The Unlikely Lawyer Who Represented a Slave Owner

Abraham Lincoln once represented a slave owner in a lawsuit to get the slave back

It was a chapter in American history that every decent person wishes had never been written. Slavery was legal — at least in some parts of the country. Slaves were viewed as property in some states but not in others. Each state had unique laws that addressed whether and how a slave might attain freedom.

Yes, we wish this chapter of the nation’s history could have been written differently. For one lawyer, in particular, the injustice of slavery represented not only a stain on his country’s reputation but it placed a blemish on his personal pursuit of justice.

It all started in 1836. Slave owner Robert Matson moved from Kentucky to Coles County, Illinois. Illinois’ laws banned slavery, but Matson found a loophole. He brought his slaves with him but kept them in Illinois for less than a year at a time. By sending them back to Kentucky and replacing them with different slaves, Matson was able to skirt the laws that would have granted the slaves their freedom.

There was one exception to Matson’s slave rotation scheme. Anthony Bryant was a hard-working and reliable slave. Matson depended on him to keep the farm running properly. He granted Bryant emancipation and named him as his foreman. Bryant’s family joined him in Coles County in 1845. Although Bryant was free, his family remained enslaved.

Two years later, Bryant’s wife, Jane, got into a tussle with one of Matson’s housekeepers. The housekeeper threatened violence against the Bryant family. Matson, in hopes of calming the situation, sent one of Bryant’s children back to Kentucky.

Concerned for his already-divided family, Bryant sought help from two local and prominent abolitionists, Hiram Rutherford and Gideon Ashmore. They provided sanctuary for the Bryant family.

This act of basic human decency violated Illinois’ Fugitive Slave Act. Matson retained former Illinois Attorney General Usher F. Linder to represent him in his efforts to reclaim ownership and possession of the Bryant family.

Rutherford and Ashmore sought an attorney to represent the Bryant family. They settled on a young man who had only been admitted to practice law less than eight years earlier. Despite his youth and relative inexperience, they were impressed and thought he would zealously advocate on the Bryants’ behalf.

There was just one problem. The attorney they selected had already agreed to assist Linder in his representation of Matson. He approached Linder and requested permission to switch sides. Linder consented, but Matson disagreed. The lawyer already agreed to represent him, so he was going to make the lawyer hold up his end of the agreement. The abolitionists ended up selecting former U.S. Representative Orlando B. Ficklin to be their attorney.

The case, Matson v Ashmore et al. for the use of Bryant (more commonly known as In re Bryant) was heard in the Coles County Circuit Court in October 1847. The facts were not in dispute. It really was a question of law and how it should be interpreted.

Ficklin, arguing on behalf of the Bryant family, insisted that Illinois was a free state. In support of his argument, Ficklin pointed to a case decided by the Illinois Supreme Court a few years earlier. In that case, the court concluded that “the presumption [is] … every person was free, without regard to race … the sale of a free person is illegal.” (Bailey v Cromwell, 4 Ill. 71 (1841)) One can only imagine the smug look on Ficklin’s face as he brought that case to the judge’s attention. The young attorney who was seated at the Plaintiff’s table was the advocate who argued that case and won at the Supreme Court.

This time, however, that young attorney was on the other side of the issue. He argued to the judge that while it was true that Illinois was a free state, that freedom did not extend to slaves who were temporarily in the state. Matson, he maintained, had a long practice of bringing his slaves to Illinois only temporarily. They were, in effect, merely in Illinois as a stop-over while in transit back to Kentucky.

Despite the impassioned arguments and the keen legal reasoning of the young attorney, the trial judge sided with the Bryant family. He concluded that a two-year residency in the state far exceeded any reasonable application of the transit exception to the Fugitive Slave Act. He ordered the release of the Bryants and awarded the entire family their freedom.

Matson was outraged with the outcome. He blamed the judge, the law, and his lawyers. He was so disgusted with the outcome that he left the state without bothering to pay any of his legal bills.

It’s fair to say that this young lawyer didn’t enjoy going without pay for all of his work. One has to wonder, however, whether he was particularly upset with having lost that case. Yes, lawyers frequently have to represent clients whose positions do not align with the personal beliefs of the attorney. It is also true that many attorneys subscribed to the philosophy expressed at the time by David Dudley Field that “a lawyer is not at liberty to refuse anyone his services.”

Even so, the case of In re Bryant is notable because it was the only case the young lawyer would take in support of slavery. His reputation as an outspoken opponent of slavery soon became so well known that no slave owner would have dared entertain the notion of having this lawyer represent him.

It would have been a moot point, anyway. He soon became too busy with his second vocation to have time to do much by way of the practice of law. And, on top of that, his job required him to move away from the only state where he held a law license.

We don’t know a lot more about what happened to Robert Matson, Anthony Bryant, or the rest of the Bryant family after the celebrated case of In re Bryant. We do, however, know quite a bit about what happened to that young lawyer who represented the slave owner.

You probably heard of him. His name was Abraham Lincoln.

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