Lincoln's Motivation

Why did Lincoln take on Matson's cause and represent him in this trial?  How could the Great Emancipator fight to keep a family enslaved?

Essay on Why Lincoln Did It

Link to an essay written by project coordinator, Renee Henry, that summarizes the possible motivations for Lincoln's participation in the trial specifically to represent Matson.
 Historians and the public are curious about Lincoln’s participation on behalf of the enslaver and the contrast between that and his later role as the Great Emancipator.  While we will never know his motivations for sure, the interpretations of his actions often reflect the prevailing attitudes toward our country’s heroes and raise questions about historical myth versus truth.  In brief, there are six reasons ascribed to his actions:

Lincoln's Possible Reasons

  1. As a southerner, he supported slavery and, therefore, was committed to seeing Matson secure his property. 
  2. He believed that Matson had the law on his side which protected him from losing his slaves.
  3. He may have believed that every man deserves representation in court, no matter what his crime or position;
  4. Lincoln may have participated in the trial because it was just another job, not venturing a moral opinion;
  5. He or other participants may have been interested in manipulating the outcome of the trial.  One branch on this tangent maintains that Lincoln argued the case poorly with the purposeful intent of losing as a way of supporting freedom for the slaves. The other, newer theory, is that the trial was arranged to become a precedent for future slavery related trials; and
  6. Lincoln’s own personal and political ambitions may have been his motivation.  Perhaps he took the case as a personal favor to his close associate, Linder, or he may have considered it politically expedient to be involved.