Learning Lincoln On-line


Readings to Learn about Abraham Lincoln while in Springfield On-Line Hunt-a-Puzzle-- Matson Slave Trial (A dramatic Skit Activity

Reading #9




Dr. Rutherford Home, Oakland


Coles County Courthouse (pre-1858)

Coles County, 1843


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.

Main Characters: 

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 foreman

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

The Plot: 

  • 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 runaway slaves.
  • Mr. Matson was very angry over his slaves running away, and being held in protective custody.  He would hire a lawyer to get his slaves back. 
  • 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 of time. 
  • 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 poverty there.
  • 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 rendered.
  • This case was a very unusual and important case in how 
  • Abraham Lincoln would have to defend a slave owner, but through complete fairness and understanding of Illinois slave law, would lose the case.


The script for students to portray:


Dr. Rutherford (in his office at Oakland) with Gideon Ashmore:

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.

Gideon Ashmore: 

What do you think we should do?  Don't you think we should hire a lawyer and help this family?

Dr. Rutherford:

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 Square:

Dr. Rutherford:  Hello, Mr. Hanks.  Have you seen Mr. Lincoln on the square?

Dennis Hanks:  Abe's over in the courthouse handling a horse stealing case. 

Dr. Rutherford:  Thank you.  Mr. Ashmore and I will go over there right now.  We need his help.

Into the Coles Courthouse:

Abraham Lincoln: 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.

Dr. Rutherford:  Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Lincoln, we are so happy to see you again.  You remember us, don't you?  We are your neighbors from Oakland.  

Abraham Lincoln:  Yes sirs, I remember you both well.  How can I help you? 

Gideon Ashmore:  Mr. Lincoln, we need your services.  Can you help us? 

Abraham Lincoln:  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 case.

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 Charleston square:

Dr. Rutherford:  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.

Mr. Constable:  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? 

Mr. Ashmore:  Lincoln has sided with Matson.  What do you think of that?

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:

Dr. Rutherford:  Good afternoon Mrs. Bryant.  Are you being well taken care of?

Mrs. Bryant:  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 sell us?

Gideon Ashmore:  No, not if we can get our fair Coles County court to free you. 

Later in the Court Room, October of 1843-- the trial begins.

Baliff:  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?

Usher Linder:  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 returned. 

I call Robert Matson to the stand.

Usher Linder:  Mr. Matson, are these negro people sitting over there (points to the Bryant Family) your property?

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 Kentucky.

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 Kentucky.

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 returned.

Chief Justice Wilson: Mr. Lincoln, do you have questions for Mr. Matson? 

Abraham Lincoln:  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.  

Charles Chamberlain:  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 freed.

Usher Linder:  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.

The Baliff:  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

Baliff:   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?

Jury Foreman:  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 the decision?

Jury Foreman:  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 free.

The audience: 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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