Pope, Nathaniel

Born: 1784-01-05 Louisville, Kentucky

Died: 1850-01-22 Saint Louis, Missouri

Pope attended Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky in 1802, but left before completing the course. He subsequently read law in the office of his brother John Pope, a future Kentucky state senator, United States representative, United States senator, and territorial governor of Arkansas. Nathaniel Pope joined the bar in 1804 and practiced law in Ste. Genevieve, Louisiana Territory (Missouri), and Kaskaskia, Indiana Territory (Illinois), before accepting an appointment as secretary of the newly formed Illinois Territory in 1809. His cousin Ninian Edwards became its territorial governor. In 1809, Pope married Lucretia Backus, with whom he had six children, including John Pope, a Union general during the Civil War. In 1815, Pope made a lasting contribution to the Illinois Territory by compiling and codifying the statutory and common law used in the Territory in his Laws of the Territory of Illinois, Revised and Digested under the Authority of the Legislature, commonly known as Pope's Digest. The following year, he resigned as secretary to serve as territorial delegate to Congress, a position he held until Illinois became a state on December 3, 1818. Pope drafted the resolution for Illinois’s admission to the Union that Congress adopted. Largely through his efforts, Congress moved the proposed northern boundary of Illinois more than sixty miles farther north from the southern bend of Lake Michigan, to encompass part of the shoreline of Lake Michigan. In 1819, he accepted a lifetime appointment as U.S. District Court Judge for the District of Illinois and held that position until his death. As a federal judge, Pope presided in more than forty cases and seventy-two bankruptcy proceedings in which Abraham Lincoln was an attorney. During his tenure on the bench, he was an unsuccessful candidate for the United States Senate, and he unsuccessfully sought a seat on the United States Supreme Court.

Paul M. Angle, “Nathaniel Pope, 1784-1850: A Memoir,” Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society 43 (1936): 111-81; Robert M. Sutton, "Pope, Nathaniel," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 17:677-78; Elizabeth Breckenridge Ellis, "Pope, Nathaniel," Dictionary of American Biography (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964), 8:77-78; John M. Palmer, ed., The Bench and Bar of Illinois: Historical and Reminiscent (Chicago: Lewis, 1899), 2:640-42; For material on Lincoln's cases before Pope, search for "Pope, Nathaniel," Martha L. Benner and Cullom Davis et al., eds., The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition, 2d edition (Springfield: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, 2009), http://www.lawpracticeofabrahamlincoln.org/Search.aspx. Illustration courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, IL.