William Dungey vs. Joseph Spencer case: A time when President Abraham Lincoln was a trial lawyer and argued for the Moor William Dungey and won the case

December 3rd, 2012  

Source: www.papersofabrahamlincoln.org

“Among ten original Lincoln documents discovered last summer in the DeWitt County Courthouse is a bond for costs in William Dungey v. Joseph Spencer. Written but not signed by Lincoln, it was part of an interesting slander case. Family disputes that degenerated into slanderous, name-calling feuds frequently appeared in antebellum Illinois circuit courts. Such cases reflected the intent of American slander law to safeguard an individual’s good reputation in the community against petty character assassination. Abraham Lincoln realized the value of reputation, and declared in his first printed political speech that, ‘Everyman is said to have his peculiar ambition . . . I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men. . . .’

One unique slander case Lincoln argued at the DeWitt County Circuit Court, Clinton, Illinois, in the May and October 1855 terms involved much more than a defamation of character, and suggested that Huck Finn’s friend Jim might have reconsidered his plan of escape to freedom: ‘I reck’n’d at by fo’ in the mawnin’ I’d. . .slip in, jis b’fo daylight, en swim asho’ en take to de woods on de Illinois side.’

In August 1851, William Dungey, a dark-skinned young man of Portuguese descent, married Joseph Spencer’s sister. A family quarrel ensued, which became so bitter that in January 1855, Spencer claimed throughout the community that his brother-in-law, ‘Black Bill,’ was a Negro.

Since 1819, Illinois laws permitted quasi-slavery and restricted the immigration of free blacks into the state. As other northern states passed personal liberty laws granting additional rights to free blacks, Illinois toughened its stance against them. The 1848 Illinois Constitution required the General Assembly to ‘pass such laws as will effectively prohibit free persons of color from immigrating to and settling in this state. . . .’ Those prohibitions were passed as the ‘Black Laws’ and went into force on February 12, 1853, the future Emancipator’s forty-fourth birthday.

William Dungey faced losing not only his reputation, but his marriage, property, and right to remain in Illinois. Section 10 of the 1853 law stated that, ‘Every person who shall have one-fourth negro blood shall be deemed a mulatto.’ William Dungey retained Abraham Lincoln to quash the possibility that he might be judged a ‘negro’ and therefore suffer the severe penalties under the 1853 act.

Lincoln filed his declaration charging Joseph Spencer with slander on April 17, 1855, and sought $1,000 in damages. A game of legal chess occurred during the first hearing in May. Spencer’s attorneys, Clifton H. Moore and Lawrence Weldon, filed a demurrer to Lincoln’s declaration, asserting that his charges were insufficient in law. Judge David Davis agreed that two of Lincoln’s three charges were faulty. The case was continued and Lincoln was allowed to amend the declaration. At the next term of court, October 1855, the case was argued before a jury.

According to Lawrence Weldon, Lincoln’s talents as a trial lawyer were evident in his argument for Dungey. Weldon stated that Lincoln questioned Spencer’s character by demonstrating how Spencer went from house to house ‘gabbing’ that Dungey was a ‘nigger.’ Weldon emphasized that Lincoln’s tone and pronunciation had a ‘curious touch of the ludicrous. . . which, instead of detracting, seemed to add to the effect.’

Lincoln further undermined Spencer by using humor to persuade the jury that there was reasonable doubt regarding Dungey’s race. Weldon recalled Lincoln’s statement:

‘My client is not a Negro, though it is a crime to be a Negro–no crime to be born with a black skin. But my client is not a Negro. His skin may not be as white as ours, but I say he is not a Negro, though he may be a Moore.’ ‘Mr. Lincoln,’ interrupted Judge Davis, scarcely able to restrain a smile, ‘you mean a Moor, not Moore.’ ‘Well, your Honor, Moor, not C.H. Moore,’ replied Mr. Lincoln, with a sweep of his long arm toward the table where Moore and I sat. ‘I say my client may be a Moor, but he is not a Negro.’

Lincoln then demolished the defendant’s witnesses’ testimony. Moore and Weldon had secured several depositions from residents in Giles County, Tennessee, the Dungey family home. These witnesses stated that they had personally known the family, and that the white community had regarded the Dungeys as ‘negro,’ or of ‘mixed blood.’ Under cross examination, Lincoln argued that the testimony was hearsay as the witnesses admitted none of them lived within 30 miles of the Dungey residence.

On October 18, 1855, the jury returned a verdict of guilty and granted Dungey $600 in damages plus court costs of $137.50. Lincoln charged a $25 fee, which Lawrence Weldon considered minimal.

To avoid an appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, Lincoln persuaded Dungey to remit $400 of the judgment in return for the defendant releasing ‘all errors which may exist in the court record. . .’ Under Illinois law, the defendant could not appeal the verdict, but could appeal only on errors of procedure or evidence. Lincoln had taught Joseph Spencer an expensive lesson in domestic relations.”

Another source speaks about the William Dungey vs. Joseph Spencer case: “Although historians have used this case to show Lincoln’s skill in the courtroom and his keen legal mind, when examined a little closer, it reveals something much more profound–the understanding of race in the nineteenth century. Dungey, who had a slightly darker complexion than others in the community, claimed that his family was Portuguese. As recent scholarship suggests, and this quote from Lincoln reveals, race is socially constructed. To Lincoln, regardless of Dungey’s skin color, his Portuguese or Moorish ancestry gave Dungey legal and social rights in the community, state, and the country.” – Source: http://magazine.oah.org

At the following link from the website lawpracticeofabrahamlincoln.org you can actually see copies of the Dungey v. Spencer case, at the bottom right of the website click on “View Documents” to see the complete list of documents – Dungey v. Spencer

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