Saturday, April 8, 2023

Abraham Lincoln Pleads His Case as a Defendant at 18 years old.

Abraham 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. In the 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.

This 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 brothers John T. and Len Dill, who were operating a ferryboat nearby.

Two brothers who lived on the Kentucky side of the river, John T. and Len Dill, had the ferry rights across the Ohio River from a point opposite Anderson River. One day Lincoln was motioned to the Kentucky shore by the brothers. 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 the peace.

The Dill brothers accused Lincoln of interfering with their legally established business. Lincoln admitted to conveying passengers to the middle of the river. Lincoln argued that he had carried no one who was a potential customer of the Dills’ ferry.

The pertinent clause of Kentucky law read: "... if any person whatsoever shall, for reward, set any person over any river or creek, whereupon public ferries are appointed, he or she so offending shall forfeit and pay five pounds current money, for every such offence, one moiety to the ferry-keeper nearest the place where such offence shall be committed, the other moiety to the informer; and if such ferry-keeper informs, he shall have the whole penalty, to be recovered with costs."

The evidence presented revealed that Lincoln had limited his operations to depositing his passengers on board steamers in the middle of the river and that he had never ferried any of them clear across the Ohio River.

Judge Samuel Pate, narrowly interpreting the act from William Littell’s Statute Law of Kentucky, “respecting the Establishment of Ferries,” ruled that inasmuch as there was no occasion cited on which Lincoln had "set any person over [shore to shore] any river or creek." Lincoln, however, had taken passengers only to the middle of the river. Case dismissed.

This 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.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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