Lincoln Discussion Symposium

Full Version: Lincoln and Gilman v. Hamilton Case
You're currently viewing a stripped down version of our content. View the full version with proper formatting.
I wrote this article on Lincoln's involvement in the Gilman v. Hamilton case last year.

Based on my involvement at Blackburn -- I'm an alum, former faculty member, and used to be the sports information director -- I've always had an interest in this case.

This ran in the Jacksonville paper, among others.

by Tom Emery

Separated by only fifty miles, Blackburn College in Carlinville and Illinois College in Jacksonville have long been rivals in academics, admissions, and athletics. Over 160 years ago, they were also rivals in a court of law – and Abraham Lincoln was on the losing side.

Lincoln argued against Blackburn in the Gilman v. Hamilton case, a decade-long legal fight that involved the trustees of Blackburn Theological Seminary, the heirs of school founder Gideon Blackburn, and neighboring Illinois College. The future President lost the case, and generations of Blackburn alums have breathed a sigh of relief ever since. The case was the culmination of an odd sequence of events and a myriad of coincidences.

Though Blackburn Theological Seminary (now Blackburn College) had been founded in 1837, the institution had been unable to advance from the paper stage. The Panic of 1837 dropped the value of the massive Blackburn land holdings by over half, and by the mid-1840s, the Blackburn trustees were increasingly concerned that Rev. Blackburn’s vision of a theological school to train young men for Presbyterian ministry would never come to fruition.

As the years passed, the Blackburn trustees believed that at least a portion of the Deed of Trust should be carried out. As a result, they struck a deal with Illinois College in which all 14,556 acres of Blackburn lands would be transferred to the Jacksonville school, also a Presbyterian institution.

In return, Illinois College pledged to create a Blackburn Chair of Theology. Illinois College eagerly accepted the proposal, as the school was trying to pay off a sizable debt of its own.

However, the Blackburn heirs determined that the Deed of Trust was not being properly fulfilled. Illinois College retained both Lincoln and David A. Smith of Jacksonville to argue its interests.

Lincoln filed the original bill of complaint on July 5, 1844, thus beginning a legal wrangle that lasted over ten years. When arguments began in 1851, Lincoln’ prominence reached well beyond the courtroom. Two years earlier, he had completed a term in the U.S. House, and as Gilman v. Hamilton progressed, he remained a spiritual leader of the Illinois Whig Party.

Smith, a member of the Illinois College board of trustees, was a legal associate of Lincoln, and the two argued at least 68 cases together in their careers. When Lincoln was in Jacksonville on the legal circuit, he frequently used Smith’s law office as a de facto headquarters. Oddly, Smith lived in Carlinville for two years beginning in 1837 – the year that Blackburn Theological Seminary was founded.

The coincidences do not stop there. Gideon Blackburn, who died in 1838, became a financial agent for Illinois College in 1834 and made a tour of the East the following year in that school’s interests.

All of that was secondary, however, as the case wound its way through the circuit courts. Presiding over much of the case was Judge David Davis, who later managed Lincoln’s 1860 Presidential campaign. In 1862, Lincoln named Davis to the U.S. Supreme Court. Davis’ home in Bloomington is now a state historic site.

Lincoln’s friendship with Davis ultimately did not help the defendants. The Blackburn heirs prevailed, inducing Lincoln and Smith to file an appeal with Illinois Supreme Court. On Feb. 2, 1855, that body upheld the lower court’s decision.

The story does not end there. In 1902, Illinois College extended an offer of a merger to Blackburn under which all of the Carlinville school’s alumni would be accepted as its own. Illinois College further promised to become a coeducational school, for at that time, Blackburn accepted female students, but Illinois College did not. In return, Blackburn was required to surrender all of its property to Illinois College and to promote the interests of the merger. The Blackburn board of trustees unanimously rejected the offer.

The two schools are rivals today, though it is doubtful that much animosity lingered from Gilman v. Hamilton. On March 29, 1882, Blackburn played the first intercollegiate athletic contest in school history at Illinois College, a baseball game won by the hosts 10-3. The Blackburn squad was greeted warmly at the Jacksonville train station by the students of Illinois College, who treated their visitors to a sumptuous dinner that evening. Accounts in Blackburn literature speak glowingly of the reception of the Illinois College students at the event.

However, members of both student bodies and alumni bases may beg to differ. During the 1961-62 season, the Blackburn men’s basketball team suffered its worst margin of defeat in program history at the hands of Illinois College, a 100-40 thrashing. Athletic matchups were anticipated by both sides for decades, though in recent years, the two schools have played in only a handful of sports.

Whatever the extent of the rivalry, one thing is certain. Students and alumni of Blackburn College are glad that Abraham Lincoln lost the case – and their counterparts at Illinois College probably feel the same way.

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or
Reference URL's