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Lincoln's Ladder to the Presidency

The Eighth Judicial Circuit

Guy C. Fraker, with a foreword by Michael Burlingame

Publication Year: 2012

Throughout his twenty-three-year legal career, Abraham Lincoln spent nearly as much time on the road as an attorney for the Eighth Judicial Circuit as he did in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. Yet most historians gloss over the time and instead have Lincoln emerge fully formed as a skillful politician in 1858. In this innovative volume, Guy C. Fraker provides the first-ever study of Lincoln’s professional and personal home away from home and demonstrates how the Eighth Judicial Circuit and its people propelled Lincoln to the presidency. 

Each spring and fall, Lincoln traveled to as many as fourteen county seats in the Eighth Judicial Circuit to appear in consecutive court sessions over a ten- to twelve-week period.  Fraker describes the people and counties that Lincoln encountered, discusses key cases Lincoln handled, and introduces the important friends he made, friends who eventually formed the team that executed Lincoln’s nomination strategy at the Chicago Republican Convention in 1860 and won him the presidential nomination.  

As Fraker shows, the Eighth Judicial Circuit provided the perfect setting for the growth and ascension of Lincoln.  A complete portrait of the sixteenth president depends on a full understanding of his experience on the circuit, and Lincoln’s Ladder to the Presidency provides that understanding as well as a fresh perspective on the much-studied figure, thus deepening our understanding of the roots of his political influence and acumen.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press

Jacket Flaps

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pp. ii

Title Page

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pp. iii


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pp. iv


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pp. ix

List of Illustrations

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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xviii

Attorney Guy C. Fraker’s entertaining, informative study of Abraham Lincoln and the Eighth Judicial Circuit is a welcome addition to the growing literature on Lincoln’s career at the bar. Here readers will find not only colorful accounts of life on the circuit and sketches of his fellow circuit riders...

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pp. xix-xxii

This book would not have been written without the early encouragement of Minor Myers jr., then president of Illinois Wesleyan; Michael Burlingame; and Cullom Davis, then coeditor of the monumental The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln, Complete Documentary Edition. This book...

Counties and County Seats of the Eighth Judicial Circuit, 1839–61

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pp. xxiii

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pp. 1-6

Abraham Lincoln and Eighth Judicial Circuit Judge David Davis rode their horses from Sullivan, the seat of Moultrie County, where they had just completed one circuit court session, toward the hamlet of Decatur in Macon County, where they needed to be in the morning for the next session...

Part One: Lincoln and the Circuit

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1. A New Country

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pp. 9-35

Abraham Lincoln and the Illinois Eighth Judicial Circuit experienced parallel transformations. Between March 1830, when he arrived in Macon County, soon to be part of the circuit, and February 1861, when he departed for Washington, Lincoln spent virtually his entire adult life in the Eighth...

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2. As Happy as He Could Be

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pp. 36

When Lincoln began his practice in 1837, the county seats to which the judge and lawyers traveled were frontier hamlets. The streets were alternately mud or dust, depending on the season. Because the merchandising of food was still in its earliest stages, town dwellers generally took care of...

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3. Purely and Entirely a Case Lawyer

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pp. 75-64

In terms of time, energy, and preoccupation, Lincoln’s law practice dominated his life. He was a hard-working lawyer, handling a wide variety of cases. Lincoln’s practice reflects no agenda, causes, or philosophy. As Herndon put it, “he was purely and entirely, a case lawyer.”1 Generally, he took...

Part Two: Counties of the Eighth Judicial Circuit

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4. Sangamon, Tazewell, Woodford

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pp. 67-78

The heyday of the circuit coincides with what Lincoln described as his “assiduous” return to the law, 1849 to 1853, when the Eighth Judicial Circuit attained its largest size and its most colorful ambiance. A “trip” around the circuit to examine its geography, its towns, and its people shows how they...

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5. McLean, Livingston, Logan, DeWitt

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pp. 79-97

As the road approached Bloomington, it crossed another Sugar Creek and ascended the gradual incline into the town itself. Bloomington was the county seat of McLean County from the county’s initial organization in 1830. The town sat on the north edge of Blooming Grove, where the first...

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6. Piatt, Champaign, Vermilion

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pp. 98-116

From Clinton, the lawyers headed slightly northeast approximately nine miles to Marion, now called DeWitt, then southeast, crossing another fork of Salt Creek through open prairie. The open road wound through rolling timbered country, crossing another fork of Salt Creek, which had no...

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7. Edgar, Shelby, Moultrie, Macon, Christian, Menard, Mason

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pp. 117-136

The lawyers left Danville and headed south about thirty-five miles to Edgar County. They traveled along the renowned Vincennes Trace, straight south out of Danville through Abraham Smith’s Ridge Farm, where they crossed the county line. It passes through Bloomfield, where Lincoln...

Part Three: Climbing the Ladder

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8. The 1840s and the Early 1850s

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pp. 139-150

As the 1840s began, with his law practice and political career firmly rooted in the circuit, Lincoln began to look to bigger things, the first being the presidential race between Whig William Henry Harrison and incumbent Democrat Martin Van Buren. Lincoln gave over twenty-five speeches for...

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9. The Awakenment

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pp. 151-167

The arrival of the railroads in the 1850s drove a decade of momentous change in the Eighth Judicial Circuit and almost overnight ended the circuit’s colorful era of horseback and country inns. Urbana’s Joseph Cunningham called the impact of the railroads “the Awakenment.” James...

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10. The Repeal . . . Aroused Me Again

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pp. 168-187

Despite privately holding a deep-seated antipathy toward slavery, Abraham Lincoln expressed himself publicly on the question only once before 1854. In the Illinois legislature in 1837, he took his first public stand against slavery. At the request of the legislatures of four southern states, the governor of...

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11. The Tall Sucker and the Little Giant

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pp. 188-209

The year 1858 began with Lincoln focusing on politics, assessing his chances to upset Stephen A. Douglas’s reelection bid for the U.S. Senate in the fall. At the same time, Lincoln was focused on his busy law practice with his elevated stature as a leading lawyer in Illinois...

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12. A Little Sketch

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pp. 210-218

Late in an afternoon during the special session of the McLean County Circuit Court that began in late December 1858, Jesse Fell watched Abraham Lincoln leave the Bloomington courthouse and cross the street. Fell intercepted Lincoln and invited him up the stairs to his brother Kersey’s...

Part Four: Nomination, Election, and the Presidency

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13. No Stone Unturned

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pp. 221-240

As 1860 began, the field of candidates for the Republican presidential nomination included William H. Seward of New York; Salmon P. Chase of Ohio; Edward Bates of Missouri; U.S. Senator Simon Cameron, a powerful Pennsylvanian; and elderly conservative Justice John McLean of Ohio...

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14. We Saw Him No More

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pp. 241-260

Before leaving for Chicago, the president-elect almost lost his new whiskers to the razor of Springfield barber William Florville, but Lincoln stopped his friend in time. On the trip north to Chicago to meet his newly elected vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, the train stopped in Lincoln, Atlanta...


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pp. 261-294


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pp. 295-314

Index / Author Biography

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pp. 315-328

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780809332021
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809332014

Publication Year: 2012