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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
On the trial Davis reported to Sarah: “We had an exciting trial at Danville the last two days and nights of the week—Fithian v. Casseday—growing out of the publications of last winter. Linder & Lincoln for Fithian and Murphy & Hannegan (formerly U.S. Senator from Indiana) for Casseday. The ladies of the town in great number were present all the time. I gave your respects to them…They all seemed delighted with the speeches that were made. Mr. Hannegan is a beautiful speaker. His elocution is as fine as any man’s that I ever heard. He is as companionable [and] pleasant [a] gentleman as I ever associated with…He…entertained us greatly with descriptions of foreign countries, ambassadorial dinners, &c, &c.” But despite Hannegan’s eloquence, Linder and Lincoln secured a verdict for Dr. Fithian of $547.90.
The next spring when Lincoln and Davis were again staying at Bailey’s public house in Danville, the Judge wrote Mrs. Davis: “We are all overwhelmed here at a Tragedy occurring in Covington last Friday. You may recollect that the Hon. Edward A. Hannegan of Covington…was with us last court…He was a man of High passion & carried a knife (unfortunately) & three or four times a year took hard sprees & on such times is nearly delirious…Last Friday in a drunken frolic he killed his own Brother-in-Law…a man universally esteemed in Covington. He lived some 12 hours after he was stabbed—forgave Hannegan…Poor Hannegan is said to be crazy & has tried to kill himself…with Laudanum…We doubt about…[this last] being so.”
On this trip Davis wrote to Sarah while the lawyers were speaking, “in a cause where three young men & a certain Female Lecturer, Fanny Lee Townsend, are charged with disturbing a camp meeting.” Davis with Lincoln and Campbell had driven from Urbana. On the way, it rained so hard that they “stayed all night at a very clever family’s” about 15 miles from Danville. (“Clever” then meant “accommodating.”) “It rained again Sunday,” Davis concluded, “and we had a hard time to get to Danville, but by heading [up] streams &c we got thru.” Bailey’s tavern was still “very dirty.”
From Danville the Judge and bar moved south 35 miles to Paris, population 697, the shire town of Edgar County. The ride from Danville to Paris always delighted him. “The country the whole distance is beautiful to the eye—much better improved than in McLean and Tazewell,” he wrote his wife. In the spring, as they drove into Paris, the perfume of the locust blossoms filled the air.
But although Paris was charming the tavern was wretched. “I have got quartered in about the meanest tavern you ever saw,” he told Sarah. “It would worry your father to be about. The floors don’t look to have been scoured for a quarter of a century.”
In May, 1848, Davis had written Sarah from Paris: “The Sons of Temperance…had a procession formed at the Court House and preceded by a brass band…They number 74. Their uniform is a white sash thrown over the shoulders & united in front by a blue bow.” To hear the speeches on temperance, Davis went to the Methodist Church. “There was a fine audience of Ladies and they appeared well dressed & seemed to have more of the air of gentility about them than those I saw in the Methodist Church at Danville. U. F. Linder, Esq. of Charleston…made a pretty speech.”
Another lawyer frequently mentioned by Davis on the eastern part of his circuit was Charles H. Constable, a tall, personable young man of considerable ability. Like Davis, he was a Whig from the eastern shore of Maryland. On Taylor’s election as President, Constable sought a diplomatic appointment to one of the South American countries. He asked Davis to write to Washington in support of this application. “This is a very important move to me and failure is defeat indeed,” he declared. “From Lincoln I find no time is to be lost.” Davis wrote as requested but Constable did not secure the appointment. Thereafter Constable asked Davis and Lincoln to sponsor him for a federal judgeship in the Washington or Oregon territories. Again they wrote several letters to Whig Congressmen and Senators urging Constable’s appointment, but again they were unsuccessful.
In the fall of 1851, Davis, while writing to Sarah from Paris, was suddenly interrupted by a violent row between Lincoln and Constable. “Since I wrote the above,” Davis confided, “there has been a quarrel between Lincoln and Constable on politics, a serious one. I feel very sorry and nervous about it.”
Holland, Lincoln’s first biographer after his death, told the story of this quarrel to illustrate Lincoln’s strong party feeling. Constable called at Davis’ and Lincoln’s room at the tavern in Paris. “Mr. Lincoln stood with his coat off, shaving himself before his glass.” Constable declared that the Whig Party was “old fogyish” and indifferent to its young men and contrasted the opposite attitude of the Democratic Party. “Lincoln suddenly turned on him fiercely and said: ‘Mr. Constable, I understand you perfectly, and have noticed for some time back that you have been slowly and cautiously picking your way over to the Democratic Party’…Both men were angry and it required the efforts of all the others present to keep them from fighting.” Davis succeeded in reconciling them, but shortly thereafter Constable became a Democrat and was elected Circuit Judge in the next circuit south, where he served until his death.