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Lincoln and the McCormick-Manny Case

Sarah-Eva Carlson
Heritage School, Rockford

Lincoln was a man of wit, courage, dignity, and wisdom. Before 1855 Lincoln appeared awkward and clumsy. Lincoln's experience in the McCormick-Manny case of 1855 helped him become the man we know.

Because of the nation's growing population, this case was of national interest. The population of the United States doubled between 1840 and 1870. New York City grew from 123,000 in 1820 to 1,080,000 by 1860. This meant that the small farms had to produce for more than just their families. The reaper made this possible.

In the 1850s, two different companies in Illinois made reapers. The Cyrus McCormick Company of Chicago was larger and older. The Manny Company of Rockford was the McCormick company's only competitor. At this time field competitions between reapers and other farm implements were popular. After the Manny reaper beat the McCormick reaper at the Paris Exposition of 1855, Cyrus McCormick filed suit against John H. Manny for infringement of patent. McCormick argued that the Manny reaper was a copy. Manny denied this.

If McCormick won, Manny would have had to stop producing his reapers plus pay McCormick $400,000. One of the McCormick employees in 1855 said, "I should not be willing to pay costs in this case for one of the best patents in the country." The case was to be heard in Springfield at the end of September. Some of the country's best lawyers were on either side. McCormick retained Edward M. Dickerson, a patent lawyer from New York, and Reverdy Johnson, one of the leaders of the American Bar.

Manny was heavily in debt at the time, but still managed to hire George Harding of Philadelphia. Harding was partially responsible for the establishment of the fundamental doctrine of the United States patent law. Manny also hired Edwin M. Stanton of Pittsburgh, and P. H. Watson.

Judge Drummond of the Northern District of Illinois was to hear the trial in Springfield. Manny decided it was worth the effort to hire a lawyer from Springfield to help influence Judge Drummond. With the other lawyers being expensive, Manny wanted a cheap lawyer and chose Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had heard about this trial and was excited when Watson asked him to take part. Lincoln was deeply in debt. The $500 advance helped him accept. Lincoln was forty-six years old and had failed politically in 1854. Here was his chance to make himself known. Lincoln immediately accepted.

With enthusiasm, Lincoln began working on his brief. He knew little about patent law or reapers. Lincoln worked for months. He traveled to Rockford to learn more about the Manny reaper. He studied the case and took many notes. Lincoln wrote to Watson, his associate council, asking for updated informa-


tion. He received no answer. Then he heard that the trial was moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. Lincoln continued to try to reach Watson.

While Lincoln was searching for Stanton, Harding, and Watson, these lawyers were having second thoughts about including Lincoln in the case. With the trial moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, they did not need or want Lincoln. They decided that "the mere sight of him might jeopardize the case," as one historian put it. Stanton also said that he would not associate with "such a damned, gawky, long-armed ape as that."

On the first of September, Lincoln sent an inquiry to Manny and Company:

Since I left Chicago about the 18th of July I have heard nothing concerning the reaper suit. I addressed a letter to Mr. Watson at Washington requesting him to forward the evidence from time to time as it should be taken but received no answer from him. Is it still the understanding that the case is to be held at Cincinnati on the 20th inst.? Please write me on receipt of this.

A few days later Lincoln left to find Watson in Cincinnati. He arrived dressed in his best suit. When Stanton saw him, he asked, "Where did the long-armed baboon come from?" He then described him as "A long, lank creature from Illinois, wearing a dirty linen duster for a coat and the back of which perspiration had splotched wide stains that resembled a map of the continent."

In the courtroom, Lincoln paced the floor listening to the judge. Then Stanton announced that only two arguments would be made even if he could not speak. Stanton slyly suggested to Lincoln that he should speak. Lincoln properly replied that Stanton should speak instead. Stanton agreed. Picking up his hat, he announced he would now prepare his speech.

Pictured here is a portion of a Manny Reaper advertisement that was presented during the McCormick Reaper Case. McCormick, who sued Manny for patent infringement, ultimately lost the case.
Manny Reaper ad

Lincoln wandered blindly out of the room, not knowing what to do or think. He immediately sent his brief to Harding, asking him not to show it to Stanton. As soon as Harding received the brief, he threw it in the wastepaper basket without even looking at it. Even though Lincoln was supposed to be one of Manny's lawyers, he was not allowed on the court floor and had to sit in the audience. Lincoln continued to attend the trial, listening to each speaker.

Lincoln also visited some of the other courtrooms, including Room Number 1 of the Superior Court. Bellamy Storea was the judge in this courtroom. Lincoln liked the way Storea used a careless but direct method of working. He added many jokes into his cases. Lincoln said, "I wish we had that judge in Illinois. I think he would share with me the fatherhood of legal jokes of the Illinois bar." Lincoln also made a new friend by the name of Everson. When Lincoln left Cincinnati, he told Everson that he was going back home to Springfield to study law. Lawyers from the East were coming west to continue their practice. "They have got as far as Cincinnati now; they will soon be in Illinois. I will be ready for them."

Lincoln returned home after the Manny Company's victory. Watson then sent Lincoln a $2000 check. Lincoln returned it, saying that he had not contributed enough to deserve the payment. Watson was having second thoughts about what had happened. He felt bad about turning Lincoln down. He again sent the check. This time Lincoln kept it, only because he had many debts to pay. He split it between himself and his partner, Herndon.

This trial changed Lincoln. He was hurt. One of the Cincinnati lawyers, W. M. Dickerson, said, "Mr. Lincoln had prepared himself with the greatest care; his ambition was to speak in the case and measure words with the renowned lawyer from Baltimore. He came with the fond hope for making fame in a forensic contest with Reverdy Johnson. He was pushed aside, humiliated and mortified." Lincoln worked hard to recover from this wound. He studied. He prepared his speeches more carefully. Without this experience, he might never have tried to improve.

Through this case, Lincoln met his future Secretary of War. Although his pain had not healed. President Lincoln asked Stanton to be his Secretary of War. At Lincoln's deathbed, the rude but serious Stanton, with tear-stained eyes, realized who was greater. He uttered those true words: "Now he belongs to the ages."

The Manny Case did not bring Lincoln fame, but it taught him to achieve his goal. He gained courage. Lincoln's contact with the eastern lawyers and their treatment influenced him. He learned from the little things in his life. Those little things changed the outcome of Lincoln's future and the nation he served.[Reinhardt H. Luthin, The Real Abraham Lincoln; Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln.]


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