Lincoln and the Law Program Draws Impressive Crowd
Web Editor - Published: March 5, 2009
Widener Law’s Delaware Campus hosted an impressive and diverse audience in the Ruby R. Vale Moot Courtroom on Monday, February 23rd for a program entitled Lincoln and the Law. Attendees were treated two panel discussions on Lincoln and Legal Ethics and Lincoln and Civil Liberties, as well as a talk by James L. Swanson of the Heritage Foundation, author of the 2006 New York Times bestseller Manhunt: The 12-day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer.

Lincoln and Legal Ethics
Dean Linda L. Ammons welcomed everyone to open the program, saying, “I thank you all for attending. It sounds like it’s going to be a riveting discussion.” Following the Dean’s welcome, Taishoff Professor of Law Thomas J. Reed, the moderator for the first panel entitled Lincoln and Legal Ethics, introduced the panelists; Delaware Supreme Court Justice Henry duPont Ridgely, chair of the Delaware Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, and University of Houston Law Center Professor Mark E. Steiner, author of An Honest Calling: The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln.

Justice Ridgely opened the panel discussion, remarking, “Lincoln’s unrivaled success as a President was due in no small part to the skills he developed as a lawyer.” Professor Reed then asked Professor Steiner about three Lincoln anecdotes that suggested Lincoln’s legal ethics might not have been quite as sterling as they are usually portrayed. Joking about Lincoln’s client communication, Professor Steiner said, “There is not one known instance of Abraham Lincoln returning a phone call.” Addressing Lincoln’s behavior in the Melissa Goings, Duff Armstrong, and Robert Matson cases, Prof. Steiner noted that Lincoln’s ethics were consistent, with only the Matson case providing a curious instance because his defense of Matson’s property rights over the slave in question seemed inconsistent with his personal views on slavery.

Lincoln and Civil Liberties
The second panel featured Delaware Supreme Court Justice and Widener Law adjunct Randy J. Holland, Widener Law Associate Dean for Information Services and Technology and Director of the Legal Information Center Michael J. Slinger, and Swanson discussing Lincoln and Civil Liberties. Dean Slinger, who teaches a course on legal issues arising from the Civil War, used a Power Point “quiz” to demonstrate some of the Civil Liberties Lincoln curtailed or suspended during the war. An engaging discussion followed in which Swanson said of the President’s actions, “Lincoln faced an unprecedented insurrection,” and, “Given those circumstances, you bet Lincoln was justified.”

Dean Slinger noted that state courts were ignored or overruled and stated, “These actions continued throughout the war. President Lincoln decided that he was going to do whatever was necessary to win the war. Justice Holland stated, “When Presidents are embarking on new territory, they are necessarily making things up as they go along,” but Dean Slinger adamantly argued, “Just because the country is at war does not mean the Constitution dies.” Swanson countered that Lincoln’s “point was what value does the Constitution have if he couldn’t protect it?” The panel reached the consensus that significant curtailment of civil liberties did occur under Abraham Lincoln, but the panel could not reach a consensus on the constitutionality of Lincoln's actions.

The Search for Lincoln’s Assassins
The evening concluded with an address from Heritage Foundation Fellow James L. Swanson entitled “The Search for Lincoln’s Assassins and the Truth About the Assassination and Trial of the Conspirators.” Joking about his research before writing Manhunt, he said of the long list of books pertaining to Lincoln’s assassination, “I thought, do I have to read them all?”

Swanson discussed some of the more popular myths surrounding John Wilkes Booth and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, refuting the idea that Booth escaped the Garrett farmhouse or that Lincoln’s assassin was insane. He discussed the conspiracy and events leading up to the assassination, and stated that the military tribunal that tried the conspirators was surprisingly fair and measured given the circumstances surrounding the assassination. He concluded by stating that romanticizing John Wilkes Booth created the most dangerous myth of all, noting unequivocally that Lincoln was the hero of the piece and that Booth should be viewed in the same negative light as more modern assassins such as Lee Harvey Oswald or James Early Ray.

Lincoln and the Law was jointly sponsored by Widener Law, the Civil War Roundtable of Wilmington, Del., and the Delaware Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.