Abraham Lincoln Pleads His Own Case


“Discourage litigation . . . As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man.” — Abraham Lincoln, 1851


Abraham Lincoln worked on a ferryboat near Posey’s Landing on the Ohio River in Spencer County, Indiana, in the fall and winter of 1826-27. The following spring, Lincoln built a small flatboat for his own use at Bates’ Landing about a mile and a half downriver. He intended to earn money by carrying produce down the river.


This business languished, however, and Lincoln, his meager savings gone, turned to carrying passengers to steamboats in the middle of the river. One day he was motioned to the Kentucky shore by John T. Dill and his brother who were operating a ferryboat nearby. A tense confrontation occurred as the brothers accused Lincoln of infringing on their business. Lincoln’s obvious strength may have encouraged a legal rather than a physical resolution; in any event, Lincoln and the brothers turned to Samuel Pate, a farmer and justice of the peace.


The Dill brothers accused Lincoln of interfering with their legally established business. Lincoln admitted to conveying passengers to the middle of the river, but he argued that he had carried no one who was a potential customer of the Dills’ ferry.


Samuel Pate decided the case for Lincoln by narrowly interpreting the act from William Littell’s Statute Law of Kentucky “respecting the Establishment of Ferries.” The law prohibited unauthorized persons from carrying passengers “over” the river. Lincoln, however, had taken them only to the middle of the river.


This case, the first in which Lincoln appeared as a defendant, led to a friendship between him and Samuel Pate which, some have speculated, may have stimulated his initial interest in the law.


The City of Louisville steamboat passes the Ghent wharf and wharf boat, ca. 1910s

Ohio River Collection, contributed by James Bond, Kentucky Historical Society Collections