Historically yours Lincoln, Stanton and the Reaper Case

Abraham Lincoln’s involvement in a legal case in 1855 revealed his remarkable ability to “transcend personal vendetta, humiliation, or bitterness.” According to historian Doris Kerns Goodwin (Team of Rivals), the John Manny Company hired George Harding, a nationally-known patent lawyer, to represent it in defense of a patent infringement charge brought by Cyrus McCormick, the original inventor of the mechanical reaping machine. The famous “Reaper” suit pitted several highly-respected patented lawyers against Harding. Since the case was to be tried in Chicago, Harding, never having seen Lincoln, hired him by reputation only as a local Illinois attorney “who understood the judge and had his confidence.” Lincoln spent the entire summer working on the briefs with the understanding that Harding would present “the scientific arguments.” Shortly thereafter, Harding told Lincoln that he was no longer needed since the case had been transferred to Cincinnati. However, Harding forgot to tell Lincoln of the termination of his services, and hired the nationally-known lawyer Edwin Stanton. At trial time in September, Lincoln went directly to the hotel in Cincinnati where Harding was staying. There, he encountered Harding and Stanton leaving for court. Harding was shocked at the sight of the ungainly backwoodsman with course ill-fitting clothes. Lincoln introduced himself and suggested they go together to court. Stanton whispered to Harding, “Why did you bring that d—-d long armed ape here…he knows nothing and can do you no good.” Stanton and Harding “turned away from Lincoln and continued to court on their own.” The following day, Stanton further humiliated Lincoln by telling him he “was expected to remove himself from the case.”

Lincoln did withdraw but remained in Cincinnati to hear the case argued, Harding and Stanton never opened Lincoln’s brief and never asked him to join them for a meal or accompany them to court. Lincoln found the sophisticated arguments “a revolution.” Intrigued by the brilliance of Stanton’s legal arguments, he later explained that he was going home to study law, “For any rough and tumble case (and a pretty good one too), I am enough for any man we have out in that county: but these college-trained men are coming West. They have all the advantages of a life-long training in the law, plenty of time to study and everything, perhaps, to fit them. Soon they will be in Illinois…and when they appear I will be ready.” Six years later at the start of the Civil War on April 12, 1861, President Lincoln (the first elected Republican) faced his most important appointment – Secretary of War. Despite his prior humiliation, Lincoln selected the most competent person. Stanton, a Democrat, did not only accept his offer, “but came to respect and love Lincoln more than any person outside of his immediate family.” In 1862, Stanton changed to be a Republican, completely supporting Lincoln. It has been said, that Lincoln had a great strategy for destroying enemies, he befriended them.

Sources: Doris Kerns Goodwin “Team of Rivals,” :The Reaper Case, “A Prelude for Greatness to Come,”: Rockford Register Star, Rockford, Il., rrstar.com, “Lincoln and the Great Reaper Trial,” by Thomas S. Johnson,: The History Insider: “Edwin M. Stanton – greatly unimpressed upon meeting Lincoln,”: It’s Like This, “Abraham Lincoln and Edwin M. Stanton,” by David Smith, December 14, 2010, : Wikipedia, “Edwin Stanton,”: The Philadelphia Lawyer, “The Power of Intelligence.”


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