Local boy does good
The effort we devote to the tasks before us affects the lives of others. While that can be said of all professions and trades, we, as attorneys, are duty bound to conduct ourselves honorably in both our professional and personal lives. We are advisors, advocates, negotiators, intermediaries, evaluators, third-party neutrals and public citizens. In small ways and large, what we do matters. Examples of Indiana lawyers making a difference abound. One such example of an Indiana lawyer who made a difference is Amory Kinney.
Amory Kinney practiced law in the state of New York, Washington, Ind., Vincennes and Terre Haute. In 1820, Amory Kinney represented the interests of Polly, a woman of color, before the Indiana Supreme Court on a case in which Polly had been ordered returned to her owner, Hyacinth Lasselle, a French trader, a lieutenant and then major general in the Indiana militia. Polly’s mother was a slave of Lasselle, purchased from the\ Indians of the Northwest Territory. Lasselle claimed that Polly, as the daughter of his slave, was his property despite the Indiana Constitution’s declaration “that all men are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent, and unalienable rights; among which are the enjoying and defending of life and liberty, and of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety”; and “there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in this state, otherwise than for the punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”
Lasselle’s “ownership” of Polly’s mother and Polly’s birth both predated the Indiana Constitution. Lasselle took the position that he entered the geographic area that eventually became Indiana while it was a territory of the state of Virginia and as such the state of Indiana and its government could not take away those rights he possessed when he entered the Virginia Territory. The trial court in Vincennes agreed with Lasselle. Through attorney Kinney’s efforts on behalf of Polly and the state, the Indiana Supreme Court declared on July 22, 1820 that it was evident that the framers of our state constitution intended the total and entire prohibition of slavery in the state of Indiana and concluded, succinctly, “The judgment is reversed, with costs, and the woman is discharged.” State v. Lasselle, 1 Blackford 60 (Ind., 1820). This case is cited as absolutely confirming Indiana as a free state.
Both Hyacinth Lasselle and Amory Kinney resided in Vincennes in 1820. Hyacinth Lasselle eventually moved to the Terre Haute area and was one of the five proprietors of the Terre Haute Company that platted the village that later became the city of Terre Haute. Amory was reported to have been attacked and injured by crowds in Vincennes that were unhappy with the resolution of Polly’s case. He moved to Terre Haute, and in addition to his accomplishments as legislator and judge, Amory is listed as the first member of and was among the founders of the First Congregational Church in Terre Haute. That church and its congregation remain today. This is my church.
While his accomplishments as attorney, judge and legislator, including his efforts on behalf of Polly, were certainly significant, his actions outside the practice of law created a lasting institution that survives to this day.
Each of us does many things in our day-to-day lives – some we believe consequential, others inconsequential. We see institutions come and go to the point that it is easy to believe that nothing is permanent or lasting; however, any one of the actions we take either in or outside the practice of law can have great significance to others, be it for a day, decades or generations.
I present this to you not as a call to duty but rather as a recognition that what we do matters. Our education, training and experience place us in the unique position to solve problems and create or sustain important elements of society. While we do not create a tangible product, what we do can and does improve the lives of others. We do not need to set out to change the world, but if we commit to improving the situations before us, some small part of the world may, in fact, change for the better.