As some of you know, I periodically scan the websites of various auction houses for items of interest. Today’s listing takes us back to the 1850s, when Abraham Lincoln, taking a break from vampire-hunting, defended an Illinois businessman in a patent suit.
The featured auction item relates to this case, though it doesn’t immediately concern Lincoln’s involvement. A description of the item (low estimate: $600), taken from its listing at PBA Galleries, follows:
To his wife Elizabeth in Rockford, Illinois. The high-stakes lawsuit which reached the Supreme Court as McCormick vs. Wait Talcott, et al, was highlighted in a Lincoln Quarterly of 1946 as “the patent case that lifted Lincoln into a Presidential candidate”. Lincoln was involved at the start, when wealthy industrialist Cyrus McCormick sued Rockford inventor John Manny, alleging violation of his reaping machine patent and asking $400,000 in damages.
Wait Talcott was Manny’s partner and as the suit was filed while Talcott was strongly supporting his friend Lincoln for the US Senate, he probably first convinced Manny to engage Lincoln as courtroom advocate for a two thousand dollar legal retainer – the largest Lincoln had ever received. But after the trial was moved from Chicago to Cincinnati and McCormick hired a former Attorney General of the United States to represent him, Manny and Talcott, facing financial ruin, added more experienced attorneys – Peter Watson and Edwin Stanton – who sidestepped, and then humiliated, Lincoln.
In Cincinnati, catching sight of the gangly, shabbily-dressed country lawyer from Springfield, Stanton called him a “long-armed ape who knows nothing” and refused to allow Lincoln to speak in the courtroom. A “sad and gloomy” Lincoln sat silently through the proceedings until the judges handed down their decision against McCormick, who filed an appeal. Lincoln, deeply insulted, had nothing more to do with the case, even after Manny died and his friend Talcott became the main defendant. He even offered to return the retainer he had received, an offer refused with the only politeness he was shown by his co-counsel.
Still, the case gave Lincoln a new perspective on his strengths and weaknesses in both law and politics – and, incidentally, introduced him to the contentious man who would later become his Secretary of War. When the case came before the Supreme Court, Talcott traveled to Washington for the trial, his first visit to the national capital, which he described in these letters to his wife. Though “embosomed in all the comforts” at the Washington home of rich lawyer Peter Watson, he was wracked by “great anxiety”, knowing that all his family’s “Earthly prospects” hung on the Court’s decision. He sat nervously through the trial as it “dragged on”, one bright moment being the brilliant defense statement of Edwin Stanton, “full of eloquent passages, flashing wit…and of the most overwhelming cogency of argument and sound logic”.
When the trial ended, Talcott hurried back to Illinois. Despite his interest in politics, he had found “nothing in all this glitter and show of the Capital that has half the charms for me of home…However much as there is that is honorable in being called to fill posts of responsibility by our fellow men, no one can be here long and not see that with it comes temptations and remissness in Christian duty that is full of danger….” He concluded, “I may never find myself here again”. Good news finally came in April when the Court dismissed the appeal by McCormick – who was ordered to pay Talcott’s $75,000 in legal fees. Lincoln received only a small fraction of that, but it was enough to give him the financial freedom that year to mount his historic campaign for US Senator against Stephen Douglas, his last stepping-stone to the Presidency. There are numerous sources on this legal case, including published memoirs by the cousin with whom Lincoln stayed in Cincinnati and Talcott’s son-in-law, another co-defendant. These letters, while dated after Lincoln’s involvement had ended, are the only contribution to the historical record by Wait Talcott.
If you think that these letters are too tangentially related to Lincoln to merit your consideration, perhaps you might be interested in this auction item instead. Offered by Bonham’s auction house, and up for sale on June 19, this item consists of of a draft proclamation, authored by Lincoln himself, on the subject of amnesty for those in rebellion. The estimated price tag? Only $200,000-$300,000.