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Levi Lincoln was a U.S. attorney general under President Thomas Jefferson. He held various political posts, including that of sixth governor of Massachusetts. He was among the creators of the first state constitution. As a trial lawyer, Lincoln was involved in a set of landmark cases in the struggle against Slavery. He was also the father of Massachusetts statesman and state supreme court justice Levi Lincoln, Jr. (1782–1868).
Lincoln was born May 15, 1749, in Hingham, Massachusetts. His father was a farmer, and as a youth Lincoln was apprenticed to a blacksmith. However, because Lincoln was an avid student, his father allowed him to continue studying in preparation for college. His initial studies were in theology, but after hearing John Adams argue a case in Boston, his interests turned to law.
Lincoln graduated from Harvard in 1772 and then worked in the office of Joseph Hawley, in Northampton, Massachusetts. Until the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, he was active in politics and a prominent figure in the Massachusetts movement to abolish slavery. After the Battle of Lexington, in 1775, he traveled with the militia for a brief period before moving to Worcester, Massachusetts. He was admitted to the bar in 1775 and set up his law practice in Worcester, where he remained a resident for the rest of his life.
Lincoln quickly became prominent as a successful trial lawyer and served in various civil offices during the years of the Revolutionary War. In 1775 he was a state court judge, and from 1777 to 1781 he was a probate court judge. In 1779 Lincoln was a delegate to the Massachusetts state constitutional convention, which drew up the first state constitution. In 1781 he married Martha Waldo, with whom he had nine children.
Also in 1781 Lincoln served as a defense counsel in three cases concerning the question of the right to hold slaves. The cases—Walker v. Jenison, Jenison v. Caldwell, and Commonwealth v. Jenison—addressed the issue of slavery in light of the bill of rights in the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution. Lincoln and co-defense counsel Caleb Strong argued against the legality of slavery in Massachusetts. Their position prevailed, and slavery was made illegal in the state.
Lincoln, a leading Republican, became a key adviser to President Jefferson on matters of Federalist-Republican logistics and diplomacy, specifically regarding introducing laws or policies likely to be unpopular in New England.
Lincoln served in the Massachusetts state House of Representatives in 1796 and was a state senator the following year. From 1800 to 1801, he was a member of the U.S. Congress.
Lincoln served as U.S. attorney general under President Jefferson from 1801 to 1804. Early in his term, he also fulfilled the duties of Secretary of State, because personal illness and a death in the family delayed the arrival in Washington, D.C., of secretary of state appointee James Madison.
As attorney general Lincoln was one of two men to whom Jefferson frequently turned for advice regarding his New England constituency; the other was Postmaster General Gideon Granger. For example, Jefferson, a rigid secularist, drafted a letter of support in response to an appeal from a minority group in Connecticut known as the Danbury Baptists, who were seeking stronger church-state separation in their state. Jefferson's draft declared that because of the Constitution's First Amendment prohibitions, a "wall of separation" had been built between church and state. The draft also noted that because of this strong separation, Jefferson refrained from prescribing "even occasional performances of devotion," such as days of fasting or thanksgiving, as his predecessors had done. Before releasing the paper, Jefferson asked the advice of both Granger and Lincoln. Granger proposed leaving the draft as it was written. Lincoln argued that the phrase regarding days of thanksgiving might anger the eastern states because their governors frequently proclaimed such days. Based on Lincoln's advice, Jefferson removed the phrase.
Because of his Republican partisanship, Lincoln was the subject of frequent criticism by Federalist newspapers and clergy representatives. His book Letters to the People, by a Farmer, published in 1802, in which he attacked the political role of the clergy, was written in response to this criticism.
Lincoln resigned his post as attorney general in 1805 and resumed his political career in Massachusetts. In 1807 he served as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. The following year he was elected governor. He was on the governor's council in 1806 and from 1810 to 1812. In 1812 he was offered a position in the U.S. Supreme Court, which he refused because of failing eyesight. In recommending Lincoln for the position to President Madison, Jefferson called Lincoln a highly desirable appointee because of his legal abilities, his integrity, and his unimpeachable character.
"[The president] is accountable only to his country … and to his conscience. To aid him in the performance of these duties, he is authorized to appoint certain officers, who act by his authority and in conformity with his order. In such cases their acts are his acts."
Lincoln spent the rest of his life on his farm in Worcester. He died there April 14, 1820.
Justice Department. 1985. Attorneys General of the United States, 1789–1979. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Malone, Dumas. 1970. Jefferson the President: First Term, 1801–1805. Vol. 4. Boston: Little, Brown.