Ashmore v. Matson

Artist rendering of what the Charleston Courthouse looked like circa 1847.
Courthouse Photo, was obtained from Shick, Nancy Easter., Douglas K. Meyer eds. Pictorial Landscape History of Charleston, Illinois. (Rardin Graphics: Charleston, 1985), 25.
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Matson v. Ashmore et. al. for the use of Bryant, took place in October 1847. This case came about when a slave family led by Anthony and Jane Bryant fled from General Robert Matson's farm, which was affectionately known as Black Grove. General Matson was a landowner in both Kentucky and Illinois. When he came to Illinois to harvest his crops for the year he usually brought a few slaves with him to accomplish the task. Upon this occasion, five slaves fled Robert Matson's farm. These slaves were taken in by Gideon Ashmore and Dr. Hiram Rutherford two well known, and respected citizens of Coles County. Sources dealing with this case have charged that Rutherford and Ashmore were adamant abolitionists, who were seeking to press the issue of slavery. Slavery, in their eyes, had been banned by the Illinois State Constitution, and had been outlawed by the Land Ordinance of 1785. Illinois, to these two men, had been, by law, a free state. These two were simply seeking to ensure that the state remained free of bondsmen.

This set the stage for the case to be brought to court. Each side believed their interpretation of Illinois and Federal slave laws were the accurate portrayal. This case was more than a fight over slavery. Slaves in the United States had been considered property, and not human beings. Matson charged that he was allowed to move his property anywhere he wanted. The implications about the extent slavery extended made this case an interesting one in the first place. What makes this case even more fascinating is that Abraham Lincoln was retained by Mr. Matson to be his defense attorney.

Many historians have used this case to imply that Lincoln took the case because he believed in the slave owner's cause. Other historians have charged that Lincoln simply took the case because he had obligations to his client to do so. Either way, this page will not attempt to define Abraham Lincoln's reasons for getting involved. Instead, our institution has sought to present the facts of the case for educational purposes.

In a very real way, this case represents more than just slavery or the involvement of Abraham Lincoln. This case brings to light the real discussions about property ownership and the limits American society had adopted to protect those interests. Since slaves were considered to be chattel, they were not entitled to the same rights as other citizens. This is why Dr. Rutherford and Mr. Ashmore decided to harbor the slaves. They knew that Matson would have to sue them to regain the slaves he had lost. In suing Mr. Matson hoped to establish that farmers who owned property in different states were allowed to retain their right without state intervention. He wanted the state to recognize federal protection offered to those whom transported property across state lines. Matson was only intent on keeping his slaves in Illinois for a short time. Ashmore and Rutherford charged that the laws of Illinois stipulated that slaves were freed upon entrance into a free territory. In the end, the argument of Ashmore and Matson ended up winning the case.

The law was forced to interpret the rights and practices slave owners enjoyed within Illinois. This case challenged the pre-existing interpretations of property ownership by calling into question the reliability of those laws. The plaintiff asserted that slavery was to be allowed as long as they only remained in free territory for a short time. In this argument Lincoln, invoked the right of transit, allowing slaveholders to take their slaves temporarily into free territory. The defendants cited that slavery could not be shown preferential treatment. Ashmore and Rutherford wanted to establish the banishment of slavery from the state was not subject to debates about property. Instead, all slaves entering the state lost their distinction of being property.

By examining this case it is easy to see why the system of slavery presented real challenges to American society. This case is the most interesting case of Coles County history because the substance and the characters made for a stellar trial. In the end, this case represents debates about property, slavery, and character as no other has in the history of the County.

This portrait was taken by Alexander Hesler before the presidential election of 1860. The picture is a good representation of what Lincoln would have looked at the time of the Ashmore for the use of Brant et. al. v. Matson court case of October 1847.
Reference: Charles Hamilton and Lloyd Ostendorf: Lincoln in Photographs (1985)

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Lincoln Slave Case

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Last updated May 13, 2003

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