Lincoln Legal Briefs

July-September, 1991, Number 19

A Notable Anniversary

October 5 marks the 155th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's formal entry into the legal profession. Lincoln Day by Day and other sources note that on October 5, 1836, he filed the plea (in his hand but signed by senior partner John Todd Stuart) in Hawthorn v. Wooldridge. This occurred just after the opening of the fall term of the Sangamon County Circuit Court. To date our document searches and discoveries have unearthed no earlier records, so the date stands for now.


Welcome Visitors

Mark E. Steiner is spending much of the fall season in project offices, where he is conducting research for a Ph.D. dissertation in history at the University of Houston. A lawyer and adjunct professor at South Texas College of Law, Steiner is focusing attention on project case files pertaining to Lincoln's substantial practice before the Illinois Supreme Court.

Eric Freyfogle, project consulting legal editor and associate professor at the University of Illinois College of Law, has been a regular visitor during the summer and fall months. He is at work on several project-related tasks, including a detailed description of common law pleadings and forms of action during Lincoln's time, and a research article on several Lincoln cases. He also brought students in a legal history seminar to Springfield for a tour of Lincoln sites and a briefing by project staff.


The Lincoln Calendar

There will be several papers on Lincoln and related topics at the Illinois History Symposium, December 6-7, 1991, in Springfield. Contact symposium organizer Noreen O'Brien-Davis (217/785-7952) for program and registration information.

Next February 12 the Abraham Lincoln Association will again sponsor two major events in Springfield. Its annual Symposium will focus on "The Lincoln Image in Popular Culture," with papers by Harold Holzer and Gabor Boritt. That evening the ALA Banquet will feature an address by Hon. Jack Kemp, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.


Law and Politics

Abraham Lincoln rode into Lewistown on May 2, 1838, composed five legal documents, stayed the night and rode out of town the next day. No one knew about Lincoln's trip for over 153 years. Seven documents, (six written completely or in part by Lincoln), discovered in the records originating from the office of Fulton County Circuit Clerk Mary Hampton, tell the tale of Lincoln's hasty visit.

Lincoln was between stops on his regular Eighth Judicial Circuit. Court had been completed in Tremont, county seat of Tazewell, and several days were to pass before the McLean Circuit Court opened in Bloomington. Being a young but ambitious lawyer seeking to expand the practice shared with senior partner John Todd Stuart, Lincoln crossed the Illinois River seeking business in Fulton County, then in the Fifth Judicial Circuit. Lincoln succeeded in finding a client for the May 1838 term of court.

The case was typical of the litigation propagated in an area developing from a frontier to a market economy. Successful merchants James Atwood, John Atwood, and John White loaned $762.36 to John Shinn and Daniel Vittum to help them build a pork-packing plant. When Shinn and Vittum failed to repay the loan within the required twelve months, the Atwoods and White hired Lincoln to sue in court for $1,000. Lincoln always tried to settle disputes out of court if possible, as he believed the lawyer's chief role was to be a peacemaker. He succeeded in this instance, as the litigants agreed to a settlement that ended the case on May 30, 1838.

The case was minor but the circumstances surrounding it are important. First, Lincoln's trip to Lewistown, which was not in his "home" circuit, demonstrated the energy and ambition which later made him one of the leading lawyers in Illinois. Second, 1838 was an election year and Lincoln's travels illustrate the close relationship between law and politics. He was running for a seat in the state legislature while riding court circuits, and also was giving speeches for his boss, Stuart, who was running for Congress against Stephen A. Douglas.

It would be twenty years before the famous Lincoln - Douglas debates for the U.S. Senate, and twenty-two years before the two would compete for the presidency. But by practicing law by day, as in Lewistown, and campaigning for office after court closed, Lincoln in May 1838 exemplified the connection between a legal and political career. Stuart defeated Douglas for the seat in Congress and Lincoln was re-elected to the Illinois General Assembly.


More Discoveries

The document search has necessarily slowed somewhat, as special grant funds that accelerated our progress during the summer months have been exhausted. Still, the total has reached or surpassed 35,000, and several additional counties have been canvassed.

The exhaustive search of Illinois Supreme Court case files in the Illinois State Archives continues to yield important materials, including some previously unknown documents in Lincoln's hand. To date we have identified and copied documents from over 400 cases that Lincoln and/or his successive partners had before the state's highest court. Of these, Lincoln directly participated in nearly 300. The Supreme Court search will continue for several more months.

Project researchers made major discoveries in three central Illinois counties during the late summer and early fall. Among the items were six documents in Lincoln's hand regarding a Fulton County case, and his 43-page answer to charges against his clients in Macoupin County. This latter discovery appears to be the longest manuscript known to exist in Lincoln's hand.

We continue to receive cordial help from Circuit Clerks, County Clerks, and their staffs in every county we visit. Special thanks are therefore in order to Circuit Clerks Don Stankoven (Macoupin), Mary Hampton (Fulton), Jacqueline Rebman (Schuyler), and Robert Zueck (Christian), plus Gordana Rezab of the Illinois Regional Archives Depository at Western Illinois University in Macomb.


Financial Support

Previous Briefs have noted the value of private donations, but that importance has never been greater or more urgent. During the current year appropriated funds from the state of Illinois have dropped by more than ten percent (over $20,000), a reflection of the state's troubled fiscal condition. Aggravating this disappointment is the scheduled end next spring of a two-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Until state coffers grow and further grant requests are approved, we must hope that supporters will augment their already generous and heartening assistance. Your tax-deductible donation to the Abraham Lincoln Association should be sent to The Lincoln Legal Papers, Old State Capitol, Springfield, IL, 62701.

We acknowledge with deep thanks the following contributors who supported our work during the third quarter of 1991: G.E. Dammann, Cullom Davis, Elbert Floyd, Gregory Romano, Mr. and Mrs. James Roberts, Jeanette M. Schaumburg, Frank J. Williams, and Harlington Wood, Jr. (Note: in the last issue, a contribution was listed for Steven K. Rogstad that should have been attributed to the Lincoln Fellowship of Wisconsin. We apologize for this error.)



With this issue we launch an occasional column designed to open a dialogue with readers. Sometimes serious, sometimes whimsical, it will pose questions that either we or you may have about obscure matters relating to Lincoln's law practice. We therefore welcome your queries, and also your answers to questions that appear, like the following.


The Orgamathorial Court

Part of the lore of the Eighth Judicial Circuit were the diversions and camaraderie that bound Lincoln and his peers. Among these was the fabled "orgamathorial court" described by Ward Hill Lamon and Henry Clay Whitney. No doubt, as David Donald observed in his biography of William Herndon, orgamathorial was "a made-up word." Still, curiosity remains about its origins and root meaning. While mentioned in works by Lamon, Whitney, Donald, and John P. Frank, the word is never analyzed. One project acquaintance, who shall remain nameless, has applied the rudiments of Latin, Greek and orthography he long ago learned and forgot to claim that orgamathorial was a composite word that combined elements of "systematic," "scientific," and "tutorial." From this he concludes that these informal moot tribunals provided lawyers on the Circuit with a "systematic and scientific tutoring in the law." Perhaps . . .

Further complicating this issue is at least one variant spelling, "Ogamathorial," in a 1911 edition of Lamon's book about Lincoln. The missing "r" plays havoc with the above definition.

Whatever the word's etymology, there seems no disagreement about its usage by Judge David Davis and the lawyers who accompanied him on the Eighth Circuit. At the end of a day in court, Davis or someone else would convene the orgamathorial court to hear tongue-in-cheek complaints about the behavior of certain lawyers. Once, according to Lamon, Lincoln was assessed a token fine for the serious professional breach of charging his client too little.

What light can you shed on this weighty question?


Lincoln Legal Papers Staff

Project staff reached peak size during the summer of 1991. Assembled at the Old State Capitol for a group portrait are (left to right) first row: Dan Bannister, Diane Saarinen, Bill Beard, Cullom Davis, Joanne Walroth, Erin Bishop, John Lupton; second row: Marty Benner, Dan Dixon; third row: Mike Duncan, Mike Bonansinga, Mary Jane MacDonald; fourth row: Susan Krause, Dennis Suttles.

Copyright, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency
Springfield, Illinois