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Illinois Researchers Reconstruct Record Of Abe's Lawyer Days

LAW-CIRCUIT LEGACY. LINCOLN. 'Our government rests on public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion can change the government practically as such.'

By William StageSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 14, 1992


ABRAHAM LINCOLN still talks to us from rural Illinois, where undiscovered writings are turning up like Indian arrowheads during spring plowing.

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Case files dated 1857 discovered in the Macoupin County courthouse during July 1991 show how Lincoln freed a clearly guilty murderer on a legal technicality. After postponing the trial of John Brantzhouse in Sangamon County with at least one request for a continuance, Lincoln moved for a change of venue to Carlinville, the county seat, where he felt his client would get a sympathetic jury from the large German population.

But Brantzhouse never saw trial. Because of "Honest Abe stalling tactics, two terms of the court passed and the defendant, accused of killing his neighbor with a shotgun, was freed because his due process right to a speedy trial was denied.

"This find is significant because it shows Lincoln's knowledge of how to use pleadings to win a case that wouldn't be winnable if the case were actually tried," says Bill Beard, assistant editor of the Lincoln Legal Papers, a state-funded study of the 16th president's legal practice in Illinois from 1836 to 1860.

The project is under way, with researchers poring over some 70,000 legal documents. Most of the papers are in century-old binders, filed in about 30 central-Illinois counties. The result will be a multivolume tome on Lincoln's extensive legal career.

"Lincoln was not a criminal lawyer," Mr. Beard says, "though those cases may be his most famous. His practice revolved mostly around civil matters."

Abraham Lincoln's formal entry into the realm of jurisprudence apparently occurred Oct. 5, 1836. On that day his name appears as attorney for the plaintiff in the case of Hawthorn v. Wooldridge. He filed the plea in his hand, although it was signed by his senior partner and former comrade in the Black Hawk wars, John Todd Stuart.

Lincoln spent up to six months a year traveling through the 8th Judicial Circuit, which sprawled across 14 Illinois counties. He represented clients in literally thousands of common law - or what was then called chancery law - cases.

Writes Russell Freeman in his book "Lincoln, A Photobiography,Every spring, and again in the fall, the presiding judge left his Springfield headquarters to make a swing around the circuit, holding court for a few days in each county seat. Lincoln and other Springfield lawyers went along to try cases in remote prairie courthouses.

"Lincoln," Freeman continues, "rode from town to town along empty trails in an old horse-drawn rig, his legal papers and a change of clothing in his carpetbag. Lodging was primitive. Lawyers slept two to a bed, with three or four beds to a room in crude country inns. Criminals and judges often ate at the same table. Sometimes, Lincoln had just minutes to confer with a client before going to trial."

One revelatory case file was exhumed in April 1991. Two hitherto undiscovered legal papers from Lincoln's circuit-riding period turned up in the stacks of yellowing files in the back of the Mason County courthouse. Lincoln penned them in 1845, when he was a highly ambitious 36-year-old attorney.

Havana is now the seat of Mason County, but when Lincoln was a whiskerless lawyer in these parts, the seat was the neighboring village of Bath.

Sometime later, the Mason County seat was moved to Havana, a sleepy town on the banks of the Illinois, where the courthouse, as always, sits in the center of town. In the far back room of the Circuit Clerk's office where files and books reach the ceiling, Susan Krause, a research associate for the Lincoln Legal Papers, points to a drawer among drawers and says, "This is where Mike found them." She is referring to Mike Bonansinga, another Lincoln Legal who is off hunting more Lincoln papers this day.