Riding The Circuit With Lincoln

PrintPrintEmailEmailOne of the most important periods in the life of Abraham Lincoln was the time when he “rode the circuit” in central Illinois in the late 1840’s and early 1850’s. Prairie lawyers and court officials traveled together from one county seat to another for sessions of the circuit court, moving by atrocious frontier roads and stopping in inns, taverns and boarding houses where accommodation was not always of the best. From this period date many of the traditional Lincoln stories—tales told in the evening around the fire, anecdotes from the courtroom, and so on. Here Lincoln grew and developed as a lawyer and as a politician; here, too, he formed personal relationships of great importance in his later life.

One of these was his friendship with David Davis, the Maryland-born lawyer and judge who rode the circuit with him, shared bed and board with him on occasion, knew him intimately, and became one of his campaign managers at the 1860 Chicago Republican convention which nominated Lincoln for the Presidency. Eventually, Davis was appointed by Lincoln to the United States Supreme Court.

Willard King, Chicago lawyer and author, has spent years on a comprehensive study of Judge Davis’ life. No biography of the man exists, and Mr. King’s labors have involved the tracking down and microfilming of vast collections of letters and other papers, scattered all the way from Illinois to Pennsylvania and from New England to Maryland. From the fruit of years of this literary detective work he has drawn a new and intimate picture of the early circuit riders—a picture colored by Lincoln’s presence and personality, shedding a revealing light on one of the homespun, formative eras in middle-western American life.


“In my opinion,” Davis declared, “Lincoln was happy, as happy as he could be, when on this circuit and happy no other place.” Twice yearly, Davis and Lincoln made the three-month circuit of the fourteen counties comprising the Eighth Judicial Circuit. More than a hundred letters, recently discovered, written from the circuit by the Judge to Sarah, his wife, make a vivid story of their course around it.


A few days before his circuit began at Springfield in March and August, Davis set out from Bloomington in his buggy. For years, on horseback, he had plodded over this familiar road. But it could scarcely be called a road. No fences marked it; no gravel covered it; the wagon ruts had merely made a trail in the prairie mud.

In good weather, however, he enjoyed this ride. Much of the land was uncultivated and the tall, luxuriant prairie grass, mottled with wild flowers, bent under every breeze. As he rode past the quail whistled, the grouse whirred up, the wolf and the deer fled. But in wet times water stood on the flat prairie making travel a nightmare. After such a trip, his friend Jesse Fell wrote: “I came pretty near losing a horse…We came to a slew that looked too deep for safety and I detached a horse and rode in to ascertain the depth. I had gone but a little way till we plunged into a deep hole and with great difficulty my horse got through, having swam some distance.” (Fell was greatgrandfather of Governor Adlai Stevenson.)

The sixty-mile ride to Springfield took two days. The first night a traveler stopped at Hoblit’s tavern, the “half-way house” between Bloomington and Springfield. After such a trip the Judge reported to Sarah: “About dark on Friday I reached Mrs. Hoblit’s. Supper was over and I asked for bread & milk…Mrs. Hoblit seemed tired & I did not want to put her to any trouble. I started after an early breakfast Saturday morning…I got to Elkhart about two o’clock and fed my own horses & got a cold dinner from Mrs. Latham (at my own request however). You can say to Lyman [the Judge’s bachelor half-brother] that Miss Latham looked very enticing…I left Elkhart about 3 o’clock—got to Mr. Clark’s about · past 5 and after watering my horses and talking to Mr. Clark about the neatness and beauty of his farm…I wended my way slowly to Springfield. The roads were bad all the way from Hoblit’s.”

By 1850, Springfield, the largest town on the circuit, had 4,500 people. “This town is overrun with foreigners,” Davis announced, “Irish, Dutch, Portuguese & Norwegians.” It had two newspapers, eight churches, a scrap of railroad, and, as early as 1848, the telegraph. When the telegraph office was opened, Davis had written to Sarah: “These old Succers, who go into the telegraph office and witness the operation, can’t believe. They shake their heads & think there is some hocus pocus about it.”