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Lincoln Saves A Reformer
The Navy and contractor Smith accused each other of fraud. The Navy won—until the President took a hand
October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
Sumner climbed in. Off they went through the Washington streets, the senator declaiming all the way his belief that Franklin W. Smith was innocent. He had been railroaded. The gravest and most despicable injustice had been done. The President must act.
Before the trio had returned to the White House, Lincoln was fully convinced. “Come around in the morning,” he said, “and I’ll fix this up.”
“No, Mr. President,” Sumner is supposed to have replied, rising to his feet in the carriage, “you must not sleep until you have righted this wrong.”
“Very well,” was the slightly weary answer. “I have engagements after dinner until ten o’clock, but come then and we’ll finish this up.”
That night, in a driving thunderstorm, Sumner again crossed the square to the White House. Lincoln was at last alone. The senator went over the case with him until twenty minutes after midnight. Lincoln promised that before he went to bed he would write his decision; Sumner could have it in the morning.
At 9 A.M. the next day Sumner was ushered into the President’s office. Lincoln turned to his friend and began to read his endorsement on the Smith case. Sumner had pointed out that in his opinion only the charge concerning the tin was at all convincing and that even if one assumed fraudulent intent, Smith could have gained at most only two hundred dollars on the transaction. But it was Lincoln who with the shrewd common sense of a country lawyer pierced through more than three thousand pages of the record’s verbiage to the real heart of the matter. His endorsement cut through the prosecution’s house of cards like the stroke of a sharp sword: I am unwilling for the sentence to stand, and be executed, to any extent, in this case. In the absence of a more adequate motive than the evidence discloses, I am wholly unable to believe in the existence of criminal or fraudulent intent on the part of one of such well established good character, as is the accused. If the evidence went so far to establish a guilty profit of one or two hundred thousand dollars, as it does of one or two hundred dollars, this case would, on the question of guilt, bear a far different aspect. That on this contract, involving from one million to twelve hundred thousand dollars, the contractors should attempt a fraud which at the most could profit them only one or two hundred, or even one thousand dollars, is to my mind beyond the power of rational belief. That they did not, in such a case, strike for greater gains proves that they did not, with guilty, or fraudulent intent, strike at all. Judgment and sentence are disapproved, and declared null, and the accused ordered to be discharged.
After all the months of persecution, Franklin W. Smith, the would-be reformer, was cleared. He had found a judge who, acting not in mercy but in plain justice, saw the simple truth lying clouded in the thousands of pages of court testimony and declamation. Smith was wholly exonerated, the case expunged from the beginning.
The heartwarming drama of Lincoln as the white knight rescuing the idealist Mr. Smith from the toils of dark conspiracy should not, however, obscure several larger issues inherent in the Smith case. For these issues are still alive in America today.
When Senator Wilson of Massachusetts, a friend of Smith’s, called the case to Lincoln’s attention, the President is supposed to have said: “I know all about it, Wilson; it is a fight between a department and a citizen, and the citi/cn has no fair show.” In the best tradition of democracy Lincoln used his Presidential prerogative to uphold the rights of a private citizen against the massive power of a governmental agency—and a military department, in wartime, at that. But even more significant to us today is the fact that in quashing the conviction of Smith, Lincoln was protecting a man from retaliation for having testified as a witness before a congressional committee. Smith was being hounded largely because in his appearance before the select committee he had dared to point out corruption in the Navy Department. Had Lincoln not acted, the department would have succeeded in punishing and discrediting its most vocal critic.
An even larger issue was at stake: the power of Congress to suspend the constitutional rights of individual citizens. It was this aspect of the case that caused it to be debated fiercely in Congress. In bringing the Boston contractor to trial, the Navy Department was making use of an act of July 17, 1862, that stipulated that anyone contracting to supply material to the Army or Navy was by that fact alone a member of the armed forces and subject to trial by court-rhartial. In Smith’s case, this law took from a government contractor, who in all other respects remained a civilian, his constitutional right to a hearing before a grand jury, to a trial in his home district by a jury of his peers, and to his right of habeas corpus. As the tria! proceeded Smith’s lawyers soon learned that the act of 1862 also deprived their client of the many safeguards of civilian law. If Congress by decree could withdraw constitutional rights from military and naval contractors, why could it not abolish them for any group? If it could, the Bill of Rights was a nullity.