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The Jury in Lincoln's America

Stacy Pratt McDermott

Publication Year: 2012

In the antebellum Midwest, Americans looked to the law, and specifically to the jury, to navigate the uncertain terrain of a rapidly changing society. During this formative era of American law, the jury served as the most visible connector between law and society. Through an analysis of the composition of grand and trial juries and an examination of their courtroom experiences, Stacy Pratt McDermott demonstrates how central the law was for people who lived in Abraham Lincoln’s America.

McDermott focuses on the status of the jury as a democratic institution as well as on the status of those who served as jurors. According to the 1860 census, the juries in Springfield and Sangamon County, Illinois, comprised an ethnically and racially diverse population of settlers from northern and southern states, representing both urban and rural mid-nineteenth-century America. It was in these counties that Lincoln developed his law practice, handling more than 5,200 cases in a legal career that spanned nearly twenty-five years.

Drawing from a rich collection of legal records, docket books, county histories, and surviving newspapers, McDermott reveals the enormous power jurors wielded over the litigants and the character of their communities. 

Published by: Ohio University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. v-vi

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. xi-xiv

Through an examination of the jury and of the law in the vibrant and dynamic environment of antebellum Illinois and through an analysis of the jury trials of the state’s most famous son, this book seeks to demonstrate the importance of the jury and, by extension, the law to nineteenth-century Americans....

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pp. 1-22

Abraham Lincoln’s America
When the young Abraham Lincoln moved to Indiana with his family in 1816, permanent settlement in the developing states of the Old Northwest Territory was just under way. In 1830, when the Lincoln family crossed the Wabash River to relocate in central Illinois, the states and territories of what was then the emerging Midwest...

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Chapter One: Jury Law and Tradition in the Antebellum Midwest

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pp. 23-53

Antebellum midwesterners did not, of course, invent the institution of the jury. Rather, they inherited it from a long-standing Anglo tradition, the common law of England, the Northwest Ordinance, the American Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. From the establishment of the Old Northwest to the entrance into the Union of the states of Ohio (in 1803), Indiana (1816), Illinois (1818), ...

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Chapter Two: The Composition of Juries in Sangamon County, Illinois, 1830–60

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pp. 54-83

In the spring of 1833, when he was an unaccomplished but ambitious young man living in the tiny village of New Salem, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln served as a juror in the Sangamon County Circuit Court. Just months earlier, he had briefly served in the Black Hawk War and had lost election to the Illinois General Assembly. ...

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Chapter Three: The Work of Jurors in the Antebellum Illinois Courtroom

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pp. 84-124

What was it like to serve on a jury in antebellum Illinois? What did jurors do? What cases did they hear? What types of verdicts did they render? And what did jury verdicts mean for defendants and civil litigants who were subject to them? This chapter seeks to address such questions and to provide some answers about the service of jurors and...

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Chapter Four: The Struggle for Legal Power in Lincoln’s America

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pp. 125-162

As antebellum Americans witnessed the rise of the professional classes and the development of professional expertise, they came to expect a greater level of competence from those in positions of authority. The advent of lawsuits for medical malpractice, personal injury, and negligence on the part of corporations and businesses during...

Appendix: Annotated Appellate Case List

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pp. 163-172


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pp. 173-232


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pp. 233-250


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pp. 251-258

E-ISBN-13: 9780821444290

Publication Year: 2012