Commonwealth of Kentucky Vs. Abraham Lincoln
Lewisport, Kentucky, is a quiet little town on the banks of the Ohio River. Let’s call it a hamlet, one square mile, 1700 inhabitants, four churches, a post office, a city hall. It was plaited in 1837, incorporated 1844. It was originally known as Little Yellow Banks, a lumber town where they built flatboats for the nascent river trade. It had a habit of alternately flooding and burning down. But before it was even a town, it slipped its little finger into history.
To dig history, you need imagination. Not an imagination that invents things, but an imagination that strives to take details of place and time and reassemble them like a jigsaw puzzle. When I was a kid, back in the ‘50s, in the early days of TV, there was a CBS history show called “You are There,” narrated by Walter Cronkite: “A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our lives…and you are there.” Aside from the Sunday night penance of Bishop Sheen, it’s the only show I remember. It dramatized events in American history. It put you there. I dug it.
In 1827, Abraham Lincoln found himself in what was to become Lewisport. Lincoln had been born in Kentucky in 1809, but grew up across the river in what was then the log-cabin wilderness of Indiana. In 1826, seventeen-year-old Lincoln had worked on an Ohio River ferryboat. The following year he returned to the river, wanderlust-fueled, and built himself a small flatboat. He hoped to hire himself and his craft out to transport farm goods down river to market, maybe even as far as New Orleans. An eighteen-year-old’s dreams on a still wild river.
I am indebted for the facts on what happened next to an article in the American Bar Association Journal of February 1928 by William H. Townsend, a Lexington attorney and Lincoln historian. The facts are one thing; to enjoy them, you have to imagine the time and place. In the 1820s, the Ohio River Valley was still frontier. Young Lincoln was a child of that frontier. Tall (6’4”) and of formidable physique, he was, in Townsend’s words, “clad in deerskin shirt, home-made jeans breeches died brown with walnut bark, coonskin cap.” His formal education, such as it was, totaled fewer than a dozen months, but he was a voracious reader of what was available. Cabin-self-schooled.
While waiting on the Indiana shore for clientage, he was making occasional small change by ferrying passengers out to passing steamers. Piers were rather pointless on a river that knew no permanent bounds. This stuck in the craw of the brothers Dill, who ran a ferry from the Kentucky side of the river and who filed a complaint against Lincoln for operating an unlicensed ferry service. Lincoln appeared before the local justice of the peace, Samuel Pate, at his home in (what would become) Lewisport.
The Dills probably thought they had a pretty sure thing against this out-of-state interloper. They ran their ferry operation out of a corner of Sam Pate’s riverfront farm. The law was fairly clear, and they stood—as both informer and operator of the nearest licensed ferry service—to collect the entire hefty fine (“five pounds current money for every such offense”). If the defendant could not pay the fine—Lincoln was penniless—he would be remanded to prison.
The northern boundary of Kentucky ran (and still runs) to the low-water mark on the Indiana side of the Ohio. Consequently, although the alleged offense had been committed from the far side of the river, the courts of Kentucky had jurisdiction. But Squire Pate read out the text of the law. The fine only applied “If any person whatsoever shall, for reward, set any person over any river or creek, whereupon public ferries are appointed.”
Squire Pate opined that “over” surely meant across, and the Dills had not claimed that Lincoln had actually delivered anyone across the river, only to steamers midstream. Case dismissed.
Townsend says Lincoln lingered a while on Pate’s porch after the Dills departed to chat with the justice and ask questions about the law, and that Squire Pate was so impressed with the young man’s questions that he asked him to attend future sessions of his court when convenient to do so. Thereafter, on several occasions, Lincoln sculled across the Ohio to attend what was known in the local vernacular as “law day” at Squire Pate’s farm house.
Who is to say what eventually led Lincoln to the practice of law and then politics? But, when he returned home after this to Hurricane Township, Indiana, he scouted out and consumed the only law book available, the Revised Laws of Indiana, at the local constable’s. We all remember the image of Lincoln on the floor in front of a hearth reading a book. This one he could not take home, but had to read at the constable’s house, probably sitting on a chair at a table. In its frontmatter was the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Squire Pate’s house is still there on River Road in Lewisport, weatherboard-sided now, an historic landmark. One has to wonder if its current heritage status does not rest upon the justice’s decision that “over” meant “across,” and that a backwoods nobody teenager did not have to go to jail, but was free to go on and be President.