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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
From there they had only a twenty-mile ride to Urbana, population 210, the seat of Champaign County. In May, 1850, a newspaper, the Danville Illinois Citizen , published a five-column report of the May term of the Champaign Circuit Court. It spoke of Judge Davis’ strength of mind, legal acumen and power of discrimination. “As a man, Judge D. will never be the object of universal admiration, but will at all times command the highest esteem and respect.”
A most striking word-picture of Lincoln as a lawyer in this article notes at this early date qualities that the world later came to know. “Rough, uncouth and unattractive,” he was also “stern…and unfamiliar…slow and guarded,” yet “profound in the depths of his musings…He lives but to ponder, reflect and cogitate…In his examination of witnesses, he displays a masterly ingenuity…that baffles concealment and defies deceit. And in addressing a jury, there is no false glitter, no sickly sentimentalism to be discovered. In vain we look for a rhetorical display…Seizing upon the minutest points, he weaves them into his argument with an ingenuity really astonishing…Bold, forcible and energetic, he forces conviction upon the mind, and, by his clearness and conciseness, stamps it there, not to be erased…Such are some of the qualities that place Mr. L. at the head of the profession in this State.”
“This town is improving…astonishingly,” Davis wrote Sarah from Urbana in 1851. “More improvements since we were here last fall than for any six years previously.” He scribbled this letter from the bench during an evening session of his court: “I am in the midst of a trial for bastardy which excites a great deal of interest. I am determined to sit it out if it will take till midnight. Mr. Lincoln, in his opening speech to the jury bore down savagely on the Def t who is now married & who has been using extraordinary exertions to prove that the woman had permitted the embraces of other men.” Davis then wrote four pages of desultory gossip concluding: “It is now nearly 10 o’clock & Lincoln to make his Closing Speech. I have scratched this scrawl in the midst of a heated trial. Pray forgive it…I think of you all the time & love you more and more.”
The court records in Champaign County show that the jury found Albert G. Carle to be the father of Nancy Jane Dunn’s bastard child. For its education and support, he was ordered to pay $50 a year.
Davis hoped to go to Danville the next day but Nancy’s father demanded a trial of his suit against Carle for seducing Nancy. Davis wrote Sarah: “I open this letter to write another word. I thought that I should have left yesterday morning but…both parties insisted on a trial in the seduction suit & I had to continue it over until this morning in order to summon extra jurymen…”
Davis’ letter then continues: “The seduction trial has been in progress this morning and they blacken her character desperately. I felt sorry for her father. I suppose he thought her virtuous. The evidence discloses a beautiful state of morals among the young men & young girls of this Grove.” The court records show that Lincoln’s client recovered $180.41 for the seduction of his daughter.
After Champaign County the judge and bar went to Vermilion, the next county on the circuit—county seat, Danville, population 736. In the legislature in 1845 Davis had succeeded, “by hard work,” as he told Colton, in getting the counties of Vermilion and Edgar added to the circuit. The people in these Wabash River counties were largely Henry Clay Whigs from Kentucky who, he hoped, would neutralize the votes of the Jackson Democrats in Moultrie and Shelby counties.
In 1850, the famous case of Fithian vs. Casseday erupted. A quarrel in the Sewing Society of the Pres-byterian Church had caused the withdrawal of one group who joined the Methodist Church. The previous spring Davis had heard from Oliver Davis about the “Squaw War” that divided the town. “Everybody is at sword’s point. The Ladies of different families that were intimate last fall won’t speak now…The result is—They build two Seminaries that cost $4 or $5,000 each.” Dr. William Fithian, an early settler, had taken a prominent part in this battle of the ladies. Casseday, the leader of the opposite faction, published an article attacking Fithian. “Now suppose, Doctor, I was to ask you,” Casseday queried in his pamphlet, “if you ever abandoned the corpse of your wife at Paris and left her to be buried at the mercy of others.” Casseday knew, he admitted, that the doctor claimed he had left town on that occasion to attend his sick son. But Fithian would have been at the funeral, his detractor asserted, had it been an election. (Fithian was an ardent Whig.) “Go cast yourself down at her grave,” Casseday exhorted, “water the green sod with tears of regret and penitence, then perchance Heaven may forgive you for abandoning the lifeless body of her that now lies in yonder graveyard.” For this alleged libel, Fithian sued Casseday for $25,000.