Lincoln Legal Briefs

October  - December 1997, Number 44

Don E. Fehrenbacher

We have just learned, as this issue goes to press, of the death of a steadfast supporter, Don Fehrenbacher. Justly celebrated as an antebellum historian and Lincoln specialist, Don was friend, mentor and standard-setter to several generations of Lincoln scholars. We extend condolences to his wife and partner Virginia, and to their family.


The Lincoln Calendar

Major events are on the Lincoln horizon. As in past years, the Lincoln Home National Historic Site will sponsor various programs during February. Of special interest this year will be the annual George L. Painter Lincoln Lectures, beginning at 9:00 a.m., Thursday, February 12. Featured speakers are Floyd Mansberger of Fever River Research and Kim Bauer of the Henry Horner Lincoln Collection at the Illinois State Historical Library. The lectures are free and open to the public.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary, the Abraham Lincoln Symposium of the Abraham Lincoln Association will be a two-day program on the theme, Abraham Lincoln in Community and Context. Speakers include Springfield attorney and historian Richard E. Hart, Lucas Morel of John Brown University, Kenneth J. Winkle from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Allen C. Guelzo of Eastern College, Ronald E. Rietveld from California State University-Fullerton, and Brooks D. Simpson from Arizona State University. Moderator will be the symposium's founder, Roger D. Bridges (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center), and the commentators will be Rodney O. Davis (Knox College) and Christopher Waldrep (Eastern Illinois University). The program begins Thursday afternoon February 12 and continues Friday morning the 13th, concluding with a luncheon address by noted author and Lincoln scholar Herbert Mitgang.

This year's Abraham Lincoln Association Banquet will feature an address by James Fallows, cultural critic and editor of U.S. News and World Report, and include presentation of the Lincoln the Lawyer Award. The symposium is free and open to the public. Both the banquet and the February 13 luncheon require advance paid reservations. For further information contact Thomas F. Schwartz, (217) 782-2118.

Later in the spring will occur the First Annual Symposium of a newly formed group, the Abraham Lincoln Institute of the Mid-Atlantic. The day-long conference will take place on Saturday, March 28, in the Madison Building of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Speakers include Herman Belz, Michael Burlingame, Cullom Davis, Rodney O. Davis, David E. Long, Thomas P. Lowry and Douglas L. Wilson. For further information contact Paul H. Verduin, (301) 495-7891.


Bibliographic Addenda

Several readers commented favorably on the last issue's bibliography of books and articles based on or stimulated by the work and holdings of The Lincoln Legal Papers. One correspondent, Ben Becker, a lawyer in Montclair, New Jersey, generously reported two additional publications, bringing the total to 61:

Becker, Ben. "Abraham Lincoln, Bankruptcy Lawyer." New Jersey State Bar Association Bankruptcy Law Section Newsletter 17 (April 1996): 11-12,14.

__________. "Abraham Lincoln: Judgment Debtor and Debtor's Lawyer." New Jersey State Bar Association Bankruptcy Law Section Newsletter 18 (January 1997): 5-9.


Staff News

In order to publish the Complete Documentary Edition (CD-ROM) early in 1999, it is necessary to complete myriad technical, research, clerical and editorial tasks. Staff members are able to focus fully on this massive job, thanks in part to help from volunteers Mary Ann Armstrong, Hugh Drake and Mary Jane MacDonald, and also from two part-time temporary workers, Jo Benner and Miriam Stowell. Jo and Miriam are proofing the electronic images of nearly 100,000 documents, and identifying those that require rescanning or recopying for clarity. Jo is a student at Illinois State University, and Miriam, the mother of three, is an accountant.

At the Illinois History Symposium, early in December, three editorial staff members gave well-received papers: Stacy McDermott, "'In Tender Consideration': Women and Divorce in Sangamon County, Illinois, 1837-1860;" Daniel Stowell, "Feme UnCoverted: Women as Litigants in Antebellum Illinois;" and Dennis Suttles, "'For the Well-Being of the Child': The Law and Childhood in Antebellum Illinois." Assistant Director Martha Benner is author of a recently published article: "The Lincoln Legal Papers and the New Age of Documentary Editing," Computers and the Humanities 30 (1997), 365-72.

Second year Graduate Assistant Dylan Bauer is leaving us in January to concentrate on completing his M.A. thesis in Public History at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Dylan performed many valuable research and accessioning services, most recently the preparation of biographies for a roster of the most active lawyers and other individuals in Lincoln's legal practice. Research Associate Dennis Suttles has been promoted to Assistant Editor effective January 1. A valued colleague since 1990, Dennis has experience searching courthouse records and manuscript collections, and he has specialized in shaping and implementing the project's editorial rules and policies. His research interests focus on antebellum family law.



Two highly respected foundations awarded important grants this past fall. Arthur Gelb, president of the New York Times Company Foundation, announced a grant of $3,500 in support of our editorial work. Recently the Shelby Cullom Davis Foundation renewed its continuing support with its largest award to date, $28,900. Diana D. Spencer is the foundation's chairman of gifts. We are deeply grateful for these expressions of support.

This is the project's annual fund raising season (as the enclosed appeal notes), and we hope that all readers will respond. The early results are promising, as we already have received contributions from the following: Mr. & Mrs. Paul Adams, Mr. & Mrs. Dennis Antonie, Mr. & Mrs. Lawrence Appel, Mr. & Mrs. Dan Bannister, Paul Barker, Stephen Bartholf, Wilson Beebe, Jr. and Anne E. Torre, Willard Bunn, Jr., Herbert Channick, Mr. & Mrs. Charles A. Chapin, George M. Craig, Linda Culver, Professor & Mrs. David H. Donald, Robert Eckley, Henry N. Ess, III, John Field, Harold Gross, Clifford R. Hope, Jr., Dr. Daniel Howe, Dr. & Mrs. Robert Johannsen, Charles W. Keaton, Mr. & Mrs. Claude B. Lilly, Janet Meyer, David B. Miller in memory of his father Robert E. Miller, Hon. Richard Mills, Mr. & Mrs. James Myers, Georgia Northrup, Robert K. O'Connor, Carolyn Oxtoby, Professor Mark Plummer, Professor James A. Rawley, Sally Schanbacher, Alice H. Schlipf, Louise Taper, Mr. & Mrs. F. John Taylor, Adm. & Mrs. N. Ronald Thunman, John T. Trutter, Andy VanMeter, Louise Wollan, Daniel Weinberg, Dr. Richard L.  


Lincoln Legal Database, Part One

Integral to all phases and operations of The Lincoln Legal Papers is its relational database, designed by Assistant Director Martha Benner in 1989. It consists of nine related data files that store key facts about every case (name, court venue(s), dates, judgment, participants and their roles, form of action, and subject descriptors) and every document (name, its case, date(s), repository location, length in pages, author(s), signer(s), endorser(s), and type. With nearly 5,000 cases and 90,000 documents (186,000 pages), the database already bulges with over 1.5 million discrete facts (over 325 per case) that detail the quarter century law practice of Abraham Lincoln and his three successive partners.

The database is substantially complete, except for some minor additions and corrections that staff editors will enter prior to its publication early in 1999 as part of the Complete Documentary Edition on CD-ROM. While work on it continues, the information is of sufficient magnitude and precision to yield an accurate statistical portrait of Lincoln's legal career.

A substantial majority (93 percent) of Lincoln's cases were adjudicated in the various courts of Illinois's judicial system: justice of the peace courts, municipal courts, county circuit courts and state supreme court. The remaining 7 percent were concluded in the federal judiciary: district courts, circuit courts, and supreme court. Of the Illinois cases, nearly 90 percent ended with a circuit court's final action, demonstrating that Lincoln's mundane Eighth Judicial Circuit work was the heart of his practice. One half of all this circuit caseload occurred in Sangamon, his home county. In all, however, he handled cases that at some point in their adjudication took place in 65 Illinois counties, nearly two-thirds of the state's total, and stretching to all of its river and land boundaries.

More than 20 percent of Lincoln's cases were heard at more than one court level, as a result of appeals and/or remanded cases. Most of these were limited to two levels, but a few tortuous ones resurfaced more than five times. Lincoln cases at some time were heard in 126 distinct Illinois or federal courts. There were changes of venue in only 4 percent of all cases.

There are surviving records for 325 Lincoln partnership cases in the federal judiciary; unquestionably there were many more that are lost to history as a result of the disastrous Chicago fire of 1871. Nearly one-fourth of the documented cases were judged at the district level, 70 percent at the circuit level, and 5 percent at the supreme court.

Combining Lincoln's Illinois and federal practices reveals that common law issues comprised two-thirds of his caseload, chancery law (equity) amounted to 25 percent, criminal law only 6 percent, and the remainder (probate, bankruptcy and admiralty) less than 3 percent.

Nearly two-thirds of Lincoln's trial and appellate practice concentrated in his ten most common actions: assumpsit (breach of contract), debt, bill in chancery, mortgage foreclosure, trespass on the case, divorce, ejectment (suit for possession of property), partition of property, petition and summons, and replevin (recovery of personal property). Interestingly, debt litigation of one kind or another (assumpsit, debt, mortgage foreclosure, etc.) easily surpassed all other issues, indicating how the nation's unreliable monetary and exchange system was a boon to lawyers.

Documents actually written or signed by Lincoln total 3,468, representing only 4 percent of the total. This may disappoint some readers, who may also suspect that the low number is the result of decades of theft and souvenir-hunting by autograph seekers. In fact the principal reason stems from a fundamental project objective to collect all documents related to every Lincoln case, including clerk's docket entries, opposing pleadings, judge's findings, witness affidavits, summonses, etc. Without all of the documentation for a case it would not be possible to fully understand it or to accurately gauge Lincoln's role.

The grand total of named case participants exceeds 80,000, or an average of nearly eighteen participants per case. After correcting for repeated names, there are more than 25,000 people who participated in some fashion in Lincoln's case practice. Genealogists in particular will appreciate the opportunity to search this large name pool.

There is no simple and definitive way to chart the yearly tally of Lincoln's litigation. The database records dates of origination and judgment at each level of a case, but many cases dragged on for years and even decades. Therefore, one cannot accurately count Lincoln's pending caseload at any given time. It is possible to get some idea, however, by charting the cases by year of judgment. One clear conclusion from this analysis is the prodigious magnitude of Lincoln's trial and appellate practice. His peak year, 1853, saw 400 case dispositions, or an average of more than one per day. There were two peak periods, in the early 1840s and through much of the 1850s, with a period of low activity while Lincoln served in Congress.

This analysis confirms some early staff inferences and contradicts or alters others. Most important, it vividly demonstrates the research potential of the database. Users of the Complete Documentary Edition will have access to its final, definitive form.

A statistical portrait of the largest part of his practice, Sangamon County Circuit Court, will appear in our next issue.

Illinois Historic Preservation Agency
Springfield, Illinois