Lincoln Legal Briefs

October - December, 1990, Number 16

Document Collection Update

The corresponding map identifies 63 Illinois counties which project researchers must visit to locate and copy case records. The breadth and depth of each search varies by category, with the 19 counties comprising the 8th Circuit requiring the most exhaustive effort. Slightly more than half of the total are counties where trial level cases were later referred to Lincoln for appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court; here the search will be focused and relatively simple.

Additional document locations are some thirty archives and manuscript libraries throughout the United States, plus public records holdings in neighboring states. This latter task is the result of recent discovery of Lincoln case records in a Missouri court.

In the first six months of a two-year document collection effort, project staff have completed their work in four counties and five libraries, with substantial progress in another five counties and one library. The yield so far is approximately 11,500 documents pertaining to over 700 cases. This total far exceeds previous search results, and also surpasses the project's generous estimates. If this pattern continues we anticipate eventually unearthing 100,000 documents for nearly 5,000 cases, which is 50% greater than the most expansive previous estimates.

Keeping to an ambitious project timetable in light of the higher yield is very difficult. Our success so far has been possible only because of the generous support of institutional sponsors, federal and foundation grants, and private contributions. With increased funds we have been able to employ additional staff for the painstaking field work. To the many friends who have enlisted in the effort through donations we are deeply grateful.


Donors to the Project

Since the last newsletter, the following donors have provided financial support which qualifies for matching support from NEH: Cullom Davis, LuAnn Elvey, Elbert F. Floyd, W. Ernest C. Hutwaite, Dr. & Mrs. Victor Lary, L. Milton McClure, Mr. and Mrs. John Petterchak, Sangamon County Medical Society, Wallace C. Sieh, Rayman L. Solomon, Brandt N. Steele, U.S. Seventh Circuit Trial and Appellate Judges, and Frank J. Williams.


Harrison Trial Transcript

Thanks to the generosity of a project friend, the original copy of a rare and important legal document is now part of the Lincoln Collection of the Illinois State Historical Library. Newsletter readers will remember previous mention of the 100-page transcript of People v. P. Quinn Harrison, a celebrated 1859 murder trial that featured Lincoln, Peter Cartwright, and other prominent Illinois figures. Mrs. William Harrison, owner of the original document and widow of Quinn Harrison's grandson, decided to donate it. Lincoln Collection Curator Thomas Schwartz commented, "We are grateful for this gift of an unusual manuscript that sheds light on Lincoln's style as a courtroom advocate."


The Lincoln Calendar

The approaching anniversary of Lincoln's birth promises another crowded schedule of special events. Neighboring Jacksonville will be the site in early February for several performances of an original play, The Shadow of Giants: Mr. Lincoln Comes to Jacksonville. The play depicts an 1854 trial, Selby v. Dunlap, which divided local citizenry and drew Lincoln to town as defense attorney for Dunlap. For further information and free tickets, call (217) 243-5678.

In Springfield on February 12 the Lincoln Home National Historic Site will offer morning lectures by James Stevenson (East Georgia College) and Mark E. Neely, Jr. (Lincoln Museum) in its Lincoln Heritage series. That afternoon the annual Abraham Lincoln Symposium of the Abraham Lincoln Association will feature papers on William Herndon by Douglas Wilson (Knox College) and Charles B. Strozier (City University of New York), with commentary by Rodney Davis (Knox College). That evening New York Times columnist Tom Wicker will address the annual banquet of the Abraham Lincoln Association.


Staff News and Notes

During the fall we welcomed two new recruits. Michael Duncan, a History M.A. candidate at Sangamon State University, joined the staff as a half-time Graduate Assistant for the current academic year. This position is funded by the university's Center for Legal Studies, a project cosponsor. Erin Bishop, a graduate student in History and Legal Studies at SSU, has a contractual appointment as Research Assistant. Both Mike and Erin perform various research tasks and also assist with document collecting and accessioning.

Editorial Intern Susan Krause completed her stint in December. Her transcribing, editing, and research efforts produced an extensive study of two related cases, Adams, et al. v. The County of Logan, and John H. Harris v. Joseph L. Shaw et al. Summer employee Michael Bonansinga (M.A. in Legal Studies) rejoined the staff in October with a contractual appointment as Research Associate. His assignment is with the document collection effort in selected circuit courts.


Lincoln, Land, and the Law

It is hard to believe that nineteenth-century antebellum divorce law and railroad litigation had much in common. Yet two recent papers presented at the Illinois History Symposium by Joanne Walroth, "Marriage and Divorce in Menard County: A Preliminary Report From Lincoln's Law Practice", and William Beard, "'I have labored hard to find the law' Abraham Lincoln for the Alton and Sangamon Railroad", emphasized an important common denominator--land. In Lincoln's Illinois, most law business involved land, the nation's primary capital resource. State and federal government land sales filled the public coffers, farmland mortgages accounted for most of the country's debt, and the bulk of individual savings was invested in appreciated land values.

Northwestern University law professor Arthur McEvoy commented on both papers and stressed that the need to keep the land market fluid was the "main engine both of litigation and of historical change in family law and in corporate law practice." Legal historian Willard Hurst viewed the law as a system of justice that buttressed the "release of energy," the creative forces of individuals let loose in their "right to rise," as Lincoln phrased it, as far as their talent and ambition led them. Courts would fairly settle disputes encountered in this upward social climb. There were abuses of the system, but Lincoln believed this form of democratic government worth saving.

The liberalization of divorce law, implemented in Illinois statutes of 1827 and 1833, was less concerned with abusive husbands than with developing a landownership system that insured clear title and simple conveyance. Before 1850, any assets a woman entered into a marriage with were controlled by her husband. If the marriage failed, the woman needed a legal divorce to obtain clear title to her property, and the husband, though less affected, would be foolish to remarry if his ownership of property was challenged by an ex-wife. Illinois' 1833 divorce statute allowed the court to grant consensual divorces, thus keeping the market in land fluid.

Land was also at the core of James A. Barret's controversy with the Alton and Sangamon Railroad. Landowners invested in public improvements in the hope that as the community developed their property values would increase. Having a railroad adjacent to one's property was an excellent way to inflate land prices. However, when the General Assembly permitted a route change that left Barret's holdings far from the line, he claimed breach of contract and refused further payment on his railroad stock.

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Samuel H. Treat ruled that public utility superseded private profit. If Barret had won the case, other stockholders would balk at fulfilling their obligations for personal reasons and railroad construction would be seriously handicapped. With no extensive network of railroads to promote economic development, land values would level or decline. The rule of caveat emptor protected corporate management from stockholder's personal interests and encouraged subsequent investment.

McEvoy concluded that Walroth's and Beard's papers portrayed the role of law in a developing society. A pre-industrial market economy was on the rise, dependent on valid land ownership and improved transportation. Illinois farms and towns prospered, and a "modern legal profession emerged to serve as midwife to the process." Lincoln understood these developments in the law and benefited from them professionally.

Copyright, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency
Springfield, Illinois