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Lincoln's Last Case

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

We Illinoisans don't like to admit it, but Abraham Lincoln was not perfect. His command of the English language and his ability to understand character made him a formidable opponent. But not an invincible one, as his last law case proved.

It was the summer of 1860. Lincoln had just been nominated as the Republican candidate for President, but he had one trial left before leaving his law practice behind. He had been retained to represent William Baker Gilbert, the son of a prosperous Missouri farmer and the grandson of a former Illinois senator who knew and respected Lincoln.

Young Gilbert was in need of a good lawyer. He had been a student at Shurtleff College in Illinois until he was caught drunk at a party in his dorm room. The culprits were all suspended, but Gilbert was able to talk the faculty into reducing his sentence to a month's probation.

Then, he made mistake number two. On the way home at the end of the term, Gilbert attended a party in St. Louis to celebrate his victory. He was well into his fourth glass of punch before he noticed Mr. Reed, the Shurtleff College president, standing next to him. This time, it was a year's probation. Gilbert left school, and the family retained Lincoln to plead his case.

Three years later, Gilbert's case came to trial. Lincoln was confident. He was not even especially upset by the judge's opening remarks. "Mr. Lincoln," the judge said, I'll argue the case for you. You have too much on your hands already." He explained the law, and then announced, "You haven't any case."

Lincoln smiled. He'd handled this kind before. He slowly unwound his tall frame out of the chair, stretched, and turned to face the judge. Perhaps he was preoccupied by the upcoming election, but at this point, he made a small mistake. He asked a rhetorical question. "Well," said Lincoln, "don't you want to hear me make a speech?"

"No," said the judge. "Case dismissed."

Both William Baker Gilbert and his lawyer must have learned from the experience. Lincoln went on to some success, while Gilbert ended up graduating from Harvard Law School and becoming a prominent United States attorney.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.