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Long-Lost Lincoln Document Found In Park Archives

Morristown National Historical Park

National Park News

The editors of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln: Legal Documents and Cases visited the park this past February to scan several manuscripts from the Lloyd W. Smith archival collection related to Lincoln. Much to their astonishment, one of the manuscripts proved to be a long-lost document relating to a debt case Lincoln participated in as an attorney. The case, Kelly v. Wells and Wells, involved archaic systems of credit utilized in the rural areas of mid 19th century America.

Lincoln begins the document with the opening statement: “The answer of Benjamin Wells and John Wells, to a Bill in Chancery exhibited against them in the Sangamon County Circuit Court by one Thomas Kelly.”

According to Stacy Pratt McDermott, assistant editor of the papers, “debt litigation was a reality in antebellum America, as debtors and creditors navigated the confusing economic waters of the era. This debt-related legal action was only one of the hundreds of such cases Lincoln and his partners handled from 1837 to 1861.”

In the Morristown NHP manuscript, Lincoln is responding to the charge leveled by the plaintiff, Kelly. Kelly’s charge is well known, as that manuscript was never “lost.” The defendant side of the case, however, presented by Lincoln, was never known until now. With this discovery at Morristown, the complete story of the case is now known and researchers will not have to speculate as to what legal reasoning Lincoln utilized. (The case was dismissed in 1856 after three years of inactivity.)

According to Dr. Jude Pfister, chief of cultural resources at Morristown, this is a prime example of the depth and richness of the Smith Collection.

“Lloyd Smith was a methodical collector whose discriminating mind fashioned an outstanding collection which it is our pleasure to curate and present to researchers,” said Pfister. 

For more information on the Lloyd W. Smith archival collection, please contact Dr. Jude Pfister or Ms. Joni Rowe at 973-539-2016 x204.


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