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Beloit's Debt to Abe Lincoln

Published in Alma Mater VI 1957-1958
By Robert Irrmann

The debt Beloit College owes to Abraham Lincoln has received relatively little attention. Here the College Archivist, a graduate of Beloit College in 1939, gives an account of the part played. This year marks the centennial of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates.

TWO familiar events connect Abraham Lincoln with Beloit, Wisconsin in the popular mind. Marching with his company, under the command of General Atkinson, young Abe, as an officer in the Illinois militia, passed through, and camped overnight at, the site of Beloit, while chasing Blackhawk in the war of the same name. The camp site was marked in 1932 on the occasion of the centennial of the event, and the spot is on the present grounds of the Fairbanks-Morse Company. "On the 30th of June (1832), Gen. Atkinson passed through the Turtle Village, a considerable town of the Winnebagoes, situated where Beloit now is – then deserted by its inhabitants – and encamped one mile above it, on the open prairie, near Rock River, and near where Beloit College grounds now are."1 This was Lincoln's first contact with Beloit, but not his last. Twenty-seven years later the better documented second appearance was Mr. Lincoln's address to the citizens of Beloit at Hanchett's Hall. In this centennial year of the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates, Lincoln's comments upon slavery made in the Beloit speech again evoke great interest.

Lincoln had been engaged to address a meeting of the Wisconsin Agricultural Society at the State Fair in Milwaukee on September 30, 1859. When the Beloit City Republican Club learned of this commitment, they undertook to secure Mr. Lincoln for a speech in Beloit. With the opening of the Robert Todd Lincoln Collection in the Library of Congress in 1947, two letters relative to Lincoln's visit to Beloit came to light:

Beloit, Wis., Sept. 14th, 1859

Hon. Abraham Lincoln
Dear Sir –

     Seeing by our papers that you have accepted an invitation to deliver the address at our State Fair at Milwaukee, the last of this Month – our City Republican Club have instructed me to write and see if you would stop at our place on your return home from the fair, and address the citizens of old Rock County, on the great political issues which now absorbs the public mind in the Northwest.

     It is their decision that you should open the Campaign here, if your engagements would permit – you can come from Milwaukee to our place by Rail Road and from here to Freeport or Belvidere by R.R. Hoping to hear from you by return mail I subscribe myself.

                 Very Respectfully &c
                         M.A. Northrup
                         Corresponding Sec.
                         Beloit City Republican Club

     Although Lincoln's reply to Northrup is missing, Northrup's answer to Lincoln's acceptance survives:

Beloit, Wis., September 29th, 1859

Hon. A. Lincoln –
Dear Sir:

     Your letter under date of the 25th instant came to hand last evening – we were highly gratified to learn that you had concluded to visit our place on the first of October – We have arranged matters so as to have you speak in the afternoon at two o'clock – And shall give as an extended notice through Rock and adjoining Counties as possible –

You can leave our City so as to be in Chicago early on Monday Morning – Trusting that this will meet your approbation, and with the assurance of our high esteem – I subscribe my self

                 Yours Very Respectfully
                         M.A. Northrup
                         Cor. Sec. Beloit City Republican Club2

ON October 1, 1859, Abraham Lincoln was to reaffirm certain of the fundamental principles he had enunciated in the debates with Stephen A. Douglas the previous year. Lincoln had come over from Milwaukee, was met at the railroad station by the committee, and given a welcoming ovation, and then was escorted to dinner at the Bushnell House (now known as the Goodwin Block), the hotel owned, and managed on occasion, by the first professor of mathematics in Beloit College, Jackson J. Bushnell. The planned formal reception and procession fell through because of mistakes and mismanagement on the part of the arrangements committee, but the band was present, and its brassy boom combined with the effusive popular acclaim must have happily sufficed for the more formal arrangements usual to the arrival of a distinguished political figure.

     The BELOIT JOURNAL of October 5, 1859, reported the speech: "At two o'clock Hanchett's Hall was packed to hear the address. The high wind and flying dust prevented Mr. Lincoln's speaking in the open air, according to previous announcement. Mr. Bannister, president of the Republican Club, introduced 'our distinguished visitor,' and then 'old Abe' as his fellow citizens of Illinois delight to call him, commenced..." The keynote of Lincoln's speech was a firm stand against slavery as a plank in the Republican program. The Republicans were against slavery largely on moral grounds. These anti-slavery sentiments were received locally with great acclaim, for Beloit had only recently sent both men and money to Kansas to strive for a free state there, and to work against the spread of slavery. "Mr. Lincoln closed with an eloquent passage from Mr. Clay, pointing out with prophetic voice the ruin which the adoption by the people of such principles as Douglas advocates (popular sovereignty) would bring upon the country, and denouncing in terrible language the authors of such a change of public policy."3 Mr. Lincoln left Beloit by carriage that same afternoon, and drove north to Janesville, and spoke there that evening, on much the same theme as he had developed in Beloit.

     Republicans were obviously enthusiastic and excited about Abraham Lincoln, but he seems not to have excited President Chapin of Beloit College on the occasion of the October 1st visit; no mention of the event is made in Chapin's Journal, which reads (October 1, 1859): "Saturday, attended morning prayer – meeting ... returned home. Heard recitation in U. S. History – rode with M (Mrs. Martha Colton Chapin) returned to Janesville – attended Convention – Board of Education meetings. Wrote a charge to people."4 In a way this lack of evidence of Chapin's interest in Lincoln's visit is strange, for Mr. Lincoln had accommodated Chapin in transferring money to him in 1855, and it was in 1856 that Lincoln had rendered the opinion on which the city and the college based their defense in the famous land titles case, of Dillingham vs Fisher, an issue which for a time gravely threatened the landed interests in Beloit. In one way, the greatest impression made by Abraham Lincoln on Beloit, city and college, was on the latter occasion when Lincoln did not even appear in the city.

     In early July of 1855, Lincoln was in Chicago in connection with his retention in the case of McCormick vs. Manney and Co. While there, Lincoln was able to oblige his friend David Davis in the matter of the further settlement of the estate of Wells Colton, former Davis law partner, and brother-in-law of President A. L. Chapin of Beloit College. A substantial sum of money in the settlement of the estate was then in Davis's hands, and he desired to get it to Chapin, and Mr. Lincoln proved to be the medium of transfer. Abraham Lincoln wrote to Chapin in execution of this transfer of money:

July 5th, 1855

Rev. A. L. Chapin

     On the evening of the 3rd. after Banking hours, Judge D. Davis left me with $480 in currency, with the request that I would deposite it to your credit, in the Banking House of Geo. Smith & Co., and send you the certificate of deposite. Yesterday, being the 4th, the Bank was closed. This morning I made the deposite, and herewith is the certificate.
                 Yours &c
                         A. Lincoln5

Chapin's reply to Davis acknowledged Lincoln's kindness:

"Received July 5th 1855 of D. Davis by the hands of A. Lincoln four hundred and Eighty dollars on account of the adult heirs of Wells Colton deceased – the same being from James White in full payment of his note & interest."
Beloit July 12th, 1855

A.L. Chapin6

POSSIBLY one of the most fateful incidents in the early history of Beloit and of Beloit College, an incident wherein Abraham Lincoln played a decisive role, was the famous affair of Matt Carpenter, Paul Dillingham, and the challenge by these men of the validity of land titles in Beloit in 1855-56. Carpenter was a Beloit lawyer, later a Senator from Wisconsin, and son-in-law of Paul V. Dillingham, former governor of Vermont. Dillingham thought he had found a flaw in certain Beloit land titles, and as he had acquired what he believed was title to these Beloit lands, he and his son-in-law proceeded to denounce the basis of certain Beloit land titles in the mid-1850's, and then they made the attempt to secure title to the lands in question through legal action.

     The issue at stake in the case, famed as Dillingham vs. Fisher, centered on the right of preemption, i.e. "the exclusive right which a person has to purchase a quantity of land belonging to the United States, in consequence of having complied with the Acts of Congress relating to that subject."7 A preemptor is one, who by settlement upon the public lands, or by cultivation of a portion thereof, had obtained the right to purchase the portion thus settled upon or cultivated, to the exclusion of all other persons.8 When Beloit was settled in 1836 by the New England Emigrating Company, there was then established no legal title to land which would be recognized by the courts, beyond the procedures of preemption, for the government had not yet opened the land to direct purchase. Thus preemption was the way whereby lands might be acquired and staked out for future purchase. When land sales were finally opened, Lucius G. Fisher represented many of the holders of Beloit land, and by prior agreement went to Milwaukee to bid in the lands without contest. Not until 1855 did the open question of a flaw in land titles arise, and then it was Matt Carpenter's startling proclamation to the Beloit public that rocked the holders of land, and raised the question of the validity of certain land titles.

     In brief sequence, the question of valid land titles goes back to lands preempted by one of Beloit's early settlers, Robert P. Crane. On November 16, 1838, Crane preempted the land in question (SE fractional quarter of Sec. 35, town 1, north, of range 12 east in Rock County); in less technical terms, land in Beloit, and including a portion of the grounds of Beloit College, the latter a gift of the citizens of early Beloit to the college. Crane made proof of his preemption in accord with the preemption act of the United States of June 22, 1838, and in due time paid the price for the land. Crane received the usual certificate upon receipt of payment by the receiver of the proper land office.9 In time, the federal government would convey to Crane a patent for his land thus staked out by preemption, and duly paid for. It will be seen that there were thus three stages to be complied with in securing ultimate title to land: preemption of the land in question, payment for same and receipt of the certificate indicating payment, and finally the receipt of the proper patent from the United States Government.

     Until 1855 there appears to have been no thought or question as to validity of land titles, and then in rapid succession Crane-preempted lands changed hands: Robert P. Crane conveyed land to Samuel B. Cooper by deed on January 22, 1855, and Cooper in turn conveyed the land by deed to Jared S. Demmon. On April 23, 1855 the said Demmon conveyed the same to Paul Dillingham."10 This would appear to be an ordinary and quite regular land transaction had it not been that the same land had previously been disposed of to Major Philip Kearney. Kearney had given land to Beloit College, and thus the college as well as the town found their holdings threatened by the Crane-Cooper action. By 1855 Crane had long held his patent from the federal government, and the plaintiff in this case, Paul V. Dillingham, sued to secure his recently acquired lands.

IN point of law, the issue centered about the interpretation of two acts of Congress. The first was the preemption Act of 1830, valid for but one year, wherein it was stated that "all assignments and transfers of the right of preemption given by this act, prior to the issuance of patents, shall be null and void."11 In the second act, passed two years later, and supplementing that which had expired in 1831, Congress provided that persons who had purchased under the former act (1830) might assign and transfer their certificates of purchase, or final receipts, and that the patents might issue in the name of such assignees, anything in the former act to the contrary notwithstanding.12 Subsequent laws on preemption were issued by Congress in 1832, 1834, and 1838. Perhaps most significant for the future adjudication of this question was the decision of the Attorney General, Mr. Butler, on March 6, 1835: the revival of the original law of 1830, by the act of 1834, was to be considered as embracing the provisions engrafted thereon by the supplementary act of 1832.13 It was to be partly on this decision that the legal arguments for the Beloit land interests were to turn.

     Obviously the citizens and land holders of Beloit were profoundly shocked, and without doubt scared, at the Dillingham action. As spokesman for the town, and for the college interests, Lucius G. Fisher, prominent citizen, merchant, and trustee of Beloit College, and brother-in-law of President Chapin, took up the cudgels in defense of their land holdings. Fisher's defense was "that the said Crane, subsequent to the 16th day of November, 1838, but before the issuance of the patent to him from the United States, on his preemption . . . made and delivered to one Kearney a proper deed of gift and grant, in and by which he did give and grant unto the said Kearney, the lands described in the declaration and that the said Kearney, subsequently conveyed the same to the said defendant for a valuable consideration..."14

     In a legal sense, both parties to the land title controversy could act in good faith, because of the seemingly contradictory wording of the several preemption acts of the Congress of the United States. Robert Crane's quantity of preempted land had been confirmed by patent of May 9, 1842; the land in question had been conveyed to Major Philip Kearney after November 16, 1838, but before the issuance of the patent in 1842. Subsequently, in 1855, the same land was conveyed to Cooper, then to Denimon, and in turn to Dillingham. In 1856 the case, on appeal from the circuit court, went to the Supreme Court of the State of Wisconsin, and in the decision Chief Justice Edward V. Whiton observed that "it will be seen that both the plaintiff and the defendant set up a title to the land derived from Crane, and it is clear that the title of the defendant must prevail if the deed from Crane to Kearney conveyed to the latter a good title."15

     In prosecuting the case, both parties to the land titles controversy lined up an imposing array of legal talent: Dillingham, the plaintiff, was defended by Matthew H. Carpenter of Beloit, his son-in-law, and additionally by Judge Edward Ryan of Milwaukee, and Rufus Choate of Boston; Lucius G. Fisher and the other land interests in Beloit were defended by Judge Daniel Cady of New York (father of Elizabeth Cady Stanton), Senator James R. Doolittle of Racine, and Abraham Lincoln of Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln never appeared in court in Rock County or elsewhere in the state, but it was his brief on the merits of this case on which Fisher and his fellow defendants rested their case, and the wisdom of Lincoln was sustained in court.

     There are two letters extant referring to the solicitation of this opinion of Lincoln's on the Beloit land titles case. The first is the letter from Judge David Davis to Lincoln, of February 20, 1856, requesting Lincoln to give an opinion on the issue for Lucius G. Fisher of Beloit, who had sent the details of the case to Davis with an accompanying request that Davis select a lawyer to whom the details of the case should be submitted for analysis and an opinion.16 The second letter is the reply of Davis to Fisher, enclosing Lincoln's opinion. The opinion, or that portion of it that has survived, is dated March 24th; Davis's letter to Fisher is dated March 28th.

ABRAHAM Lincoln, in his opinion on the land suit, discussed the backgrounds of preemption and the subsequent issue of patents for the land involved. He then proceeded to discuss the various acts of Congress dealing with preemption and rights arising thereunder, and then Lincoln discussed interpretations of these acts by the Attorney General, and decisions of both federal and state courts on these same points. In conclusion, Abraham Lincoln gave these words of consolation and encouragement to Lucius G. Fisher, his fellow citizens of Beloit, and Beloit College, who found their land titles threatened by the Dillingham claim: ". . . I would advise that they (the defendants) pay nothing for the Cooper title; bring no suit of their own; but quietly await the attack of the adversary – If the attack shall be made, it will be made at law; and if, finally, the interposition of a court of Equity shall become necessary, there will still be time and opportunity of resorting to it."17

     Davis's letter to Fisher, accompanying the above brief, ran as follows:

Springfield, Illinois
March 28, 1856

My Dear Sir –

     Mr. Lincoln has examined the question presented in the Statement of facts very thoroughly – & herewith enclosed is his opinion –

     I have read the opinion & examined some of the authorities.

     I am thoroughly persuaded that he is correct. & that the Courts must sustain the view he takes – If any litigation grows out of the matter, I would unhesitatingly recommend that Mr. Lincoln be sent for.

     His charge for the examination & opinion is $100 – which you can send to me for him – if you so desire, & I will procure a receipt from him & send you – I have been holding court here for two weeks – will get through tomorrow. Shall we see Rachel or you at Bloomington, in April.

                 Truly yr frd
                         D. Davis18

     The Beloit citizens involved in the land titles dispute contributed to the purse of $100, one would conjecture gladly. In Lucius G. Fisher's Account Book, recently presented to the Beloit College Archives by his granddaughter, there is this notation: "Beloit Land Suit. To: A. Lincoln. $20."

     Lincoln's wisdom is perhaps best borne out by the opinions which settled the case. Fisher and his associates were sustained in the circuit court, and Dillingham then carried the case to the State Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Whiton delivered the decision:

     . . . we have been unable to give the clause in the Act of Congress in question (1838), such a construction as to allow it to extend the meaning of the words 'right of preemption' so as to prohibit a sale of the land after all the rights of preemption have been merged in the actual purchase of the land.
     It is to be observed that our statute (Rev. Stat. Chap 98, 95) provides that the receiver's receipt (such as Crane received at the time he paid for the land), shall be evidence of title in the person who pays the money, and to whom the receipt is given.
     . . . the rights of a person as a preemptor cease when he has paid the purchase money and obtained his certificate. He no longer has a right to purchase, because he has already purchased & paid the purchase money; it is therefore immaterial to inquire whether the legal title is in the United States till the patent issues or not (as Plaintiff Dillingham claimed), because the purchaser has an interest in the land, entirely different from that of a preemptor; one which can be sold and which will pass by the ordinary forms of conveyance.
     We cannot suppose that Congress intended by the words 'previous to the issuance of the patent', to prevent the sale of the land, or of the interest in land which the preemptor acquires by the payment of the purchase money. Had this been intended, the prohibition would have been contained in language clear, plain and adapted to the object to be accomplished.19

     Chief Justice Whiton, the man who first introduced the charter of Beloit College to the Territorial Legislature, thus sustained the judgment of the circuit court, and protected the land interests of Beloit College as well as those of the Beloit citizenry. Carpenter and Dillingham were not yet put down, and prepared an appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, but dropped it when a recent adverse decision by that court on the same point was revealed.

IT is a matter of possibly fruitless conjecture to wonder how many people who listened to Abraham Lincoln on October 1, 1859 at Hanchett's Hall remembered, or even knew much about, the role he had played in the suit of Dillingham vs Fisher, when title to the very ground that some of them lived and worked on was challenged and endangered. Beloit and Beloit College are greatly in debt to Abraham Lincoln, not alone for his moral stand on slavery and popular sovereignty, not alone for the moral greatness of his presidency, but in a very intimate and personal sense city and college stand in great debt to the wisdom of Lincoln the lawyer. The legend of his legal genius has perhaps been much overplayed; some wise men have questioned his reputation for unfailing legal and courtroom abilities. Possibly Paul Angle in his article "Abraham Lincoln: Circuit Lawyer" has given us the most balanced estimate, particularly in relation to the Beloit land titles case: ". . . as a lawyer Lincoln was great when he had time to think and study. On the circuit, where it was necessary to jump into a case with little or no preparation, and where there were no libraries even if time were available, he was not more than ordinarily successful. Before the higher courts (U.S. courts at Springfield and Chicago), where there was time to study the law and to plan carefully the conduct of a case, Lincoln was an outstanding attorney."20 Certainly Beloit and Beloit College owed peace of mind and landed security to this outstanding attorney, just twenty years after the city of Beloit was founded, and just a decade after the charter of the college had been granted.


1. History of Rock County, and Transactions of the Rock County Agricultural Society and Mechanics' Institute. Edited & Compiled by Orrin Guernsey & Josiah F. 'Willard (Janesville, Wisc., Wm. M. Doty & Bro., 1856), page 20.

2. Photostats of these two letters are reproduced in Bulletin No. 7 of The Lincoln Fellowship of Wisconsin, Lincoln Visits Beloit and Janesville, Wisconsin. Contemporary Accounts of Anti-Slavery Speeches of October 1, 1959 (Madison, Wisconsin, 1949), pages 2-3. The originals are in the Robert Todd Lincoln Collection, Library of Congress.

3. Beloit Journal, Beloit, Wisconsin, October 5, 1859. See also Lincoln Visits Beloit and Janesville, Wisconsin, pages 3-8, and The Book of Beloit (Beloit, Wisconsin, 1936), page 72.

4. A. L. Chapin: Journal, entry for October 1, 1859. Chapin Papers, Beloit College Archives.

5. Roy P. Basler, Ed.: The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, N.J., Rutgers University Press, 1953), Volume II, page 314. The original letter was in the possession of President Chapin's daughter, Miss Ellen Chapin, until the later 1930's, when she sold it to Goodspeed's, Booksellers, of Boston. It is now in the collections of the Illinois State Historical Society.

6. Photocopy of the original in the Beloit College Archives, through the courtesy of Mr. Willard L. King of Chicago, Illinois. The original letter is in the Davis Mss. in the Davis mansion in Bloomington, Illinois.

7. Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of the State of Wisconsin, at the June & December terms, 1856. By Abram D. Smith, Asso. Just. (New York, 1857), Volume V, page 475.

8. Ibid., page 475.

9. Ibid., page 475.

10. Ibid., page 475.

11. A. Lincoln: Opinion on land titles in Beloit, Wisconsin, March 24, 1856, in Roy. P. Basler, Ed.: The Collectcd Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, pages 336-39. The seven page manuscript of this opinion is believed to be only the latter portion of the original opinion. The mss. is in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Reports of Cases Argued and Determined V, page 477.

15. Ibid., V, page 478.

16. D. Davis to A. Lincoln, February 20, 1856. Original owned by Mrs. Edna Orendorff MacPherson, Springfield, Illinois. Basler, op. cit., 11, page 336, note.

17. Lincoln, Opinion . . ., Basler, op. cit., 11, pages 336-39.

18. D. Davis to L. G. Fisher, March 28, 1856. Original (framed) in Beloit College Archives (Beloitana, Z2).

19. Reports of Cases Argued and Determined V, pages 481-82.

20. Paul M. Angle: "Abraham Lincoln: Circuit Lawyer," Lincoln Centennial Association Papers (Springfield, Illinois, 1928), page 40.

To the labors of home missionaries like Mr. Kent, and those men like Grinnell, Chapin, and Magoun, who started and fostered church and college in the Northwest, we owe the saving of the Northwest to the Union and so the saving of the Union itself.

President Abraham Lincoln made the above statement in a conversation in the White House, paying tribute to Aratus Kent, one of the founders of Beloit College, to A. L. Chapin, its first president, and others in the early educational development of the Middle West, then known as the Northwest.