Many people are not aware that our 16th President was an accomplished divorce lawyer prior to his presidency. His schedule was prodigious in this field, and he handled over 140 divorce cases in his law career. According to the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War in Middle Tennessee, Lincoln was one of the most sought after divorce attorneys of his time. It was found that Lincoln and his law partners handled between 1837 and 1861 over 131 divorce cases in 17 Illinois counties.
Most of Lincoln’s clients were women. Records indicate that 82 cases were brought before the courts by women. The courts granted successful divorces to women 79% of the time. Male plaintiffs obtained divorced only 69% of the time.
Most of the divorce cases centered around grounds for divorce for desertion, adultery, cruelty and drunkenness. Impotence, fraud and bigamy were also grounds recognized by the courts, but these cases were not as prevalent as grounds mentioned above. Almost 48% of the time, at least one of the grounds for divorce was desertion and 26% of the time adultery was the major cause given. Women were most successful when they sited drunkenness and cruelty getting a divorce 100% of the time when these grounds were given as cause.
Men were most successful when they sited adultery as the grounds for divorce. In 75% of these cases, men prevailed. When desertion was the major cause given, 72% of the cases men brought before the courts were successful.
Divorce was a viable option for antebellum Illinois women. They had much more access to this legal procedure than women in the east and those residing in the southern states. Most of the time, the women also retained custody of their children as well. By 1857, Illinois led the country in granting divorces for women plaintiffs. The language was quite interesting in many cases. In 1843, Sarah Hill sued William Hill for divorce on the grounds of cruelty and impotence. Sarah Hill claimed that William Hill was “ not a natural and perfect man” physically.
Lincoln was successful in developing a reputation as the most successful divorce lawyer of his time.
Following the dissolution of the Lincoln-Logan Partnership, Lincoln asked William Herndon to become his junior partner in his own firm. Lincoln left the partnership in 1847 to serve a term in the United States House of Representatives. When Lincoln returned after serving in Congress, he again picked up his partnership with Herndon. They practiced law until once again, Abe Lincoln left in 1861 to serve as President of the United States.
In 1849 when Lincoln returned from Congress, he handled cases all across Illinois. He often traveled to Chicago to handle cases before the Federal Court throughout the 1850’s.
Lincoln was away from Springfield for almost 6 months of each year traveling his circuit. He generally was gone for three months in the spring and three months in the fall. In 1849 the circuit had 14 counties and Lincoln was the only attorney, besides the judge and the state attorney, who traveled the entire circuit. Each term at each stop lasted between a couple of days to a couple of weeks depending on the depth of the docket. Lincoln would travel the same itinerary as the judge to facilitate the hearing of cases. It was not until the late 1850’s that Lincoln could travel the circuit by rail. Prior to that, he mostly went on horseback or wagon to outlying areas.
Lincoln was in demand by local attorneys in each county to help them with their cases. He had no formal partners, but he worked with almost all the lawyers in the entire area. Many litigants themselves also asked Lincoln to aid them with his services. As he made his rounds, Lincoln did not favor one political party with his services. He argued with attorneys equally from both parties and without regard to their political views. In one case Lincoln would partner with a particular attorney, and in the next case he might oppose the very same attorney.
In the next installment, we will discuss Lincoln’s appellate practice.
Abraham Lincoln worked many cases, following the circuit courts in Illinois. It was a way to supplement his small wages in New Salem, Ill. He had many cases in his twenty-five years as a lawyer. One in particular, the case of Fleming vs. Rogers & Crothers, is very informative. It was a medical malpractice suit and Lincoln represented the physicians. On October 17,1855 the town of Bloomington, Ill was filled with the sound of fire bells. The fire was widespread that it moved through the town destroying the Central Illinois Times, and The Bloomington Pantagraph and the livery stable. In fact everything but the bank and a single store remained. One man, William Green lost his life in the blaze. Samuel G. Fleming was injured, he received two broken legs that he suffered when a chimney collapsed on him. He was treated by a Dr. Thomas P. Rogers, Jacob Freese and Eli Crothers. Dr. Freese bandaged and set his left leg and Crothers set and treated the right. The doctors visited Fleming weekly for two weeks to check on him. Fleming stated that he was coming along and his pain was minimal. Then, Fleming began to have pain about sixteen days after his legs were treated. The pain emanated from the break point in his right leg. Fleming’s sister felt that the leg was not set right and the doctors disagreed. They upheld that the treatment was correct and the manner in which the leg seemed was normal. Dr. Crothers advised Fleming that the pain was from pleurisy and not the treated break. Then twenty four days later, Dr. Rogers went to Fleming and stated that the legs were “crooked as rams horns”. The other doctors were sent for and the legs measured. They found one of the legs at least one inch shorter than the other. The only solution that Dr. Rogers found was to redress the legs and splint them differently. Then eight days later they visited Fleming again. This time, they wanted to rebreak and set his legs. Dr. Freese used chloroform and the doctors began to work on the limb. Fleming was not out and consequently began to scream in pain as the doctors attempted to rebreak the limb. Fleming was advised that it was the only way to fix his limb. He advised the doctors to stop and stated the “he (Fleming) had suffered enough.” Fleming’s legs were permanently disfigured and he sued the doctors for malpractice.
Abraham Lincoln defended the doctors. The trial began in 1857, and Lincoln sought Dr. Crothers out to demonstrate the breaks on the patients legs with chicken bones. He employed this in the courtroom for all to see. Crothers spoke about bone growth and the changes that take place while the body is healing. The trial took one week, with fifteen doctors and twenty one witness’ testifying for the plaintiff. Lincoln cross examined Fleming and asked him if he could walk. Fleming stated that he could but he limped. Lincoln exclaimed “Well! What I would advise you is to get down on your knees and thank your Heavenly Father, and these two Doctors that you have any legs to stand on at all!” The result, the doctors paid the fees incurred by Fleming from the trial and settled.
Abraham Lincoln was hired to represent Joseph A. Dalby who wanted to sue the St.Louis, Alton, and Chicago Railroad. Dalby stated that he received personal injuries from being beaten on the train. He was suing the railroad for personal injury. The story began on April 4, 1857 when Dalby and his wife Sarah attempted to ride the train from Elkhart to Lincoln, Illinois. The couple went to the station to buy tickets. The tickets, if purchased at the station cost three cents more per mile. The agent then stated to the couple that the tickets were sold out for the day. Dalby requested the agent give him a notice that stated he attempted to purchase tickets for the lower fare. Dalby then took his letter aborad and seated themselves in the passenger car. Dalby handed the conductor the letter from the agent and some money to cover the cost. The conductor threw it all on the floor and stated that “it was not worth a damn.” He then left the couple and proceeded to take the tickets from the other passengers. He came back to Dalby and his wife, and demanded that he pay the balance. Dalby refused to pay a higher price than what was written on the ticket and the conductor attempted to return the money. Dalby would not accept it and the conductor warned Dalby that he would take them off the train at the Broadwell stop. The train then reached Broadwell, and the conductor returned with two brakemen. They escorted the couple off the train. The men grabbed Dalby and pulled him out of the seat . Dalby fought and was held while a third man punched him. Mrs. Sarah Dalby tried to stop the fight and promised to pay what the conductor wanted. But they made the fare even higher. The fight lasted a while and Dalby was beaten.
Lincoln and his associates sought 10,000 in damages, due to the beating, kicking and bruising of Mr. and Mrs. Dalby. The railroad entered a plea of not guilty and insisted that the agents on the rail acted in self defense. The case was won in favor of Dalby and his wife. This was one of several cases in which Lincoln and his partners presented cases before the Illinois Supreme Court. Lincoln’s partner William Henry Herndon was the lawyer who argued the case. In fact, Lincoln was barely there for the trial and had to attend to another case Sprague, during the Dalby proceedings. His work on this case though established him as a leader in the practice of law, especially law around the railroads. He had worked other cases involving the railroad and had a great record of winning them. Lincoln’s legal practice was know for the innovative and honest ways in which he presented his cases. In fact, his work was so well known that Erastus Corning, the president of the New York Central Railroad offered Lincoln the position of General Counsel for the company.
Abraham Lincoln was not only a lawyer, but a dueler as well. Or as it stood, was in fact challenged to a duel. Lincoln published a letter under a pen name to Springfield’s Whig orientated newspaper, the Sangamo Journal. In this issue in September of 1842, he alleged that Illinois State Auditor James Shields character was less than stellar. Lincoln wrote a memorandum of dueling instructions to Elias Merryman on September 19, 1842. In this he stated that he did write the “Lost township” letter which was in the journal but stated that it had no allusions to Shields. Lincoln also announced that he wrote the article purely for political effect, and had no intention of harming the character of Shields. Lincoln was in the Illinois General Assembly at the time and had contact with Shields.
The interesting point of this letter, which occurred while Lincoln was a lawyer and legislature is that he outlined the ways in which the duel would occur. The first weapons of choice were to be Cavalry broad swords. The second position would occur on a plank that was ten feet long. Lincoln even states that there was to be a line drawn on the board that either party should not pass unless that party were to kill the other. The time of this duel was to occur on a Thursday afternoon.
James Shields was the state auditor and because of his job believed that the “Lost Township” letters were aimed directly at him. The duel never occurred and later Shields was a brigadier general in the Mexican War and the Civil War. He also served in the Senate for Illinois, Missouri, and California. He was the only man in the Senate that represented three states. Lincoln chose Elias H. Merryman, to whom he wrote the dueling instructions to, as his second. Merryman was a Springfield physician at the time. It is important to note that the broadswords of the type that Lincoln called for in the duel were quite heavy, and the wielding of those instruments would have caused the other to tire quickly. Luckily, they never met with broadsword in hand. On September 22, 1842 the two met on what Lincoln called the“field of honor” and they with their friends resolved the quarrel.
Abraham Lincoln was not one to shy away from contention, though he was ever cool in the face of fire. He was known as a teenager as having brawn and strength for the tussles he had gotten into with a local gang of ruffians. A determined self-made man like Lincoln, was not afraid of a tussle. The only reason that this letter still exists, is that Thomas S. Pinckard found it in 1862 and sent it to the President’s secretary John G. Nicolay. Lincoln, was able to draft this letter with couth and understanding. He even attempted to placate Shields by stating that if he had known that Sheilds would have taken it as an offense he would never have written it. Lincoln even offered to have Shields peruse and approve future documents. He was not only a fair lawyer but a great statesman.
Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer for twenty five years before he became president. He offered advice to his fellow lawyers and those who aspired to be lawyers. In one letter he wrote to a Mr. John M. Brockman on September 25, 1860 he advised the aspiring lawyer to “work, work, work”. This was the main point that Lincoln made, it was the only way to succeed. Lincoln also told him that the method was simple and laborious, and at times tedious. “It is only to get the books, and read, and study them carefully.” He advised young Brockman to read Blackstones Commentaries, the very same book Lincoln studied with vigor to pass the bar. He then advised Brockman to read it carefully, which meant twice, and then to move on to Chitty’s Pleadings. After that he advised Greenleaf’s Evidence and Story’s Equity. These books were to be the forefront of achieving and passing the bar. In a letter to a Mr. James Thornton, Lincoln advised that he was not able to instruct the young man. He stated that there came a time when a man no longer needed to be instructed and should take up the book and readings unto himself. This was the only true way to receive knowledge. Lincoln also stated that it was how he became a lawyer, on his own and at a reasonable age. Again, he focused on Blackstone Commentaries, Chitty’s Pleading’s, Greenleaf’s Evidence and Story’s Equity. His next step of advise was to get a license and to practice while reading. “That is my judgement of the cheapest, quickest, and best way for Mr. Widner to make a lawyer of himself.” In the twenty-first century this idea is unheard of. If a person took it upon themselves to read and understand, even to know that entirety of all law practices and readings, a license still would not be granted without a formal education.
Lincoln was ever the adviser to new students and lawyers and therefore a plethora of letters to young lawyers exists. In another letter to William H. Grisby on August 3, 1858 he advised “If you wish to be a lawyer, attach no consequence to the place you are in, or the person you are with; but get books, sit down anywhere, and go to reading for yourself. That will make a lawyer of you quicker than any other way.” It is easy to imagine a young Lincoln reading Blackstone in the midst of chaos and all the while taking everything in. In another letter to Isham Reavis in 1855, Lincoln again told another aspiring lawyer that he could not teach them. “If you are resolutely determined to make a lawyer of yourself the thing is half done already.” Lincoln’s letter was filled with aspiring information. “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing.” This thought alone has won Lincoln an eternal spot in American history, both in law and as the President of the United States.
Welcome to the Abraham Lincoln Legal Papers website! My name is John Gorga and I am an avid Abraham Lincoln buff and I am also a lawyer. I will be writing on various topics related to Lincoln and his experiences as a lawyer before becoming President of the United States. I hope you visit often to read all about Abraham Lincoln the lawyer!