While most people know Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer before becoming President, few may realize he also had experience as a judge. As an attorney, Lincoln worked in the Eighth Judicial Circuit in Illinois, and twice a year, usually in the fall and spring, he'd spend nearly three months traveling by horseback and stopping at each county seat for a brief court term (most often two days to a week in duration). Lincoln often argued cases in front of Judge David Davis, who traveled the circuit with him. When Davis was ill or had personal business, he usually asked Lincoln to act as judge for a few days. This procedure was irregular and was altogether without statutory sanction; thus, Lincoln would only preside at a trial if all parties consented. At least two of "Judge" Lincoln's cases were reversed by the Illinois Supreme Court because of this irregular assignment of judicial duties. Still, Lincoln's integrity and character were usually so outstanding as to inspire confidence in his findings and weight to his judgments.
A few examples of cases Lincoln dealt with as a judge were of little consequence. Once, he heard a case involving a merchant and a father of a minor son. The merchant had sold the boy a $28 suit on credit without the father's knowledge or approval. The businessman held the father responsible for the son's debt. To hold the parent liable for the son's debt, the merchant had to prove that the clothes were necessary and suitable for the boy's lifestyle. The father was prosperous, and the merchant contended he ought to pay the boy's bill. However, "Judge" Lincoln ruled against the merchant. Mr. Lincoln said, "I have rarely in my life worn a suit of clothes costing twenty-eight dollars."
In another case presided over by "Judge" Lincoln, a farmer named Hartsfeller sued his neighbor named Trowbridge for damages resulting when Trowbridge's cattle ate up the corn stored in Hartsfeller's crib (crib = a small building or rack for storing corn). Trowbridge had leased a portion of his land to Hartsfeller, who had raised some corn on the land. Contrary to Trowbridge's instructions, Hartsfeller had stored the corn on the same land. Trowbridge had enclosed his farm with a fence and had turned his cattle out to graze. The cattle entered the area where Hartsfeller was storing the corn and devoured the crop.
"And you say you went over and fenced the corn after you asked him not to crib it on your land?" "Judge," Lincoln inquired of Trowbridge.
Trowbridge replied, "Yes, sir."
"Trowbridge, you have won your case," was the terse reply from Mr. Lincoln.
The fact that Abraham Lincoln served briefly as a judge ("judge pro tem") should not be too surprising. Even as a young man in New Salem, he was constantly being called upon to reconcile or referee cockfights, horse races, and fistfights. He was a "natural" peacemaker and arbitrator. This characteristic helped lead to his rise to being one of the most well-known and respected lawyers in the entire state of Illinois.
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.