Today we celebrate the birth of Abraham Lincoln. Along with George Washington, Lincoln is considered our nation’s greatest president. Lincoln built his professional reputation through his private law practice. Here’s an account of Lincoln’s first courtroom victory, which happened even before he was a lawyer.
The tales of Lincoln riding the circuit in central Illinois as an attorney on what was then the American Frontier are truly legendary. He kept slips of notes and passages as well as bills and money stored in his trademark stovepipe hat. He once got an accused friend’s son acquitted of murder by impeaching the key prosecution witness with a copy of an Almanac recording how the moon had already set, contrary to the witness testifying to being able to see the nighttime assault due to the full moon. And, much of what we know of Lincoln’s time in Springfield, where he lived and maintained his law practice, is due to the documenting work of his law partner, William Herndon.
But, Lincoln’s first case is one that typically does not make the short list of his legal accomplishments, even though it happened before Lincoln had moved to Illinois and began his training to be a lawyer.
The difference between “middle” and “over”
Lincoln’s family relocated to Southern Indiana when he as just seven years old. There is where he grew to be a man and developed his love of reading and learning. There, too, was where he toiled in the physical labor required of a frontier farming family, which gave him his drive to seek a professional career.
With that drive, Lincoln engaged in many revenue-producing ventures, including one involving the river traffic along the Ohio River.
Lincoln began offering passage to those on the shore to the middle of the river to board passing steamboats, receiving payment that typically exceeded a full day’s wages of physical labor on the farms he worked. An established ferry business on the Kentucky side objected to Lincoln’s river taxi service and brought a challenge against him before a local justice of the peace.
The ferry-owner argued that Lincoln’s river taxi service violated Kentucky state law prohibiting unauthorized persons from carrying persons “over” the river. Representing himself, Lincoln argued that he was not in violation of the Kentucky law because he was only transporting people to the middle of the river, not all the way “over” the Ohio River.
Lincoln’s distinction of what the law prohibited versus how his river taxi’s service operated prevailed and the case was decided in his favor.
Regulation of transport services
Lincoln’s family had moved to Southern Indiana from his birthplace of Hodgensville, Kentucky. Illinois may be the “Land of Lincoln,” but Kentuckians are rightfully proud of their native son.
Lincoln’s river taxi case was heard over 180 years ago, but the challenges to state regulation of transport services continues to this day. Taxis are seeing their market control challenged by the likes of Uber and Lyft. Ambulance services regularly challenge one another’s operations through contests before the Office of Certificate of Need and the Kentucky Board of Emergency Medical Services. And, in the past few years, there has been an opening up of granting certificates to motor carriers, included disabled persons carriers, after an applicant to move household goods was successful in challenging the state regulation of these paid-for motor carriers.
On this day of commemorating Lincoln’s birth, his first legal victory serves as an example of an everyday citizen seeking to establish a business and challenging those who would bend state regulation to reduce competition.