Pioneers of Menard & Mason Counties
Including Personal Reminiscens of Abraham Lincoln & Peter Cartwright
By T.G. Onstot, 1902

Lincoln as a Lawyer, on Horseback

Page 58

In early days before the railroad dispensation, it was customary for the noted lawyers, most of whom lived in Springfield, to attend the courts within a radius of one hundred miles of the capitol city. They would go on horseback and start out in pairs, or often singly for Jacksonville, Decatur, Clinton, Bloomington, Tremont, Peoria, Galesburg, Lewistown, Rushville, Beardstown and by that time they had completed the circle. At nights they would put up at hotels and compare notes, tell anecdotes and the people of the town would gather and enjoy the conversation. It is not saying too much that Lincoln was the center of attraction. His wonderful resource and wit would always place him at the head of entertainers. When Lincoln first commenced to practice law nothing brought him so prominently before the public as his punctuality in collecting debts for his clients and paying over the money. At that time two-thirds of the business was done on credit. The Illinois merchants would buy their goods from eastern and St. Louis merchants on twelve months' credit and sell them to farmers on the same terms. The consequence was that the notes were not paid and were sent to a lawyer for collection, and then it would be as much trouble to get the money from the lawyer as from the customer. When Lincoln collected any money he immediately turned it over to the creditor. In that way he built up a practice which extended over the country and warned for him the name of "Honest Abe Lincoln."

Ross tells about meeting him in the spring of 1838 between Canton and Lewistown. It was two miles north of Lewistown, and as they rode along Lincoln told him that he had been attending court in Knox and Warren counties and that he was then on his way back to Springfield. As it was late in the day and as the roads were very muddy, Mr. Lincoln said that he would stay in Lewistown over night and he inquired about the taverns. Ross directed him to Truman Phelp's tavern, as it was the best, so he stayed there over night. He had a large portmanteau on his saddle. It appeared to be well filled with law books and clothing. He was dressed in a suit of Kentucky jeans over which he wore a heavy overcoat, having four capes and a standing collar and fastened with a hook and clasp. He also wore a pair of green baize leggings, wrapped three times around the leg and tied just below the knee. The regular meeting of the Lewistown Lyceum was held on the night that Mr. Lincoln remained there, so he attended. The meetings were attended by both ladies and gentlemen, and were held in the old Methodist church, two blocks west of the court house. The subject for discussion that evening was "Which has done the most for the establishment and maintenance of our republican form of government and free institutions, the pen or the sword?" Mr. Lincoln was invited to take part in the debate, which he did. The men speaking on the side of the sword were Lewis Ross, Richard Johnson and Joseph Sharp (all lawyers). Those speaking for the pen were J. P. Boice, Abraham Lincoln (lawyers) and William Kelly, a merchant of Lewistown. The speakers for the sword commenced with George Washington and ran down to Gen. Jackson and other generals who had gained great victories by the sword.

When Lincoln commenced his speech he eulogized the other side for the effort they had made, but he said that they had omitted one of the valiant generals who had lived in their own country. For instance, he said, there is Gen. Stillman, who led the volunteers in the Black Hawk war. When he mentioned the name of Gen. Stillman a smile came over the face of everyone present for they well remembered the general's defeat and how Black Hawk with his little band of Indians had driven him with his large force fifteen miles to Fort Dixon. After Lincoln joked them a little about their generals he entered into the subject in earnest and quoted fro Patrick Henry, Benjamin Franklin and many other great men, and he showed that he was well posted in the writings and history of our country. He made a royal good speech and the judges awarded his side the victory much to the delight of Messrs. Boice and Kelly. Mr. Lincoln was dressed in a suit of jeans with heavy boots and looked like a farmer, and the people were very much surprised when they heard his speech. A number of ladies attended the meeting and Miss Isabel Johnson remarked that she thought the rough looking farmer man had made the best speech of the evening. Attorney Johnson, who was one of Lincoln's opponents in the debate, and who was known more familiarly as Dick Johnson, went to California in 1850 and was elected attorney general and held several other important offices. He called on Ross after he had went to California, and asked him if he remembered the time when he and Lincoln measured the sword and pen I the old Methodist church in Lewistown. He said he little though that the man who defeated him then would someday become the president of the United States. Mr. Lincoln was well acquainted with the events of the Black Hawk war, for he enlisted three times. The first time volunteers were called out by Gov. Reynolds. It was for three months and Mr. Lincoln was elected captain of his company. After the company had served the three months and was discharged Lincoln again enlisted and served until the close of the war.

Ross relates the circumstances connected with Lincoln's speech in Lewistown in 1838, when he and Douglass were canvassing the state for United States senator. He was then living in Vermont, twenty miles from Lewistown, and he and his wife drove to Lewistown to hear Lincoln speak. Mrs. Ross had often heard her husband speak of Lincoln's kindness to him when he was a lad carrying the mail and she wanted to hear him speak. This was the only political meeting she had ever attended though she had been married a long time. They found Lincoln at L. W. Ross' house sitting on the porch. Mr. Lincoln delivered his address in front of the old court house on a platform between two pillars. There were seats for four or five hundred people and they were mostly occupied by ladies. There were from two to three thousand people present. Lincoln spoke on the repeal of the Missouri compromise and of the steady and sure encroachment of slavery on the free territory. This speech was considered one of his best. Ross sat in a front seat and his mind was carried back twenty-five years when he attended the circus at Springfield. He thought of the way in which Lincoln was dressed that day and how he chastised him for coming through Salem without having the mail changed. In place of the short pants brown linen coat, low shoes tied across the instep and buckeye hat (mentioned in a former article) he wore a fine light linen suit, fine boots and a silk hat. Major Newton Walker and John Proctor accompanied him to the court house in a carriage, and the net day Major Walker took him in his carriage to Canton, where he was to speak. He spoke as if the spirit of inspiration rested on him when he quoted the Declaration of Independence. He said that it was made for all men. It was not for the rich, for if it were many would be left out. It was not for the red man nor the white or black man, but it was made for all men and all races, and he seemed to view the future with prophetic vision.

When Lincoln ran for the legislature in 1832 and was defeated by Peter Cartwright, he was not discouraged, for Cartright was one of the strongest and most popular men in the country. It was a stimulus to greater activity by him, and in all probability it was a providential thing that he was not elected, for he was only twenty-three years old and had not applied himself to that diligent study, which prepared him for the great duties, which he was afterwards called on to perform. After his defeat he applied himself to his books so that in 1834, when he was two years older and considerably wiser, his friends again brought him out. He was elected by a handsome majority and was again elected in 1836, 1838 and 1840, serving four terms in all. In 1846 he was elected to congress.

I will now go back and state a few facts in regard to Mr. Lincoln's storekeeping and tell how he became involved in a debt, which hung over him for many years. There have been many misstatements in regard to it. When Mr. Lincoln kept the postoffice the salary which he received did not afford him a fair living, and it kept him in doors so he could not pursue any other occupation. There was a young man by the name of William Berry, who lived four miles southwest of town with his father, Rev. John M. Berry, who was a Cumberland Presbyterian and a man of considerable property. William had attended the Jacksonville college and was a smart, intelligent young man, but inclined to be a little wild. His father knowing the good habits of Lincoln induced him to take William into partnership and they purchased a store, paying a small part down and giving three notes for the balance. They kept the store in the same building with the postoffice and had as fair a trade as any of the merchants in the town.

Transcribed by:Brenda Hamilton Johnson



1902 Index

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Illinois Ancestors