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Riding The Circuit With Lincoln
A new picture of prairie lawyers coping with bad roads and worse inns on the Illinois frontier, drawn from David Davis’ letters
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
Usually the Judge arrived in Springfield on Saturday night. On Sunday he went to the Episcopal Church where the Reverend Charles Dresser, who had performed the Lincolns’ marriage service, officiated. On Monday court convened. Lincoln, Stuart, Logan and the other lawyers came in to hear the Judge open the session. With his fear of speaking extemporaneously, Davis at first wrote out in advance his charge to the Grand Jury in Sangamon County. “Every one of you,” he admonished them, “is required to throw aside all malice, hatred & ill will—to show no favor or affection—but to administer the Law righteously & fearlessly & with a single eye to truth & justice.” All of his instructions, however, counseled leniency. He cautioned the jury “not to suffer bad & designing men” to obtain indictments “to gratify a malicious heart or to wreak a petty vengeance.” “There are a class of men,” he informed them, “hovering about every Grand Jury who, on any slight quarrel with a neighbor…go to a Grand Jury…Avoid all such men—distrust their complaints…& take them with many grains of allowance.”
When the Grand Jury had retired the Judge heard motions and tried cases. Small cases predominated: minor misdemeanors for gambling or selling liquor; and, on the civil side, appeals from justices of the peace. Many land title suits, cases involving the ownership of cattle, slander and libel suits and a few murders, divorces and bastardy proceedings came before the court.
At Springfield, Davis frequently saw the governor about pardons for persons convicted on his circuit. In 1850 at Paris, on the eastern part of his circuit, a man named Joseph Knight was convicted of murder. The jury demanded the death sentence. In Life on the Circuit with Lincoln , Henry Clay Whitney afterwards reported that Judge Davis “had not the courage to pronounce sentence.” “He admitted it,” Whitney declared, “and his condition was pitiful as the term wore on leaving the murderer unsentenced. So Charlie Constable [one of the lawyers] came to his rescue: and in a bold, plain hand wrote out a form of sentence and nerved the Judge up to the performance of reading it to the victim; which he did in a shaky voice.” Whitney, an unscrupulous reporter, so far as he dared gave a false picture of Judge Davis, whom he hated bitterly. However, this story is at least partially confirmed by one of the Judge’s letters to Sarah from Springfield: “This is the day that I appointed for the execution of poor Knight at Paris. However I am glad, very glad, to be able to report to you that…I interceded with the Governor and got…Knight’s sentence commuted to imprisonment for life. A great weight is removed from my spirits in consequence of the poor fellow not having to be hung.” Kirby Benedict, a lawyer in Paris, wrote the Judge: “I sincerely thank you for the aid you rendered Joseph Knight in saving his neck. Persons who came from a distance through the rain to see him hung felt chagrined in not seeing ‘the show’ but it passed off with as little feeling and excitement as could have been anticipated under the circumstances.”
Davis got many such commutations and pardons. Usually Lincoln aided in these efforts. In 1850 when the whole country had been stirred by the Webster-Parkman murder case in Boston, Davis wrote from Springfield to Sarah: “Poor Dr. Webster was hung yesterday. It is terrible for his family. Lincoln says that his little boy Robert has been counting the days that Dr. Webster had to live & Thursday he said that Thursday was the last night he had to live. Rather singular that the event should so mark itself…on a child of seven years.”
Many of the letters of the Judge and his wife in this period mention the Lincolns. Thus, in January, 1851, Mrs. Davis asked him: “Has Mrs. Lincoln been confined yet and if so what has she? I am anxious to know.” William Wallace, Lincoln’s third son, had recently been born. The Lincolns had wanted a girl instead of a boy. The next year the fourth Lincoln boy, Tad Lincoln, was born. At about the same time the Davises became the parents of a long-wanted girl. Sarah wrote the Judge: “Is Mr. Lincoln with you on the circuit? And has be become reconciled to his little son?”
After Sangamon on the circuit came Tazewell County. Ever since Davis had come to Illinois he had been attending court in Tremont, the county seat. Tremont had a population of only 461, and Davis stayed with friends while holding court there. In 1850 the county seat was moved to Pekin, a much larger town. A new Greek-columned courthouse rose in Pekin that summer and in September Davis first held court in it. Many years later a veteran lawyer at Peoria recalled an incident of that court: “Lincoln was there in a bobtail sack coat [and] jean pants that came within sixteen inches of his feet…And while the trial was going on there was a bat flying back and forth in the courtroom. Lincoln got up on a seat in front with a broom and hit at the bat. Another fellow took a big cattle whip…six or eight feet long and made a slap at it. Finally Lincoln hit the bat and knocked it down. Everybody shouted and ran to get it. Then they threw it out of the window. Not the slightest remark was made by the court about it, although the room was in perfect tumult.” All of the Judge’s friends agreed that he was a stickler for dignity but that he also knew when to relax the rules of judicial decorum.