Abraham Lincoln – as Mim’s Grandfather remembered him

Last summer Mim spent many days systematically going through boxes and boxes filled with old papers, photos, and books that had belonged to her parents and grandparents. One yellowed newspaper, carefully protected in a waxed paper-like envelope was the Decorah Public Opinion from Decorah, Iowa, dated Wednesday, February 10, 1909. That is the year Abraham Lincoln would have turned 100 years old. The country was ready to celebrate the life of the greatest American who had ever lived. The big story that spanned two full columns on the front page was, “Personal Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln” by Rev. Abraham Jacobson. That was Mim’s grandfather. He had actually known Abraham Lincoln. 

As Mim and I read these reminiscences by her grandfather, we learned a little more about the personal character of Abraham Lincoln. That’s what I want to share in this blog post by copying excerpts from this 114-year-old newspaper article. Jacobson remembered Lincoln as an attorney who was determined to get justice for his clients, regardless of the crimes they were accused of committing. Here’s what Abraham Jacobson had to say about Lincoln.

Springfield, Illinois, the home of Abraham Lincoln, was only a small town in 1852 when I came there to attend school…. Being a boy only sixteen years old, I took no particular interest in public affairs and public men at this time. I had all that I could well attend to with my studies at school.

The first recollection I have of seeing Mr. Lincoln was on the street with two small boys, one on each side, who appeared with difficulty to keep pace with him. From that time I saw and heard him at fairs and conventions held at Springfield, time and again.

The so-called “Illinois State University,” the school that I attended, was built and carried on by Lutheran people, with financial support gathered from other congregations … and the Lutheran congregation in Springfield had no church and used the court house for their Sunday services. As an indigent student I was given the position of janitor and usher for which services I received a small compensation. The custodian of the court house soon gave me the care of the court room, not only during the time the court was in session, but for concerts and other large gatherings; there being at that time no large hall in the city. Thus it happened that I frequently heard Mr. Lincoln address meetings and plead at the bar.

The only personal transaction I ever had with Mr. Lincoln was when he called on me to light up the tour room for a meeting to be held about the colonization of Liberia in Africa by free negroes from the United States. This subject claimed much attention at that time among anti-slavery people of the north and Mr. Lincoln was much interested. By the way, I rang a large hand bell to call the people together. For this service Mr. Lincoln gave me a paper dollar, no doubt a “shinplaster” of the kind commonly called “wild cat” money because its home was somewhere in the backwoods and not easy to find. If I had kept that paper dollar till today it would have been a valuable curiosity.

I could relate of two cases in court where Mr. Lincoln acted for the defense.

The first was a young man, a school teacher out in the country who had gotten in trouble with a young woman, a pupil in his school and was sued for a large sum of money. Though I heard most of the testimony and the pleadings of the lawyers afterward, it was Mr. Lincoln’s opening speech which more than all else made an indelible impression on my mind.

He said that judging from the accusation against his client, his case looked bad, in fact very bad, and some people would say that no honest lawyer ought to take such a case or defend such a scamp. Mr. Lincoln said he had never promised to defend this man, or any other man for doing that which was unlawful or wrong. He had never promised to clear him if proven guilty of a crime. He wanted the judge, jury and all present to understand that he considered it his sworn duty, according to his profession, when called upon to see to it that justice was meted out to his client.

Mr. Lincoln pointed out that there is a wide difference between being accused of a crime and being proven guilty of the same. Even if the accused should be proven guilty, the law provides for a just and adequate punishment and no more. He said that we all know that if the accused was given into the hands of his adversaries the punishment would be entirely too severe. With this understanding he would not hesitate in the least, to enter into a trial of this case.

After examining the witnesses, Mr. Lincoln in his pleading admitted that a serious wrong had been perpetrated but under extenuating circumstances. The testimony made it appear quite clearly that the suit was brought more for the purpose of pressing money out of his client – he being a man of money – than to redeem the character of the young woman. The final outcome was a compromise, the young man paying costs and quite a penalty in money.

The other case above referred to was of a still more grave nature. A blacksmith, a next door neighbor to the family with whom I lived, was murdered and his wife together with a young man employed in his shop were accused of the crime. Mr. Lincoln was the lawyer for her defense.

The man had, as it appeared, gotten out of his bed in the night and was later found dead in his yard, struck in the head by a blunt instrument. There was no direct proof of any kind, there being two things only in the testimony which were strong or circumstantial evidence. One thing was that husband and wife were not on the best terms with each other. The other was that on a Sunday afternoon, just previous to the murder, she and the young man were seen by many witnesses, standing together at the front gate in a very friendly manner. Mr. Lincoln employed this part of the testimony as being strongly in favor of their innocence. If they had had any secret, guilty thoughts or intentions they would naturally be the last ones to advertise the fact to the public in this manner. He then dwelt at length on the danger of condemning any one on merely circumstantial evidence. 

After lasting a week the trial ended on Saturday evening. The jury did not return any verdict till just before midnight. There were only a few persons left in the court room. Hon. David Davis, afterward a man of great renown as a statesman and jurist, was judge on the bench. I can never forget the solemn tone in which he uttered words to this effect to the accused woman when the jury returned a verdict of “not guilty.” “You are now by this earthly tribunal pronounced ‘not guilty’ of the crime charged against you … As for the higher tribunal, [heed] your conscience before the Almighty God.”

Mr. Lincoln’s way of addressing a jury, and in fact all of his public speeches, were in a conversational style without any outward show of eloquence. There was no parade of big words but only such language as every one could understand and easily remember….

The last time I saw Mr. Lincoln was in 1860 after he was nominated for the presidency by the republican convention held in the wigwam at Chicago. When the news reached Springfield, the citizens came “en masse” to proffer their congratulations with a hearty shake of the hand, and I was one of the number.

My school days were now over and I left Springfield for Chicago where I cast my vote for him in the fall of the same year.

My recollection of Mr. Lincoln is that he was much changed from former days. His face and eyes had the same kindly look as ever, but over them was discernible a deeper shade of melancholy than that which had always rested over his countenance.

As Mim and I read this old newspaper, we started thinking about Abraham Lincoln and remembering how we used to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday back when we were in grade school. I decided that I would share Mim’s grandfather’s reminiscences in my blog in February this year.

According to to Alexa, at least 16,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln. Yet, John Meacham, a contemporary historian, just wrote another biography of Abraham Lincoln last year. Why? Lincoln was president during a time in our history when our country was very divided, just as we are living in a very divided country right now. Perhaps, we can learn some relevant lessons from Lincoln’s leadership. Maybe that’s what Meacham was thinking. 

According to Mim’s grandfather, a guiding principle for Abraham Lincoln was the pursuit of justice for all. The two court cases Mim’s grandfather described where Lincoln defended questionable characters illustrate his commitment to justice for all. Maybe the whole concept of justice needs a little more attention in our time, just as it did in Lincoln’s time, and even way back in the prophet Micah’s time when we received the message, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8 RSV)

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