Dr. Rutherford Home,
In the fall of 1843, a young lawyer by the name of
Abraham Lincoln would get involved in a case that if
he had his druthers, he would have liked to be on
the opposing side. Mr. Lincoln was a traveling
lawyer and Coles County was one of his counties,
that he conducted several interesting cases. In
this instance, Lincoln would take on the position of
helping a slave owner (and Coles property owner)
from Kentucky to get his "stolen" slaves back. Mr.
Usher Linder, his legal friend from Charleston,
asked Mr. Lincoln to help him in the Matson Slave
Case. He agreed, and would apply his legal ethics
of honesty and following the written law of
Illinois. This would end up backfiring for the
case. Abraham Lincoln actually proved that the
slave owner, Robert Matson, was in the wrong by
working his slaves in Illinois. This case would be
the only instance where the Great Emancipator would
defend a slave owner, and was important in Illinois
law and the press.
Dr. Hiram Rutherford; Chief Justice William Wilson,
of the Illinois Supreme--residing judge in this
case; Charles Constable; Dennis Hanks; Gideon
Ashmore; Usher Linder; Abraham Lincoln (Usher's
assistant); Anthony Bryant; Jane Bryant; Robert
Matson; the jury; the baliff; the sheriff; the jury
Setting: October, 1843 on a farm near Oakland, Il;
Dr. Rutherford's home at Oakland; the Coles County
Courthouse and courtroom; the Coles County jail; on
a boat to Liberia
Illinois law did not allow southern slave owners
to bring their slaves into the state to work
them for extended periods of time.
Robert Matson owned a farm north of Oakland and
also owned slaves from his Kentucky property.
Mr. Matson brought slaves up from Kentucky to
work his form under free man Anthony Bryant. In
the spring of 1843, Bryant's wife and children
were brought to work "temporarily" on the
Illinois farm until after the harvest.
The problem, this time, was that Mrs. Matson,
got angry with Mrs. Bryant and threatened to
send the mother and her children back to
Kentucky to be sold to a different slave owner.
This upset known abolitionist, Dr. Hiram
Rutherford and friend Gideon Ashmore.
Rutherford and Ashmore would help the Bryant
family to escape. Following the law, the family
would be put in the Coles County jail for their
own safety. The sheriff would keep track of
county expenses for feeding and housing the
Mr. Matson was very angry over his slaves
running away, and being held in protective
custody. He would hire a lawyer to get his
Ashmore and Rutherford also hired a lawyer to
defend the rights of the slave family, that were
being worked in Illinois for an extended period
The first lawyers hired were Usher Linder of
Charleston and a young Abraham Lincoln, from
Springfield, for Mr. Matson. A lawyer had to
take the cases offered to him. Lincoln was not
pro-slavery, but took the case regardless.
Rutherford and Ashmore later approached Lincoln
to be the lawyer to defend the Bryants. He had
to refuse, as he already was hired by the Mr.
Matson. They hired Charles Constable to testify
for the Bryants.
The trial would occur, Lincoln found out through
legal study that his client, Mr. Matson, had to
lose his slaves because of a technicality in how
long they were living in Illinois as slaves.
Charles Constable won the case. The Bryant
family would be freed, and also set free.
Later, Charleston community members would pay to
have the family sent to the new free-man country
in Africa, named Liberia. They would live in
The Coles sheriff was to be paid all housing and
food expenses for the slave family by Mr.
Matson. Mr. Matson sneaked back into Kentucky,
not to return.
The sheriff never got paid for services he
This case was a very unusual and important case
Abraham Lincoln would have to defend a slave
owner, but through complete fairness and
understanding of Illinois slave law, would lose
The script for students to portray:
Dr. Rutherford (in his office at Oakland) with
Yes, Mr. Ashmore, I have heard of the difficult
times for the Negro family on Mr. Matson's farm. It
is obvious that Mr. Matson is breaking the law by
having his slaves work on his farm near our fine
community. We must do something to help the Bryants.
What do you think we should do? Don't you think we
should hire a lawyer and help this family?
Yes, I think we should get in touch with that young
lawyer from Springfield. I have heard he hates
slavery. How could he turn us down? I think now's
the time that Mr. Lincoln will be in Charleston. We
need to ride into town and ask him to help us.
Into Charleston, to the Charleston Inn, on the
Hello, Mr. Hanks. Have you seen Mr. Lincoln on the
Dennis Hanks: Abe's over in the courthouse handling
a horse stealing case.
Thank you. Mr. Ashmore and I will go over there
right now. We need his help.
Into the Coles Courthouse:
And now members of the jury. Remember that Mr.
Clark did not steal the horse. He bought it, but
Mr. Hitchum, did not give him the right ownership
papers. I have proven, with no question, through
three witnesses, that Mr. Clark is innocent. He
actually is better to the horse than Mr. Hitchum,
and needs the correct paperwork to prove ownership
when on the road. I close now.
Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Lincoln, we are so happy to see you
again. You remember us, don't you? We are your
neighbors from Oakland.
Yes sirs, I remember you both well. How can I help
Mr. Lincoln, we need your services. Can you help
If this about Robert Matson's slave case, I'm
afraid I would have a great conflict of interest.
Mr. Matson has hired me to get his slaves back.
Dr. Rutherford: This is unbelievable! How could a
fine lawyer like you, with good upbringing from a
slave hating family of Thomas Lincoln ever help an
evil man like Robert Matson?
Abraham Lincoln: I am very sorry. I do hate the
institution of slavery, but all citizens deserve a
fair case from our court. Mr. Matson will get a
fair trial. I hope that you two will make sure the
poor unfortunate Bryant family gets as good a
trial. Who knows how fairness will rule in this sad
Gideon Ashmore: Very well, we will see you in
court, Mr. Lincoln. God bless your soul for
defending such an evil cause.
To the office of lawyer Charles Constable, on the
Mr. Constable, we need a good fair lawyer who will
not be afraid to defend a Negro family. We think
that this family should be freed. Their owner, from
Kentucky, a Robert Matson, has used them on his
nearby farm for several months, and wants to take
them back to Kentucky to be sold. Would you take on
our case? We want freedom for the Bryant family.
I have heard of this strange case. Isn't Mr.
Lincoln the defense attorney for Mr. Matson? He is
a formidable, but very honest lawyer. I wonder why
he is not taking your case?
Lincoln has sided with Matson. What do you think of
Mr. Constable: A lawyer often has to defend things
different than his own personal thoughts. Mr.
Lincoln is honorable, and will follow the law, even
if it is not for his client.
To the Coles County Jail, to visit with the Bryants:
Good afternoon Mrs. Bryant. Are you being well
taken care of?
Yes, the sheriff is making life fairly well here.
We are eating well, and the children are
comfortable. Are you going to keep us from having
to go back to Kentucky? Will our master be able to
No, not if we can get our fair Coles County court to
Later in the Court Room, October of 1843-- the trial
Here ye, Here ye, the Court of Coles County now
meets to hear a case of ? Robert Matson versus the
Bryant family. Please sit now (the judge has
entered and sit in his chair behind the bench)
Chief Judge Wilson:
We are gathered here to decide whether the family of
Negroes by the name of Bryant, will stay in Illinois
as freed-men, or be returned as Robert Matson's
property in Kentucky. Mr. Lincoln and Mr.
Constable, and Mr. Linder. Please follow all rules
of fairness, and let the trial begin.
Abraham Lincoln (opening words):
Members of the jury, we know that Mr. Robert Matson,
owner of land in the northern portion of our county,
and the owner of a family of slaves, now in
Illinois, would like to get his "property" returned
so he can continue to work them and then return Mrs.
Bryant and the children back to Kentucky. In this
case we will consider Illinois law concerning the
owning of slaves, and the using of slaves for labor
in our free state.
Mr. Chamberlain (opening words):
Mr. Lincoln is exactly right. Mr. Matson is wanting
his slaves returned. The slave family, by the name
of Bryant are safe under the protection of our Coles
County Sheriff. The defendants in this case, Mr.
Ashmore and Dr. Rutherford did not "steal" the
Bryants. He helped them to get to safety. He heard
that they were going to be taken back to Kentucky to
be sold. In Illinois, our own Black Laws state that
a slave owner cannot work his slaves in our state.
Since 1818, when our state became a state, Governor
Coles, himself helped to establish our laws
concerning "no slavery." I really appreciate the
honorable Abraham Lincoln stating that Illinois law
must be followed. This case will be a simple one
for you to decide.
Chief Justice Judge Wilson:
Mr. Linder, would you present your case now?
Your honor, my client, Robert Matson, has used his
slaves before on his farm in this county. Many
slave owners often utilize their property for a
brief period of time. The Bryant family is needed
now to help gather the crops. We feel that Dr.
Rutherford and Mr. Gideon Ashmore have illegally
taken Mr. Matson's property. Mr. Lincoln and I will
present evidence that the Bryant family is the
property of Robert Matson, and rightfully must be
I call Robert Matson to the stand.
Usher Linder: Mr. Matson, are these negro people
sitting over there (points to the Bryant Family)
Mr. Matson: Yes sir, they are. They belong to me
and my farm in Kentucky.
Usher Linder: Mr. Matson, did you intend to bring
your slaves to Illinois to permanently place them
and give them freedom?
Mr. Matson: No sir. I did not ever bring them here
permanently. I just want to work them for a season
and then return to Kentucky. In fact, I may even
sell them. Mr. Bryant has his freedom and manages
my farm in northern Coles County.
Usher Linder: How did Dr. Rutherford and Mr.
Ashmore acquire your property?
Mr. Matson: They evidently contrived to steal
them. Now they have them sitting in the Coles
County jail. They are of no use to me while sitting
in there. They need to be returned to me so that
they can work the farm, and I can take them back to
Usher Linder: I have no further questions. We may
call Mr. Matson back at a later time.
Chief Justice Wilson: Mr. Chamberlain-- would you
like to ask questions to Mr. Matson.
Mr. Chamberlain: Yes, your honor, I would. Mr.
Matson-- Just how long do you keep the Bryant wife
and children in Illinois each year?
Mr. Matson: Just 6 months out of the year. They
are not permanently located here. Their home is in
Mr. Chamberlain: Do you understand that Illinois
Black Laws state that slaves can only "pass through"
the state? If a slave is housed in the state, he or
she is considered free.
Mr. Matson: I am not aware of that, and I don't
believe it. My slaves are my property. I want them
Chief Justice Wilson: Mr. Lincoln, do you have
questions for Mr. Matson?
No, your honor. If what Mr. Matson says "that he
has located his slaves in our state for the purpose
of performing labor for him, for nearly six months,
then the Bryants must be freed, just as Mr. Bryant.
The matter of these negroes being stolen, does not
make sense here. Mr. Matson should have kept his
slaves in Kentucky to work that farm.
We thank Mr. Lincoln for reminding us that any
negroes, under bondage, living in our state for a
period of time are to be freed. Illinois law says
that slave owners are only allowed to transport
their slaves through our state. Mr. Matson has the
Bryant's, all except Mr. Bryant who is free, live in
his house, do his field work, and for an extended
period throughout a growing period. They must be
Your honor and members of the jury--you must return
the Bryant's to Robert Matson. The matter of
permanency of residence has not been proven. They
are still his property. He has the right to allow
them to work for a short season. Only Mr. Bryant is
a freedman. Mrs. Bryant and the children must be
returned to their owner.
Chief Justice Wilson:
Now that all evidence has been presented, it will be
up to you, the jury to consider the evidence. You
must decide if Dr. Rutherford and Gideon Ashmore
have "stolen" property from Mr. Robert Matson.
Should Mrs. Bryant and the children be returned to
him? Who will pay the bill to the sheriff for
housing the family during this trial? Illinois law
considering slaves in the state should be
considered. Both Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Chamberlain
have quoted eloquently the wording of our law.
The jury is sent to the jury room to deliberate.
They leave the court room in an orderly manner.
The jury returns to the courtroom and sits. The
attorneys, Bryant Family, and Mr. Matson take their
places in the front.
All stand. Here ye, Here ye, the Honorable Chief
Justice William Wilson, and the case of Matson
versus Rutherford and Ashmore is called to order.
The Judge sits
You may be seated.
Chief Justice Wilson:
Concerning the case of Robert Matson versus Dr.
Rutherford and Gideon Ashmore, do you the foreman of
the said jury have a decision?
We do your honor.
Chief Justice Wilson:
Very well, Mr. Baliff, would you hand me the jury
decision sheet? The bailiff receives it from the
foreman and hands it to the Chief Justice.
Chief Justice reads it, and hands it back to the
Bailiff. The bailiff returns the decision sheet to
the the foreman.
Chief Justice Wilson: Mr. Foreman, would you read
In the matter of Matson versus Rutherford and
Ashmore concerning negro children and a woman, we
the jury find that Dr. Rutherford and Mr. Ashmore
are correct in their actions. The slaves are now
applauds and cheers. Chief Justice Wilson hammers
his gavel to quiet the crowd.
Mr. Lincoln smiles and is outwardly relieved that
this trying law case is finally over.
Chief Justice Wilson:
Concerning the matter of the Bryants, they are now
free. Mr. Matson, you must pay the housing bill for
these slaves in our jail. The Coles sheriff will
submit a bill to you. Illinois law has been
followed in this case. Perhaps other slave owners
will take heed.
The slaves are freed. A group of Charleston
businessmen gather the funds to pay to have the
Bryant's sent to the new African nation of Liberia
(for freed slaves). The Bryant's had a sad hard
life of poverty in their new country. Mr. Matson
slipped back into Kentucky, never to return. He did
not pay the sheriff the money he was ordered to by
Chief Justice Wilson.
The lawyer Abraham Lincoln actually lost several
cases, but always stuck to high standards of ethics
and the law of the land.
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