Lincoln Legal Briefs

April - June, 1993, Number 26

On the Circuit

Several timely donations, a bit of good luck, and some careful planning made it possible to deploy the search effort in several directions and to a variety of repositories during the spring season. With travel funds virtually exhausted, it remained impossible to continue courthouse searches in far eastern and northern counties of Illinois. Instead, staff researchers began three major investigations within commuting distance: Sangamon County dockets, housed in the Illinois Regional Archives Depository (IRAD) at Sangamon State University; additional files in Logan County; and the voluminous records of the Tazewell Circuit Court, in Pekin. All of these efforts have been very successful, yielding thousands of additional documents and many new items in Lincoln's handwriting (see accompanying story on Tazewell County). The following officials generously welcomed us: Tom Wood (IRAD), Circuit Clerk Carla Bender in Logan County, and Circuit Clerk Pam Gardner in Tazewell County.

Vital to this accelerated progress was an important grant from the James S. Copley Foundation. This two-year award, totaling $16,140, came as a result of active help from John P. Clarke, publisher of Springfield's State Journal-Register, a Copley newspaper.

There was additional good news. Readers may remember a previous report on case files in Vermilion County that were too brittle to even inspect. A massive experimental effort to humidify 90 large boxes of records has proven successful, and conservation technicians at the Illinois State Archives have managed to salvage a high percentage of the materials. Late this spring staff researchers began sifting these documents, and are managing to reconstruct Lincoln's heavy trial practice in Danville.

Finally, it was possible this spring to conduct focused searches for Lincoln legal records in numerous manuscript libraries around the country: the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Haverford College Library, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) History Department (all in Philadelphia), the Lincoln Collection at the University of Delaware (Wilmington), and Bradley University Library (Peoria).

These favorable developments kept all staff very busy, and also kept the project on schedule, proving again that adversity is the mother of invention, particularly when joined by friends and good fortune. At quarter's end, the grand total of documents exceeded 60,000. Continued work in Pekin and Springfield, plus a long-delayed search in Champaign County, ensure that the summer months will be equally productive.


Staff News

Filling a one-semester vacancy as graduate assistant during the spring term was Christopher Schnell, a graduate of Northern Illinois University and a graduate student in History at Sangamon State University. Chris completed his M.A. requirements in May and consented to remain with the project through the summer months.

Research Assistant John Lupton completed his contractual service in April, was married on May 1 to Kathy Le Comte, and rejoined the staff in June on a summer contract to search for documents in Champaign County. Another summer addition to the staff is Stephen Sauer, a social studies teacher in Lincoln, Illinois who is completing his M.A. in history at Sangamon State University. Stephen is a research intern with the search team in Tazewell County.

Susan Krause, Research Associate, was invited to participate in the NHPRC summer Institute for the Editing of Historical Documents at the University of Wisconsin. She is the fourth person among current staff to have benefited from this experience. During the spring, Cullom Davis gave featured addresses on Lincoln the lawyer at Wilkes University (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania) and the annual convention of the American Inns of Court in Chicago.

Two lawyers and legal historians have consented to serve as part-time legal editors on the staff. Eric Freyfogle, Professor of Law at the University of Illinois, will expand his already valuable service in this new capacity. Performing a similar role will be Mark Steiner, who will complete his Ph.D. at the University of Houston in August with an important dissertation on Lincoln's law practice. Both will assist in various ways, including selection of cases for the book edition.


Financial Support

We already reported a generous two-year grant from the James S. Copley Foundation. Later in the spring came the good news of an unusual partnership that will underwrite the expenses of searching in Champaign County. Thanks to the initiative of Professor Eric Freyfogle, the University of Illinois College of Law has arranged to house and feed three staff researchers in university facilities for a period of seven weeks. Contributing to this support was the Champaign County Bar Association, with a grant of $700. In turn, it has appealed to its members to match that amount with personal donations. This unusual combination of assistance has made it possible to hire an additional summer worker and provide travel support for all three researchers.

Looking to 1994 and beyond, in May we submitted a 200-page proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities for editorial stage funding. The request calls for employing two documentary editors with legal history credentials, beginning in mid-1994. We anticipate a decision on this request next winter.

We acknowledge with deep gratitude the generosity of the following recent donors: Mr. & Mrs. Robert W. Bloch, Glen L. Bower, Norman D. Callan, Mr. & Mrs. Walter R. Dallow, Michael Duncan, Early American Museum, Lincoln Land Community College Elderhostel, Mr. & Mrs. Don E. Fehrenbacher, Ford County Historical Society, Robert S. French, Janine D. Harris, Gary Hendershott, Patricia S. Henry, Cheryl Kennedy, Lincoln Fellowship of Wisconsin, Marc C. Loro, Andrea Parker, Mr. & Mrs. Donald G. Richter, Mr. & Mrs. Joel S. Scharf, Mr. & Mrs. Peter Schmidt, Bill Ray Smith, John & Mary Staudt, Dennis Suttles, Winchester First Baptist Church Men's Fellowship, L.S. Windham, Louise F. Wollan, Betsy Wong, Cathryn & Harlington Wood in Memory of Mark Roberts, Mr. & Mrs. Ralph D. Wood, Mr. & Mrs. Harold B. Wright, and Mr. & Mrs. Roger L. Yarbrough.


Tazewell County Bonanza

Spring and fall sessions of the Eighth Judicial Circuit began in Sangamon Circuit Court in Springfield. Then the first leg of the semiannual parade across the prairie led to Tazewell County, sixty miles north, where court was held in Tremont from 1839 to 1850, and Pekin thereafter. Tazewell County played an important part in the transition of lawyer Lincoln from the young scrambler representing any client who promised a fee to the self-assured legal advocate whom many peers recognized by the 1850s as the dean of the state bar.

It was in Tazewell County where Lincoln, in April 1841, gained his first substantial judgment, over $16,000. That same year Lincoln helped free the young slave Nance, whose case had begun in Tremont's trial court. Reportedly, it was on the steps of that same courthouse that Lincoln was challenged to a duel by the hot-tempered James Shields, the only man ever elected U. S. Senator from three states.

During the years of Lincoln's law practice, Tazewell County was among the busiest venues on the circuit. Although he stopped traveling to Pekin after the county was removed from the Eighth Circuit in 1856, his participation in at least 275 cases ranks Tazewell third among all counties, after Sangamon and Menard.

Our full-scale search of Tazewell Circuit Court records was far from complete at press time, but already staff members have discovered 34 documents in Lincoln's handwriting. This unprecedented harvest has added 75 previously unreported cases to his Tazewell County practice.

The 34 rare documents span the period 1842 to 1855 and epitomize the diversity of Lincoln's general practice. There are numerous cases in each of the three legal divisions: common, chancery, and criminal law. In this space it is possible only to identify some interesting patterns and to discuss several highlights and peculiarities. One such theme is the evidence that Lincoln had much more work than has been acknowledged in Tazewell County (and other counties some distance from Springfield). A second common pattern, revealed in several instances, was his preference to reach negotiated rather than adjudicated settlements. Lincoln articulated this idea in his Notes for a Law Lecture: "Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can . . . As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough."

Four of the criminal cases illustrate the informal nature of antebellum legal procedure in the American West. Though attorney for the defense, Lincoln wrote and signed the state's attorney's name to four bills of indictment--two for erecting fences to obstruct public roads, and two for larceny. Why he did this remains unclear for now, but it is possible he was simply helping his adversary, state's attorney David B. Campbell, to save time during a busy court week.

Several other cases illustrate the region's awkward transition from a subsistence to a market economy. In the absence of a nationally established currency, individuals and businesses freely used promissory notes as a medium of exchange. Since such notes often were written on plain paper, disputes easily arose over their validity and value. One of these cases concerned forgery and counterfeiting, another chancery suit sought to recover money borrowed with a promissory note, and the third was over accepting corn as partial payment on a contract.

One interesting case exemplified Lincoln's talent for advancing a technical point for advantage. In April 1850 Nathaniel Wright and two others were indicted for operating an "unwholesome business"-- a lard factory. The village of Tremont brought suit under an 1845 statute, charging the defendants with knowingly selling "flesh of a diseased animal." Possibly realizing that he had a weak case, Lincoln sought to escape prosecution for his clients by arguing that the statute of limitation required filing charges within eighteen months, and that the objectionable behavior had begun with construction of the factory years earlier, not the more recent sale of contaminated goods. This argument failed, and the court fined each defendant ten dollars.

There are other interesting stories in the many recently uncovered records. Together they amplify Lincoln's practice in Tazewell County and also add significantly to the growing body of documents in The Lincoln Legal Papers.


The Lincoln Calendar

During the weekend of August 27-28, visitors to Ottawa, Illinois, can attend the 2nd annual Lincoln-Douglas Debate Celebration, which will include presentations by Kay Carr, Robert Remini, Harold Holzer, Harry V. Jaffa, Michael Burlingame, David Zarefsky, and Robert Bray. Contact Todd Volker (815/223-1500) for further information.

The Eighth Annual Lincoln Colloquium will take place in Springfield on October 23. Speakers include William Hanchet, Harold Holzer, Mark E. Neely, Jr., Richard Sellars, Frank J. Williams, and Douglas L. Wilson. Contact the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, 413 South Eighth Street, Springfield, IL 62701-1905 (217/492-4250) for registration information.

Copyright, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency
Springfield, Illinois