SALT LAKE CITY — A little known factoid about President Abraham Lincoln, and his ability to put the good of the country above both personal and partisan prejudices, was at the heart of a tale shared by Utah's top jurist Monday in celebration of Constitution Day.
Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Durrant told a group of fifth-graders from Nibley Park School, gathered at downtown's Matheson Courthouse, about a court case involving Lincoln, who was practicing law in Illinois, well before he would become the first anti-slavery president.
Hired as a local to assist some much more famous attorneys from the East Coast in a patent lawsuit brought by industrial giant McCormick Machine Co. (which would later became International Harvester) Lincoln was belittled and shunned by the big-city lawyers for his appearance and attire. Durrant told the 50 or so elementary students that the attorneys compared Lincoln's looks to a "gorilla," and not only wouldn't let Lincoln sit with them during the trial, they refused to let him join them for meals.
Durrant said soon after this case Lincoln become much more well-known, and these lawyers continued to publicly ridicule him. But then, when he ascended to the office of president of the United States, the tables turned and the once-discourteous trio of attorneys feared the worst. But Lincoln did something surprising.
"These three lawyers who had been so rude to him couldn't believe it," Durrant said. "(Lincoln) was president and they were scared. Then … he did the craziest thing. He gave them jobs in the government … important jobs, because they were smart.
"And he did it because he cared more about his country than he did about getting back at them."
One of those attorneys, Edwin Stanton, would become Lincoln's secretary of War and was, in addition to being a onetime detractor, also a Democrat.
And while Stanton would assist Lincoln in navigating a time of constitutional crisis, where debate and disagreement about secession, slavery and civil liberties nearly tore the country in two, another speaker Monday reached even further back to remind the Nibley students of the constitution's pedigree.
Utah State Bar President H. Dickson Burton said the tyrannical King John from Robin Hood fame was an actual person, and that during his time ruling England, a document called the Magna Carta was created to help settle long-running disputes between the king and wealthy landowners. The "great charter" also established the principle that laws applied to everyone, even kings, and created some protections and rights for individuals, like due process, rights to a speedy trial and the right for a trial by jury.
"The Magna Carta was a contract between the king and the people he ruled," Dickson said. "In that contract, the king had to give up some rights, give people some rights, so they wouldn't be treated unfairly."
Later, some of the people who lived under the charter would come to America, Dickson said, and use the document as a jumping off point to draft the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Earlier in the day, the Nibley fifth-graders had a chance to experience some of the rights enumerated under amendments to the Constitution in mock trials. Students played the roles of lawyers, witnesses, jury members and even judges, under the direction of actual 3rd District Court judges.
In the case before them, a panel of jurors found in favor of the defendant, a Nibley teacher who had opted for canceling a "constitutionally" guaranteed right to recess to ensure students could complete an assignment. The trial included the examination and cross-examination of four witnesses, including topic experts, as well as opening and closing arguments.
Nibley teacher Samantha Hansen said her class will be studying the Constitution and courts system later in the school year and noted the opportunity to participate in a mock trial in a real setting, with experts on hand to guide and inform the process, would be an invaluable addition when the topic comes up in the curriculum.
"From a teaching standpoint, anytime you can do something hands-on where the student really gets to experience things, it's going to stick much better in their brains," Hansen said. "It's so much more applicable than just talking about it."
Constitution Day was designated by federal legislation in 2004 and adopted by the U.S. Department of Education in 2005. The designation of Sept. 17 marks the day when most of the Founding Fathers signed the original document in 1787.