were routinely doing. True, that would have incurred some sacrifice on his part, but considering the size of the estate he’d still have been far better off financially than he’d been before Robert Smith Todd had died, and those slaves would have been free. But if you oppose slavery do you set a price on freedom?
Now, if Abraham Lincoln had freed the slaves who’d come to him, certainly that would be a central tenet of Lincoln Studies. It would prove everything that we’re taught about him, the War and its cause, the Emancipation Proclamation, Abolitionism, and the abolition of slavery itself. It would feature in every re-telling of the Lincoln Myth, the keystone of the whole edifice. But it doesn’t. The Todd settlement was the largest and most substantial litigation of Lincoln’s life, but there’s no discussion of it in the whole of the Lincoln literature. It’s not mentioned in any of the standard studies of Lincoln’s law experience such as Frederick Trevor Hill’s Lincoln the Lawyer (New York 1906) or John T. Richards’ Abraham Lincoln: The Lawyer-Statesman (Boston 1916).
So Lincoln owned slaves but didn’t buy them from his co-heirs and emancipate them, and he didn’t keep them. The only remaining possibility is that Abraham Lincoln sold the slaves whom he’d inherited and kept the money.
That changes everything. If Abraham Lincoln, of all people, owned slaves ― and sold them ― then the whole history of his time has to be rewritten. The history of the United States has to be rewritten.
Why don’t we know about it?
LINCOLN’S SLAVEHOLDING IN THE RECORD
Well, in fact, everybody has always known about it: Lincoln’s ownership of slaves is obvious, just from what we all know about his marriage. It should be easily documented from the records. The Todd settlement would have been generated bales of paperwork. Every item of property, personal and real, had to be inventoried. Each farm and factory, each house and each slave, had to be impartially appraised and sold, with the proceeds to be divided equally among the thirteen heirs.
All of this was accomplished mostly through negotiations among the lawyers, with their agreements presented to the county chancery courts, the courts in equity, for approval. Those courts adjudicate petitions, usually, rather than civil or criminal lawsuits. Depending on the jurisdiction and the historical period in which they operate, they handle matters like declaring bankruptcy, issuing writs requiring or injunctions forbidding specific performance, clearing clouded title to property real or personal, or settling the estates of the intestate ― matters that don’t break any particular law but need to be settled as a matter of public record by lawful authority in conformity with the law and with the higher principle of justice that informs that law ― equity.
The only contentious suits, as far as I can tell, were those filed by Robert Smith Todd’s former partners about the liquidation of their firms’ assets. Those suits set the heirs jointly, the heirs as a class, versus the outsiders who held some lawful interest in the properties. Among themselves, the heirs seem to have proceeded with full understanding of the situation and, on the whole, in good sense and fraternal charity.
But if the process was cordial and businesslike it was almost indescribably complicated. One heir might petition to compensate the others for their shares of the home that he’d long occupied. Another might wish to buy some cherished family heirloom; another to assemble the shares of a certain business to keep it intact and operational, or, again, to swap cash or an equivalent share in another asset for full ownership of those slaves who had cared for him as as a child and lived with him their whole lives.
The size of Todd’s family and the extent of his holdings meant that the settlement would take years. Each and every asset, or, as with the slaves, each element of an asset, was subject to petition by an heir for trade or purchase. All of the heirs had to agree on the disposition of each item for which any of the others had filed a petition; each would have to file a response. If each heir filed a petition for a particular asset, that’s hundreds of agreements needed, and estate inventories recovered so far list hundreds of assets. Even if the process didn’t approach those numbers, there should still be whole carloads of documents. There aren’t.
MY SEARCH FOR MISSING DOCUMENTS
In 2009, when I began studying the settlement, I went first to the new Robert F. Stephens Courthouse in Lexington. There was nothing there from that long ago, so the staff referred me to the Lexington History Center, which in those days was in the old Fayette County Courthouse. The staff was pleasantly professional, but apparently there wasn’t anything about the Todd settlement there, either; still, the Center isn’t exactly an official repository. Of course Robert Smith Todd’s holdings spread across the counties surrounding Fayette, too, and as I didn’t know which properties would have been involved in the settlement, I made inquiries or toured those county seats whenever business or just affection for that gracious state took me to Kentucky during the next decade.
Bourbon County’s courthouse in Paris had burned in 1872, taking all of the records to perdition with it, and then burned again in 1901, “in case there were any left,” quipped one of the clerks. Clark County’s Greek-Revival courthouse in Winchester, built in 1853, still stands, but no relevant documents turned up there, either. It was the same at Madison County’s impressive little classic at Richmond, built in 1849.
For at least three generations the Todds had owned extensive properties in Jessamine County, but no documents about the Todd settlement could be found at the courthouse in Nicholasville, nor at Scott County’s in Georgetown, both post-War, Reconstruction-Victorian piles that in miniature would look charming under a Christmas tree. Mary Todd’s brother Alexander Humphreys Todd and his family were domiciled on family property in Woodford County, as were lots of other Todds back to the eighteenth century, but the situation was the same as at all of the other repositories. The clerks and archivists were invariably professional, polite, and glad of the company, and their explanation was always the same: documents related to Lincoln tended to be abstracted from their proper places. Although there were no records of any official transfers, they’d say, some had presumably been taken for safekeeping at the the state archives in Frankfort, and I should check there.
The new building housing the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives stands in isolation outside of town, stretched out concrete and windowless on the brow of a wooded bluff with breathtaking views across a scenic bend in the Kentucky River, the fields and forests stretching south across the hills to the horizon. Inside, the building is spacious, antiseptically clean, rather dark, and quiet as a tomb. There, too, the attending clerks were happy to have a visitor, but nothing substantial about the Todd settlement could be brought to light.
THE PATTERN OF THE LOSSES
By then the absence of information had turned into information, itself: the empty spaces in the records ran to clear patterns. In some repositories, newly digitized catalogues simply skipped over file numbers that had been registered by hand in the original dockets compiled at the time of the petition or suit. Some of those missing references still appeared in hand-written catalogues compiled in the 1920s, say, or typed up in the 1950s when the older files had been re-organized or transferred to storage. Sometimes the entries for the original files were carried over into the newer catalogues but their covers, once they could be tracked down, were empty.
So the discrepancies in these docket lists, these records of records, confirmed that the Todd documents had existed and that they’d originally been kept in the right files in the right places. The dates of their compilation let me establish, at least within a definite span of time, when those files had vanished or when those documents had been abstracted from the surviving empty files.
In some cases, visitor registrations established more precisely the last time the files had been accessed, even if they didn’t record the name of the borrower. Anybody who’d accessed a file that turned out to be empty would presumably have reported it. Certainly people wouldn’t keep checking out an empty file. That last date of access, then, pretty well fixed the date on which the documents had been stolen.
The potholes in the records also showed at least in general that the thefts had come in episodes, with batches of documents vanishing together, or nearly so. Of course those episodes fell off as there was simply no more left to steal, but in most of these repositories I was the first person in the clerks’ experience to request any files relating to the Todd settlement or, more remarkable, to Abraham Lincoln. Those requests had fallen off sharply after 1930. That was the year in which the Reverend Mr. William E. Barton, D.D., LL.D., died.
REV. WILLIAM E. BARTON
William Eleazar Barton was born in Sublette, Illinois, in the year Lincoln took office ― 1861. His earliest memory, he said in his autobiography, was of when he was about four years old, handing his father the hammer to tack up black muslin bunting around their house after the assassination. Well, his earliest memory next to the first time anybody gave him a stick of candy.
Today he’s remembered as a prolific writer of devotional tracts, a serial inter-denominational clergyman and adulterer, a freebooting plunderer of rare books and original documents, and the early twentieth century’s most prominent Lincolnolator ― the veritable Paul of the creed ― author of a whole shelf of books still standard in the literature.
In 1885 he graduated from Berea College in Kentucky and married Esther Treat Bushnell, D.A.R.. The next year they had a son whom they named Bruce Fairchild Barton ― the famous ad man ― and in 1890 Barton took his divinity degree at the Oberlin Theological Seminary. He talked his way into pastoral positions at substantial Protestant churches in Ohio and Tennessee, one after another, until they found out about his incessant adulteries with the substantial ladies of the congregations. One account of the end of his first pastorate tells us that “his friends advised him to further his education,” which he thought was a good idea, and timely. “The entire community stood on the station platform”, the account continues, “to bid ‘good-by’ to the Bartons, who were leaving at midnight on the fast train.” Torchlight isn’t mentioned in the account, but it glints out between the lines of all of these records.
Whenever that happened ― and it happened every time ― he’d just go to another town and another Protestant church, possibly of a different denomination, talk his way into another pastoral appointment, and start in on the ladies again. It’s the pattern that you see so often today with clergymen of all denominations, athletic coaches, and sexual predators of all other vocations. At this distance Barton seems an unlikely Lothario. If you read much of his writing, or know much about his life story, there is something smug, unctuous, oily, unmanly, a pervasive creepiness in him that seeps through his work like rising damp. To hear his friends tell it, that’s a fair description of the man, too. Still, in his day Barton was an immensely popular preacher and attractive speaker, suave and debonair with his lapidary blue eyes and natty little Van Dyke. The phrase that comes to mind is “handsome devil”.
BARTON AND LINCOLN
In connection with his congregational work, Rev. Barton wrote all sorts of organizational manuals, compendia of creeds and covenants, hymnals, and one series of parabolic morality tales after another centered on a character called Safed the Sage. But when pastoral appointments thinned out around 1920 ― word got around, I guess ― he took an interest in all of the persistent questions about Abraham Lincoln: his apparent rejection of Christianity, his apparent illegitimacy, his apparent love affair with Ann Rutledge, his apparently miraculous ascent from that apparently stagnant, filthy, putrid pool of ancestors of his, and so on, apparently.
His idea was pretty explicitly to sweep away all doubts and set forth final answers to it all ― his magisterial The Soul of Abraham Lincoln of 1920, the bridge between his careers predicated on the authority of his D.D., begins with a chapter called “The Conflict of Testimony” followed by another explaining “Why the Biographies Differ”.
Thenceforth he preached no longer Christ, and Him crucified, but Abraham, and him exalted. With the fervor of inspiration he poured forth books like The Paternity of Abraham Lincoln (1920), The Life of Abraham Lincoln (1925), The Great and Good Man (1927), The Women Lincoln Loved (1927) ― another bridge with previous experience ― and, in the year of his own death, The Lincoln of the Biographers (1930).
They seem to have been popular, judging from the numbers of copies available in the used-book market today, many of them in mint condition. But when you do try to verify anything in any one of his books, you’ll find that something more than half is simply made up, either as pure fantasy or as transcriptions of forged, or at least fishy, documents. His books lack Sandburg’s high-flown poesy ― they’re about as riveting as a hymnal ― but like Sandburg’s they’re still vast foggy hotch-potches, incoherent, with nothing in chronological or even conceptual order. Any attempt to track his assertions to a primary document, of course, is almost certain to come up empty, but you’re well advised to assume that what he said is directly contradicted by all surviving evidence ― facts, figures, dates, and all. Still, his works do give you the impression that you’ve read a book about Lincoln.
In the little time left to him between books Barton wrote countless articles and pamphlets insistently clarifying the Lincoln Myth, and he delivered innumerable Lincoln lectures all over the country, hundreds of radio broadcasts, and scores of patriotic speeches on public occasions ― he was the dedicatory speaker at the unveiling of Lincoln the Lawyer in Urbana, a monument by Lorado Taft who himself happened to have been born to another Congregational minister, this time in the year Lincoln was elected president. The world of Lincoln Studies is ever a small one.
Barton went deep into courthouses and archives and libraries all over Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, California, and Washington, D.C., walking out, somehow, with sheaves of documents that nobody else had been able to find, not after more than half a century of searching. And since 1860 people really had been searching. Beating back a tide of campaign diatribes about how Lincoln was the son of a Black woman, or of Jefferson Davis, or of Jefferson Davis and a Black woman or, most plausibly, about how Nancy Hanks had been impregnated by her boss while working as a housemaid in Virginia or North Carolina, the Party was frantic to find documentary proof of his legitimacy. They’d all come up empty.
But Barton came up with stacks of ancient charters that he said proved that Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks had been married, arriving, he said, “at a definite, and as it appears to him, a final, opinion regarding the paternity of Lincoln”. In fact he took it farther: Barton also produced documents affirming Lincoln’s lineage through his grandmother and the Hankses to Richmond County, Virginia, giving the whole promiscuous tribe of drifters an impeccable pedigree stretching back at least a hundred years.
With any old documents, stains, foxing, inkblots, lousy penmanship, and decay often make definite decipherment impossible, and in some important examples of these Lincoln documents the relevant entry falls across a fissure or a crease, tearing the letters in twain. Of course there were lots of people in the region by the name of Hawks, and even a family named Hand, who actually were married and given in marriage, and in that old handwriting who could tell ― well, they must have been Hankses, because the others were obscure and the Hankses were a presidential family ― the fresh stroke of a pen would settle the matter. And anyway crucial documents were often illustrated not by photographs but by drawings. But nobody questioned how Barton had managed to find so many basic documents of stainless respectability so long overlooked by so many highly motivated searchers. It’s also interesting that so many of those documents can’t be found anywhere today.
Of course Barton omitted to mention substantial police records of Hanks misdemeanors, malfeasance, and prostitution from those same repositories. Those are still where they should be, oddly enough. But although he accumulated thousands of other primary documents he never mentioned them once, not in anything that he ever wrote. He refused to let anybody else consult his collection, too. In other words, overlooking for now the part about Thou Shalt Not Steal, Rev. Barton acquired all of those unmentioned documents to suppress them ― not to derive from them an accurate picture of Lincoln, but rather to ensure that nobody else would be able to challenge what he’d already decided to write about him.
But the most interesting thing of all about the Rev. Mr. Barton is how he managed to acquire all of those documents. “I determined not to become a purchaser of rare and expensive Lincoln books,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I could not afford them.”
Now, to all appearances, Barton would have had only a pension and some savings from his freelance inter-denominational ministry and some income from his Lincoln-lecture tours and his books. But he managed to acquire a summer estate on Sunset Lake in Foxboro, Massachusetts ― a prime parcel that’s now Barton State Park ― and to construct a sizeable building behind the main house there, his “Wigwam” to hold his immense collection of books, documents, ephemera, letters ― everything, everything connected to Lincoln and his career. He even managed to buy whole collections amassed by other Lincoln collectors like John E. Burton and big chunks of others collected by people like Osborn H. Oldroyd. And he had other collections, too, of exotica and arcana like rare and unique Arabic, Hebrew, Samaritan, and Sanskrit manuscripts, and bales of Walt Whitman’s papers, too, among other things.
He acquired some of these treasures with money from his brisk trade in rarities that, again, nobody else had ever found on the market. He got top dollar for them primarily because he was the foremost authority in the field, himself. He wrote up catalogues, taken on his authority as definitive, of books that Lincoln owned, of which he happened to have the only known ostensibly authenticated copy. “Thus,” bibliographer Robert Ray warned, Barton “demands corroboration before we can accept his assertions”.
But mostly Rev. Barton acquired these items economically by the simple expedient of not paying for them. He made no secret of it. In fact, he seems to have delighted in it. When Judge Daniel Fish, the first great bibliographer of Lincolniana, refused the present of a book that Barton had plainly stolen from Lane Theological Seminary, Barton wrote back, “Believe me, if you are going to have any scruples about stealing from a Theological Seminary, you will never make a Collector.” Louis A. Warren had seen an image of the marriage certificate of Lucey Hanks in Barton’s Life of Lincoln, but he, uniquely, noticed that Barton’s transcription accompanying the image was neither complete nor accurate. He looked for the original in the files of the Mercer County courthouse, but it had disappeared. Well, that certificate is indispensable to Lincoln’s chain of legitimacy, so Warren went all the way to Foxboro to ask Barton about it. Sure enough, there it was on the wall of the Wigwam, professionally framed. Barton had “borrowed” it, was his phrasing.
This sort of thing, multiplied by tons and thousands, is what will establish Barton’s position in history: his was the largest looting of books and documents since Marc Antony sent the Pergamena to Alexandria. The volume of his plunder is still astonishing today. The University of Chicago, where Lucey’s certificate and most of the really interesting items are today, is only one of half a dozen beneficiaries of his will, and it took a whole boxcar to ship some ― only some ― of his Lincoln documents there in 1932. The total seems to have filled five or maybe six cars, as far as I can tell at this point.
To hear Sandburg tell it in his Lincoln Collector, this “Barton Collection” was appraised and approved by the prominent Lincoln collector Oliver Barrett, member of the American Historical Association, and President of the Board of Trustees of the Illinois State Historical Library, and by Illinois Governor Henry Horner, longtime member and Vice President of the Abraham Lincoln Association, honorary member of the Lincoln Fellowship of Southern California and of the Lincoln Association of Ohio, and collector of the largest and most complete assemblage of Lincoln materials ever known, apart from Barton’s.
But that doesn’t really confer any legitimacy on the proceedings. Barrett and Horner were also consulted about Myra Bradwell Pritchard’s discovery of a box full of letters between Mary Todd and her lawyer, Pritchard’s grandmother Myra Bradwell, the one who helped the First Lady prove her sanity and got her out of the asylum. The two top-ranking Lincolnolators told Mrs. Pritchard that the letters, the largest single cache of Lincoln documents ever discovered, were of no historical interest and saw to it that they were burned.
PURPOSEFUL DESTRUCTION OF DOCUMENTS
Other documents disappear absolutely, being deliberately, purposefully destroyed by the major figures of Lincoln Studies. Now, it’s true that most of the actions of our courts in Lincoln’s century aren’t documented at all, any more. The records of this escheat or that estray were likely to end up rotting in a dirt-floored shed or twisted into spills to light the courthouse stoves of a winter. It didn’t matter; our ancestors figured that nobody’d ask any questions about a case that had been settled. They were usually right.
Records of substantial assets of prominent families stood a better chance of being archived, but personal correspondence was more than likely to be lost. Some, like the “trunk letters” found in the trunk that Lincoln had left with Mary Todd’s cousin Lizzie Todd Grimsley in Springfield, were saved sentimentally but not systematically. It was the autograph that counted, usually; the idea was to clip the signature off of the letter and paste it into a little album made for such souvenirs. As with the contents of the Grimsley trunk, the rest of the letter was just burned with the household trash.
But from the beginning the major figures have systematically destroyed any primary document that they could get, if it stood as evidence contrary to the Lincoln Myth. Immediately after the assassination, Robert Todd Lincoln loaded all of the papers in his father’s office in the White House into trunks that he always kept with him. He sorted them carefully over the next few years and, witnessed by everybody from his little grand-daughter to Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, and over the frantic objections of everybody who knew, he burned most of them in the fireplace of his study at Hildene, his country estate in Vermont.
Evidently most of the materials at the University of Chicago have never been inventoried since their arrival in 1932, except for a partial effort in 1968, nor have they been catalogued or even unpacked. The box containing the first document that I found confirming Lincoln’s ownership and sale of slaves hadn’t been when I found it there. Similarly, the William H. Townsend Collection, donated apparently in 1964 to the Library of the University of Kentucky ― 32 cubic feet of original documents about Lincoln, all boxed up since delivery ― still hasn’t been inventoried. There, too, the staff commented that I was the first to ever ask for it. It was the same with the correspondence of Robert Todd Lincoln at the ALPL ― the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library ― at Springfield. Barton himself gave up on the Huntington in California because, he said, he had more information on his own note cards than there was in the library’s catalogue ― which listed, apparently, only four or five letters related to Lincoln while the vast bulk of their Lincoln materials were still piled helter-skelter in the attic.
The main point is that this inaccessibility has never mattered in the least to Lincoln Studies. Barton certainly knew that no Lincolnolator would be able to consult the files that he’d hoarded in his Wigwam as long as he himself lived. As had happened with Nicolay and Hay’s ten-volume biography of Lincoln, based only on those few documents that Robert Todd Lincoln hadn’t burned, researchers had no access to the information in those records except through Barton’s books. Well, that made Lincoln Studies so much easier. If the Reverend had seen all of the primary documents as he said, why, then, there was no need to go through them all again just to confirm that they say what he said they say.
It’s a response standard in the field. The novelist Shelby Foote, honored for his multi-volume The Civil War: A Narrative, told an interviewer that he “didn’t much go to the library and not to the department of the archives”, openly admitting that he “wrote from the printed word. But the Civil War is so widely written about that you don’t need to go back to the original documents. They’ve all been gone over.”
The faulty method of Lincoln Studies, crippled by that lack of primary documents, is unique in academe for considering secondary studies as acceptable sources, unverified. That’s why the literature still consists of whole chunks of Nicolay, Hay, and Barton, garbled with each re-telling but still practically plagiarized, or with new assertions festooned upon that frame of reference. Naturally, only those students who find nothing irrational or unsatisfactory about that method stay in the field. Today the saying among Lincoln Studiers is that they’re trained to treat primary documents like nuclear waste.
So it was a safe bet that nobody would bother to consult any of those primary documents after Barton died, either. And, again, in all of the years between Barton’s death in 1930 and my inquiry around 2009, nobody did. As far as I know, nobody else has yet.
LINCOLN’S VIEW OF SLAVERY
It was in the William E. Barton Collection at the University of Chicago that I found a primary document from the Todd settlement confirming that Lincoln had, indeed, sold the slaves whom he’d inherited from his father-in-law. Another from another action turned up in the files now in the Townsend Collection, this time with an inventory that detailed the appraisal of three slaves to be sold at $1,900.00, or about $64,000.00 in today’s money. There are undoubtedly more such documents waiting there, seeing as how there were far more than these few slaves in Robert Smith Todd’s estate, and these were routine exchanges.
The facts confirmed by these documents aren’t surprising. As his marriage into the Todd family ensured that he’d inherit slaves one day, his casual sale of those people is consistent with everything else that we know about him. According to John Malcolm Ludlow, author of President Lincoln Self-Pourtrayed (London 1866), Lincoln himself avowed that, even in Illinois, “people who don’t own slaves are nobody.” That was true; even in 1843 the English visitor William Oliver noted in his Eight Months in Illinois that the only reason anybody in the state was an abolitionist was “want of means to become slaveholders, a man’s respectability being, in a great measure, proportioned to the number of slaves in his possession.”
Lincoln always aspired to be part of that upper class, that slaveholding class. Throughout his career as an attorney he frequently represented slaveholders in actions to recover their human property, but he never represented a runaway suing to be free. All of these cases, too, are amply documented, monumentally documented in the great Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln compiled by the ALPL that, like all of the other repositories, is simply ignored by Lincoln Studies.
He litigated Bevans v. Brown et al. in March of 1840, a decade before the Todd settlement was to begin. In Kane v. May & Eastham just a year and a half later, he actually sold slaves for the first time. He sold two slaves, in fact, one of them a baby. There were a number of similar suits, all with Lincoln on the side of the slaveholder, but most important is the series of suits starting in October of 1847 with Matson v. Ashmore et. al. for the use of Bryant. Then, Lincoln agreed to represent the slaveholder Robert Matson, but when an acquaintance of Lincoln’s who didn’t know about that agreement, the local abolitionist Dr. Hiram Rutherford, approached him to represent the slave Bryant, Lincoln ditched Matson, an act for which he’d be disbarred today, of course. His defection is all the more remarkable considering that he was Representative-elect when he did it.
Fortunately Rutherford had sense enough to refuse Lincoln’s services, with no little heat, on ethical grounds and presumably in loss of faith in Lincoln’s word; but Lincoln’s betrayal of Matson’s trust doesn’t indicate any disapproval of slavery on Lincoln’s part. I was surprised to find, in an obscure history of medicine that I was reading for an unrelated project, that Mrs. Rutherford had noted in her diary that Lincoln brought with him to the trial the shackles to chain Bryant, his wife, and their children for delivery to their lawful owner.
Even after he was in the White House Lincoln acted consistently in the interest of slaveholders and even slave traders, although the importation of slaves had been federally prohibited since President Jefferson had insisted upon that legislation at the constitutionally earliest possible date. Albert Horn, for example. Horn owned a slave ship, the steamer City of Norfolk, out of New York, which had just returned from Cuba after unloading 560 slaves bought from the Bight of Benin. Horn had been arrested in New York and convicted for slave trading ― piracy ― but Lincoln pardoned him. In fact, there were at least seven petitions for executive clemency that convicted slave traders sent to Lincoln during his administration, all of them, of course, from Northern “free” states. He pardoned four of them.
WHY LINCOLN SOLD HIS SLAVES
All of this is perfectly consistent with Lincoln’s oft-repeated promise, stated most famously in his First Inaugural, that “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. Those who nominated and elected me did so with full knowledge that I had made this and many similar declarations and had never recanted them”.
If he didn’t mean that, then he was a liar; if he meant it, then he was not opposed to slavery. There’s no third possibility. His every word and deed confirm that he meant what he said. He was consistent as to racial equality, too. “I do not perceive how I can express myself, more plainly, than I have done”, he wrote to correct the misapprehension of a supporter. “I have expressly disclaimed all intention to bring about social and political equality between the white and black races”.
These positions were absolutely necessary if Lincoln was to establish himself where he wanted to be, standing securely in the upper class as a successful politician. With the Todd settlement he was at last at the table with the wealthy and influential men whom he’d so long admired, seated as their peer ― their brother-in-law, in fact. It was the peak of his career to that point. Of course he’d sell the slaves. Even the suspicion that he was something of an Abolitionist would very nearly derail his career before it had left the station.
“It was in those days a mortal offence to call a man an Abolitionist,” his friend Ward Hill Lamon explained in his Life of Lincoln, “for Abolitionist was synonymous with thief. Between a band of men who stole horses and a band of men who stole negroes, the popular mind made small distinctions in the degrees of guilt. They were regarded as robbers, disturbers of the peace, the instigators of arson, murder, poisoning, rape; and, in addition to all this, traitors to the government under which they lived, and enemies to the Union which gave us as a people liberty and strength.”
Nobody could get elected in Illinois who’d been called an Abolitionist. Even in the spring of 1856 John Todd Stuart ― Lincoln’s former law partner and Mary Todd’s cousin ― exploded in fury when Lincoln’s then partner William Herndon signed Lincoln’s name to a petition advocating an Abolition plank in the forthcoming Republican state convention ― “you have ruined him.”
With his marriage to Mary Todd, Lincoln at last was seated far above any position that he could achieve for himself, in the exalted company of the state’s most prominent power brokers and substantial, nay, wealthy citizens. Of course he’d make no waves, rock no boats, raise no unorthodox political principles or ethical considerations when it came to the way in which his brothers-in-law thought best to handle their bequests.
So when he was put to the test ― sell these people or fail as a politician ― Abraham Lincoln made his choice without apparent hesitation. And he made that choice again and again.
BARTON WASN’T ALONE.
Some few of the documents about the Todd settlement and photocopies of others ended up in that trainload of purloined documents that became the Barton Collection now at the University of Chicago. But most of the relevant papers that Barton must have had seem to have disappeared while in his possession and never made it into the boxcars. Well, some were once in the possession of William H. Townsend, Esq., successful, prominent, respected attorney of Lexington. We can know that because he used some of them when compiling his books on Lincoln’s legal difficulties, such as his Lincoln the Litigant, published in Boston in 1925, with a fulsome introduction by Rev. William E. Barton.
It’s interesting that although Townsend made off with box after box of those documents, his books mention the suits and countersuits of the Todd settlement not at all. What’s not so surprising is that many of the papers vaporized after Townsend had used them, never to be seen again.
So, here too, with the documents gone Townsend’s accounts and interpretations can’t be verified either. Our only assurance about his veracity consists of comments like about how Townsend gave the world “accurate and apparently complete knowledge of Lincoln’s experience, not as counsel for other men, but as plaintiff or defendant in the courts… Mr. Townsend has done what no one has attempted hitherto. He has caused the records of the courts in which Lincoln did business to be searched for all cases in which Lincoln appeared, not as counsel, but as a party to the suit… [T]his list is a remarkably long one.” Townsend “has spared no labor to learn and record the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”.
And that endorsement comes from the highest authority on Lincoln at the time: the Rev. William E. Barton. Like Barton, Townsend bequeathed many of the papers that should have been at the courthouses where the litigation took place to other institutions, just as if they were his to give. Some ended up in the William H. Townsend Collection at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Others, like so many other primary documents about Lincoln, ended up in the hands of the Reverend Barton, which takes us full circle: neglect, concealment, neglect, destruction.
The circular disappearance of the originals, like the circular endorsements of what they’re asserted to say, isn’t at all unusual in the field. Lincoln documents stolen from courthouses, libraries, and archives routinely find their way into private collections, never to be seen again. Held there, they can’t inform any research on Lincoln and his times. Roy Basler, editor of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, said that the real disappointment in that work “lies in our failure to obtain access to certain minor collections of papers which are known to contain Lincoln material. The extent to which this failure affects the completeness of the Collected Works is a matter of uncertainty, since we do not accurately know the holdings of those who have refused co-operation.”
Well, every year lots of original Lincoln documents do show up at auctions, whence they generally disappear into other private collections again. From what those collectors say about these relics, they’re owned more as curiosities than as primary documents, the way people collect Lincoln’s autographs or locks of blood-stained hair. None ever seems to end up back at the repositories from which they were, so very obviously, stolen. None goes to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, either, although gathering them all in a single central location built for the purpose seems like a wonderful idea.
There’s still an immense amount of proper, basic work to be done about some of the most important matters of the Lincolns’ lives, and easy work, too, but nobody’s doing it. Neat, complete, and orderly files about the settlements of their estates, for instance, sit untouched in the archives of the ALPL in Springfield, while award-winning Lincoln Studiers continue to repeat absolute falsehoods and spatterings of trivia about their financial situations.
The most interesting discoveries of the past eighty years or so have been made right there in collections open to everybody, except that no professional Lincoln Studier had bothered to look. The only photograph of Lincoln lying in state lay in a file unexamined for more than half a century at the Illinois State Historical Library until it was discovered by accident by a boy of fourteen. But, like most such discoveries ― like mine, in fact ― it got little attention from tenured professionals.
It’s time to get started.
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