Sidney H. Little and Others to the People of the State of Illinois,  February 18411
Appeal to the People of the State of Illinois.
When the General Assembly, now about adjourning, assembled in November last, from the bankrupt state of the public Treasury, the pecuniary embarrassments prevailing in every department of society, the dilapidated state of the public works and the impending danger of the degradation of the State, you had a right to expect that your Representatives would lose no time in devising and adopting measures to avert threatend calamities, alleviate the distresses of the people, and allay the fearful apprehensions in regard to the future prosperity of the State.2 It was not expected by you, that the spirit of party would take the lead in the councils of the State, and make every interest bend to its demands. Nor was it expected that any party would assume to itself the entire control of legislation, and convert the means and offices of the State, and the substance of the people, into aliment for party subsistence. Neither could it have been expected by you, that party spirit, however strong its desires and unreasonable its demands, would have passed the sanctuary of the Constitution, and entered, with its unhallowed and hideous form into the formation of the Judiciary system.
At an early period of the session, measures were adopted by the dominant party to take possion of the State, to fill all public offices with party men, and make every measure effecting the interests of the people and the credit of the State, operate in furtherance of their party views. The merits of men and measures therefore became the subject of discussion in caucus, instead of the halls of legislation, and decisions there made, by a minority of the Legislature, have been executed and carried into effect by the force of party discipline, without any regard whatever to the rights of the people, or the interests of the State.
The Supreme Court of the State was organized and judges appointed, according to the provisions of the Constitution, in 1824.3 The people have never complained of the organization of that court—no attempt has ever before been made to change that department. Respect for public opinion and regard for the rights and liberties of the people have hitherto restrained the spirit of party from attacks upon the independence and integrity of the Judiciary. The same Judges have continued in office since 1824; their decisions have not been the subject of complaint among the people; the integrity and honesty of the court has not been questioned and it has never been supposed that the court has ever permitted party prejudice or party considerations to operate upon their decisions. . . .[The court was made to consist of four judges, and by the Constitution, two forms a quorum for the transaction of business. With this tribunal thus constituted, the people have been satisfied for near sixteen years. The same law which organized the Supreme court in 1824 also established and] organized circuit courts to be held in each county in the State, and five circuit judges were appointed to hold those courts.4 In 1826 the legislature abolished these circuit courts, repealed the Judges out of office, and required the judges of the court to hold the circuit courts. The reasons assigned for this change were, 1st, that the business of the country could be better attended to by the four judges of the supreme court, than by the two sets of judges; and, 2d, the state of the public treasury forbade the employment of unnecessary officers.5 In 1828 a circuit was established north of the Illinois river, in order to meet the wants of the people, and a circuit judge was appointed to hold the courts in that circuit.6
In 1834 the circuit court system was again established throughout the State, circuit Judges appointed to hold the courts, and the judges of the supreme court were relieved from the performance of circuit court duties.7 This change was recommended by the then acting Governor of the State, Gen. W. L. D. Ewing, in the following terms:—
The augmented population of the State—the multiplied number of organized counties, as well as the increase of business in all has long since convinced everyone conversant with this department of our government, of the indispensible necessity of an alteration in our Judiciary system and the subject is therefore recommended to the earnest patriotic consideration of the Legislature. The present system has never been exempt from serious and weighty objections. The idea of appealing from the circuit court to the same judges in the supreme court, is recommended by little hopes of redress to the injured party below. The duties of the circuit, too, it may be added, consume one half of the year, leaving a small and inadequate portion of time, when that required for domestic purposes is deducted, to erect, in the decisions of the supreme court, a judicial monument of legal learning and research, which the talent and ability of the court might otherwise be entirely competent to8
With this organization of circuit courts, the people have never complained. The only complaints which we have heard have come from circuits which were so large that the judges could not dispose of the business, and the circuits in which judges Pearson and Ralston lately presided.
Whilst the honor and credit of the State demanded legislation upon the subject of the public debt, the Canal, the unfinished public works, and the embarrassments of the people, the Judiciary stood upon a basis which required no change—no legislative action. Yet the party in power, neglecting every interest requiring legislative action, and wholly disregarding the rights, wishes, and interests of the people, has, for the unholy purpose of providing places for its partizans and supplying them with large salaries, disorganized that department of the Government. Provision is made for the election of five party Judges of the Supreme Court—the proscription of four circuit Judges, and the appointment of party Clerks in more than half the counties in the State.9 Men, professing respect for public opinion and acknowledged to be leaders of the party, have avowed in the halls of legislation, that the change in the judiciary was intended to produce political results favorable to their party & party friends. The immutable principles of justice are to make way for party interests, and the bonds of social order are to be rent in twain, in order that a deperate faction may be sustained at the expense of the people. The change proposed in the judiciary was supported upon grounds so destructive to the institutions of the country, and so entirely at war with the rights and liberties of the people, that the party could not secure entire unanimity in its support—three democrats of the Senate and five of the House voting against the measure. They were unwilling to see the temples of justice and the seats of independent judges occupied by the tools of faction. The declarations of the party leaders, the selection of party men for judges, and the total disregard for the public will, in the adoption of the measure, prove conclusively that the object has been, not reform, but destruction, not the advancement of the highest interests of the State, but the predominance of party.
We cannot in this manner undertake to point out all the objections to this party measure—we present you with those stated by the Council of Revision, upon returning the bill, and we ask for them a candid consideration.10
Believing that the independence of the Judiciary has been destroyed—that hereafter our courts will be independent of the people, and entirely dependant upon the Legislature—that our rights of property and liberty of conscience can no longer be regarded as safe from the encroachments of unconstitutional legislation—and knowing of no other remedy which can be adopted consistently with the peace and good order of society—we call upon you to avail yourselves of the opportunity afforded, and, at the next general election, vote for a Convention of the People.11S. H. LITTLE,E. D. BAKER,J. J. HARD[I]N,E. B WEBB,A. LINCOLN,J. GILLESPIE,
Committee on behalf of the Whig members of the Legislature.
1Abraham Lincoln allowed his name to be affixed to this appeal, so the text is attributed to him, but the extent of his participation in its composition is unknown.
This appeal was part of the Whig opposition to legislation to reorganize the state judiciary. For background to the struggle over the judiciary, see Illinois Judiciary Act of 1841.
The dating of this document is uncertain. Roy P. Basler estimated the date as February 8, based on a reference in the Illinois State Register of February 12, 1841, which read in part: “We learn that members of the Federal party met in caucus one night last week, concocted a remonstrance against the judiciary bill, filled with the most unheard of misrepresentations, have since printed ten thousand copies thereof, and sent them to the various secret committees in different parts of the State which were organized previous to the fall elections. The object is to create panic amongst the people...” Further strengthening the date as February 8 is the authors’s mention of the Council of Revisions’ objections (paragraph eight) to the bill, which the Council relayed to the Senate on the afternoon of that date. The Illinois State Register, however, speculated that the purpose of the authors in composing and distributing the remonstrance was “the vain hope that the council of revision will return the bill with objections!,” suggesting a date earlier than February 8. Further clouding the issue is the calling for a convention of the people (paragraph 9), implying a date after the House of Representatives and Senate re-passed the bill over the Council’s objections, which occurred on February 10.
Illinois State Register (Springfield), 12 February 1841, 4:6; Roy P. Basler, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 1:234; Illinois House Journal. 1840. 12th G. A., 365-66; Illinois Senate Journal. 1840. 12th G. A., 257-72, 273-74.
2The Panic of 1837 had left Illinois with a weakened economy and enormous state debt. Land and crop values dropped, bank notes depreciated, and construction on the internal improvement system ceased, and work on the Illinois and Michigan Canal stalled.
Robert P. Howard, Illinois: A History of the Prairie State (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1972), 196.
3Sections one through fifteen of the 1824 law outlined the organization of the Supreme Court.
“An Act Constituting and Regulating the Supreme and Circuit Courts of this State,” 29 December 1824, Laws of Illinois (1825), 36-48.
4Sections sixteen through forty-three of the 1824 detailed the organization of the circuit courts.
“An Act Constituting and Regulating the Supreme and Circuit Courts of this State,” 29 December 1824, Laws of Illinois (1825), 41-48.
5The legislation referenced, enacted in 1827, repealed sections sixteen and seventeen of the 1824 law.
“An Act to Amend ‘An Act Constituting and Regulating the Supreme and Circuit Courts of this State,’ Approved December 29, 1824,” 12 January 1827, Revised Laws of Illinois (1827), 118-19.
6“An Act Establishing a Circuit Court North of the Illinois River,” 8 January 1829, Revised Laws of Illinois (1829), 38-39.
8Ewing made this recommendation in his message to the General Assembly, December 2, 1834.
10The Council of Revision returned the bill to the Senate on February 8 with a lengthy list of objections.
Illinois Senate Journal. 1840. 12th G. A., 257-72.
11This appeal for a convention was only one of many gambits employed by the Whigs to either block or delay implementation of the judiciary bill. In the House, Edwin B. Webb offered an amendment that would have put the changes to a vote as part of the upcoming congressional elections, but Democrats refused to consider this amendment. House Whigs also introduced a bill suspending the operation of the judiciary bill, but Democrats allowed that bill to die in committee. On February 26, John J. Hardin presented a protest in the House signed by thirty-five Whigs, including Lincoln, against the reorganization of the judiciary.
Illinois House Journal. 1840. 12th G. A., 364, 384, 385, 539-43, 558.
Copy of Printed Transcription
, 1 , The Illinoian (Jacksonville, IL), 27 March 1841, 1:3-4.