The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: A Statistical Portrait

Circuit Court Cases by County

Cases over Time

Cases over Time by Jurisdiction

Process and Duration of Cases

Court Divisions

Legal Actions


Lincoln's Role

Peers and Clients

Common Subjects of Cases

Interpreting Lincoln's Success as an Attorney

The purpose of this section is to show, in general, the parameters of Abraham Lincoln and his partners' law practice. By all evidence, Lincoln and his partners had a typical practice compared to other attorneys during the same period in the Midwest. They, like most other attorneys, were general practitioners--they did not specialize in any one area of the law, and they represented all walks of society throughout all court jurisdictions. The researchers who collected the documents in this edition spent years poring over docket books and case files, and although other attorneys were not studied as closely, it is clear that the law practice of Abraham Lincoln was fairly representative of the time. It is possible, therefore, to draw general conclusions about the practice of law in the antebellum Midwest.

Because of the nature of law partnerships and court records at that time, it is not possible to separate Lincoln's practice from those of his three law partners. Through letters or newspaper accounts we know that Lincoln had a lead role in some cases; with the majority of cases, however, we only know that it was a partnership case: John T. Stuart and Lincoln, Stephen T. Logan and Lincoln, or Lincoln and William H. Herndon. For many cases, we know of Lincoln and his partner's involvement because the clerk wrote their names (or initials) in the judge's docket. For other cases, we know of Lincoln and his partner's involvement because one of them wrote a document in the case. Due to incomplete documentation, it is very possible that both partners were involved, but the record is not clear. Conversely, in some instances, Lincoln is listed as an attorney of record, but we know from other records that he did not participate actively in the case. Since we could not clearly separate Lincoln's cases from his partners' cases, we decided to treat all cases during the period of a partnership that were attributed to at least one of the partners as a Lincoln-partnership case. (See Lincoln Case Definition for more information.)

The cases in this collection are complete throughout all levels of appeal. Even if Lincoln or his partner was involved only at the Illinois Supreme Court level, for instance, we have included documents from the lower court as well. We adopted this approach because it is difficult to understand a case without its complete record, since each succeeding level builds on, or refers to, those that precede it. Lincoln's role in a case is best understood in the context of the entire case.

The inclusion of all levels of a case, however, makes interpreting statistics based on case levels problematic. A case may have one or more case levels. See the discussion in Cases by Jurisdiction for a full discussion of the difference between a case and a case level. Readers should pay close attention to the description of the data making up the statistics to interpret them properly.

Readers will not be able to duplicate many of these tabulations from within the edition. The data tables used for these calculations were created specifically to extract certain facts; the data tables used in this edition are optimized for search and display functions. When a reader performs a search in the edition, the overall case is returned even if only one of its levels meets the search criteria. Many of the statistics contained in this section are based on the case level, and those totals are not shown in the results following a search.

Readers are also cautioned against drawing conclusions about Lincoln's practice from these statistics because they are based on extant records only. Large gaps in the Illinois public records are known to exist. The Chicago Fire in 1871, for example, destroyed many records from the federal court that were stored in Chicago after 1855. Lincoln and his partners undoubtedly had a larger federal court practice than that which is presented in this edition, and it was probably more evenly spread over the years, but the documentation to support this view no longer exists. Other fires or floods in county courthouses significantly affect the geographic portrait of the practice. Readers may refer to Table of County Courthouses Searched and Table of Repositories Searched for detailed information about extant records.

Justice of the peace (JP) documents, although binding, were usually not kept with other public records. JPs typically heard cases in their homes, and the records from those cases either stayed with the JP or were given to the next person to hold that office. As a result, few documents from cases settled at the JP level remain. Some JP documents were made a part of the case on appeal at the circuit court, and from them we know Lincoln and his partners represented clients in front of a justice of the peace.

Even though many Lincoln manuscript collectors have generously given us copies of their documents to include in this edition, others have either not heard or not heeded our pleas for photocopies. Many documents that could lead us to additional Lincoln partnership cases are inaccessible in private collections.

This essay will make no comparisons of Lincoln and his partners' legal caseload and their nonlitigation, or office practice, activities. While an exhaustive search was conducted for case documentation, no such systematic search was made for nonlitigation activity documentation. Readers are therefore cautioned against making generalizations regarding the volume of in-court or out-of-court work. See Cases and Nonlitigation Activities for a more complete discussion.

This collection contains 96,386 documents that describe 5,173 cases and 496 nonlitigation activities.

Circuit Court Cases by County

Most of Lincoln and his partners' circuit court work was in their home county of Sangamon, but they argued a significant number of cases in other counties throughout the years. Lincoln was known to ride the circuit, but he oftentimes handled cases well beyond the circuit boundaries.

Early in Lincoln's career, Sangamon County was part of the First Judicial Circuit; for most of the remaining years, it was in the Eighth Circuit, stretching across central Illinois to the east of Springfield. The following maps illustrate the partnerships' circuit court practice compared to the changing circuit court boundaries.

The data for these maps includes the circuit court case levels in which the partners served as attorney or guardian. The number of cases per county for each map is based on the cases which received their final judgment in that county during that time period; cases appearing in more than one county on a change of venue are not reflected here.

Note: The calculations shown in the following maps are based on the number of cases decided in the calendar years indicated in the title of the map. These closely, but not exactly, follow the changing circuit court boundaries, which tended to change in February or March.

Cases by County, 1836-1861

Cases by County, 1835-1838 (First Judicial Circuit)

Cases by County, 1839-1840 (Eighth Judicial Circuit)

Cases by County, 1841-1844 (Eighth Judicial Circuit)

Cases by County, 1845-1846 (Eighth Judicial Circuit)

Cases by County, 1847-1852 (Eighth Judicial Circuit)

Cases by County, 1853-1856 (Eighth Judicial Circuit)

Cases by County, 1857-1861 (Eighth and Eighteenth Judicial Circuits)

Readers are reminded that several counties on the partners' circuit over the years experienced a loss of records, which distorts this geographic portrayal. The partnerships probably had many more cases in Sangamon, Logan, and McLean counties, but because of courthouse fires and other record destruction, we have no way of knowing the exact number. (See Table of County Courthouses Searched for more information about extant record groups.)

Cases over Time

It is difficult to generate a true picture of an attorney's workload over time. Statistics cannot evaluate which ongoing cases required a lot of the attorney's time and which ones were waiting for action by another party. Some cases were delayed while the court or the parties located a defendant or a witness, a special master in chancery filed a report, or attorneys failed to appear because of other obligations. We can get a general idea, however, of the partners' caseload by year. Figure 1 charts all ongoing case levels. If a case began in 1850 and ended in 1852, for example, it would be counted in 1850, 1851, and 1852.

We can explain some of the peaks and valleys. The peak in 1842 partly reflects public response to a national bankruptcy act of 1841, which took effect in February 1842, and allowed relief for thousands of indebted people. Logan and Lincoln represented debtors in 72 bankruptcy cases in federal court during 1842. The valley around 1848 was because Lincoln served in the United States Congress from December 6, 1847 through March 3, 1849. His service kept him away from Springfield, leaving the law practice in the hands of William H. Herndon, his junior partner. The cases that began prior to Lincoln's entrance to the bar in 1836 reflect the cases in which John T. Stuart was involved that were still ongoing when he began the partnership with Lincoln. Similarly, the cases after 1861 were still ongoing when Lincoln left Springfield to assume the Presidency. Herndon managed them to their completion. (See Chronology for other personal, political, and legal events that may have had an effect on court cases by year.)

Figure 1 includes all case levels in which Lincoln and his partners were involved--most cases were as client advocates, but many times they appeared in other roles. They were occasionally even parties to litigation, many times suing a client to receive their fees for services as attorneys. Figure 1 includes 320 cases, mainly during the mid-1850s, in which Lincoln served as judge. A clearer picture of the partners' caseload appears by restricting the case levels to those cases where the partners served as attorneys or guardians. Figure 2 illustrates the partnerships' workload based on cases in which they served clients as attorney or guardian.

We determined the date on which a case began and ended from the court documents. We defined "begin date" as when the case first appeared in court rather than when the dispute that led to the case began. Judgment date is defined as the date when a judge or jury decided the outcome of a case level. Many cases have documents--like deeds, wills, and promissory notes--which predate by many years the beginning date of a case. Other documents, like notations in execution dockets when the judgment was satisfied, extend well beyond the judgment date. Figure 3 shows the number of partnership case levels by beginning date. Figure 4 reflects partnership case levels by judgment date. Figures 3 and 4 are restricted to those case levels in which Lincoln or partners served as attorneys or guardians.

Cases over Time by Jurisdiction

Figures 5, 6, and 7 depict a further breakdown of partnership case levels where the partners were either attorneys or guardians in county circuit courts, the Illinois Supreme Court, and Federal courts.

Cases by Jurisdiction

The following table identifies the jurisdiction of the 5,173 cases (6,439 case levels) in the collection. The reader should note the difference between a case and a case level--a case can have one or more case levels from its inception through its resolution. For example, consider the case,Capps & Capps v. Smith & Smith, which has three case levels:

Smith v. Capps (first Sangamon County Circuit Court level)

Capps v. Smith (Illinois Supreme Court level)

Smith v. Capps (second Sangamon County Circuit Court level)

The case began at the Sangamon County Circuit court as Smith & Smith v. Capps & Capps. Capps & Capps appealed the circuit court decision to the Illinois Supreme Court in Capps & Capps v. Smith & Smith. The Illinois Supreme Court reversed the decision of the circuit court and remanded the case, which returned to the Sangamon County Circuit Court as Smith & Smith v. Capps & Capps. This edition identifies a case by its name at the highest level of appeal; in this example, at the Illinois Supreme Court.

Table 1 illustrates the movement of cases from one jurisdiction to another (hence the need for distinction of case levels). More cases ended at the circuit courts than began there due to the resolution of cases appealed from lower courts. Readers are reminded that justice of the peace and other lower court records were not always maintained; as a result, these figures should be used cautiously.

The primary purpose of state supreme courts was to hear appeals from lower courts. In a few situations, however, cases did begin at this level. (See Court Structure for more information.) Only five percent of federal cases in this edition involved an appeal.

Table 2 presents the number of instances of case levels by jurisdiction.

Because more than one case level from the same case could appear in the same jurisdiction (remanded cases, for example), the total number of cases levels will be greater than (or equal to) the number of cases that began or ended at the jurisdiction.

Process and Duration of Cases

State and federal laws prescribed the judicial process through which a case proceeded from its inception to its final resolution. Most cases (nearly 80 percent) were resolved at the same level of court at which they began. The remaining 20 percent were appealed to a higher jurisdiction. Table 3 is based on all cases in the edition, and illustrates how many case levels it took for cases to reach final resolution. (For information on the judicial process, see Pleading and Practice.)

Table 4 shows how cases in the collection were distributed from start to finish over the different court jurisdictions. If a case began at the justice of the peace (JP) level and ended at the circuit court level, for example, the tabulation would go in the cell where JP on the horizontal axis intersects with Circuit Court on the vertical axis (570 cases). This chart distributes the 5,173 cases (less 159 of unknown jurisdiction) by the jurisdiction at which the case was finally resolved.

Almost half (49 percent) of the cases in this edition were decided within three months, which means that they were decided within one term of court. Many of these were dismissed at the first appearance, and others were judged for the plaintiff because the defendant did not appear. Seventy-five percent were decided within one year, although many cases lasted longer. The duration of a case was based in part on how often the court in which it was being tried convened. Terms of court lasted from one to three weeks, depending on the caseload of a jurisdiction. County circuit courts generally convened twice a year (Spring and Fall terms), although some counties with larger populations held three or even four terms during certain years. Because of these factors, the number of months that a case lasted cannot accurately convert into court terms.

Table 5 is based on 5,173 cases, excluding 205 cases with unknown dates or unknown divisions.

Court Divisions

Divisions added another level of organization to the court structure. (See Court Structure and Pleading and Practice for more information about the specific divisions.) The divisions of court provide an overview of the types of cases that are included in this collection. Figure 8 includes all of the cases where a division is known.

In a few instances, levels in a case were tried in different divisions. For example, a case that began in the county court probate division was appealed to the circuit court. All appeals from lower courts became a part of the common law division in the circuit court.. Another example involves a case that began in the common law division because the plaintiff had a remedy in that division. The defendant, however, attempted to stop the common law case with the use of an injunction, which is in the chancery division and not a remedy in the common law division. The result was that the defendant then sued the plaintiff in a chancery action. For this section, the editors retained the division of the original case level and applied it to the case as a whole. The first example is categorized in the probate division, and the second example is categorized in the common law division.

Figure 8 shows that the majority (67 percent) of cases in this sample were part of the common law division, which heard cases dealing with private injury and dispute resolution.

Divisions in the Circuit Court

State courts were divided into common law, chancery, criminal, and probate divisions. The following table presents the percentage of cases by divisions that were begun in the circuit courts each year.

Figure 9 graphically depicts the data from Table 6, demonstrating that over the years, the common law division made up the majority of a circuit court's cases.

Divisions in the Federal Court

In addition to common law, chancery, and criminal divisions, the federal courts heard all cases dealing with maritime issues in the admiralty division. This collection has two cases heard in this division. For a brief period (February 1842 until March 1843), federal courts also heard petitioners in the bankruptcy division; Logan and Lincoln represented 72 of the more than 1,700 petitioners for bankruptcy in Illinois. The federal courts did not have a probate division.

Eliminating the 72 cases in bankruptcy and the cases where the division is not known, of the 332 cases that began in federal court, 85 percent were in the common law division, 11 percent were in the chancery division, 4 percent were in the criminal division, and less than 1 percent were in the admiralty division. (The reader is reminded that this may not be a representative sample due to the destruction of federal records in the Chicago fire of 1871.)

Legal Actions

More than 180 separate actions are represented by cases in this collection. Table 7 lists the most frequently used actions by division. (For cases with more than one case level, the most significant action was tallied. In most instances, this is the action which was utilized when the case first came to trial.)

Readers should refer to Pleading and Practice for more information about how the action dictated the way in which a case proceeded. Definitions of the actions listed in the following table can be found in the Glossary.

With the exception of bankruptcy, the frequency of the above actions remained proportionally consistent to the total case load over the time period. There is an interesting exception, however, in the action of assumpsit. Figure 10 compares the use of the debt-related actions of assumpsit, debt, petition and summons, and foreclose mortgage to the entire collection (by beginning date).

There is a significant increase in the use of the action of assumpsit compared to the use of the three other most frequently used actions to recover a debt. It is not surprising that over time, the remedy of assumpsit would grow in popularity. A plaintiff could collect damages for the non-payment of a debt, the amount of which might be uncertain and could be determined by the judge or jury.

The action of debt is defined as an action to recover a specific amount of money that the defendant owed the plaintiff. Many actions, however, were debt-related: account, accounting, assumpsit (generally), attachment, bankruptcy, claim against estate, cognovit, confession, covenant (generally), distress for rent, foreclose mortgage, garnishment, lien, mechanic's lien, ne exeat, petition and summons, scire facias to foreclose mortgage, sell real estate (generally), sell real estate to pay debt, settle partnership, trespass on the case on promises, and vendor's lien. Actions relating to debt appear in common law, chancery, bankruptcy, and probate divisions of court. Figure 11 demonstrates the relative frequency of debt-related actions compared to non-debt-related actions in these divisions.


Many other sections of this statistical portrait deal with the collection temporally, which can be translated into information about Lincoln's three partnerships.

It is difficult to isolate partnership cases for several reasons, but the most significant is because of case dates. There are some cases in our collection for which beginning and/or ending dates are not known. Stuart-Lincoln partnership cases may be missed, therefore, through a search for cases that began before 1841. Searching by participants is not always accurate because Stuart and Logan appeared frequently in cases handled by the Lincoln-Herndon partnership. Both men continued active legal careers and crossed paths frequently with Lincoln outside of their respective partnerships. The most accurate search involves a combination of date and participant, but even then the search results may not be completely accurate. For example, a case that began during the Stuart-Lincoln partnership and continued through the Lincoln-Herndon partnership would be included in the search results if we searched by year and for Stuart and Lincoln as attorneys. However, Stuart and Lincoln may not have handled the case in 1837-1841 (their partnership period), but Lincoln, Herndon, and Stuart were attorneys of record (probably on opposite sides) in 1858. The case met our search criteria, but it is not a Stuart-Lincoln partnership case.

By our definition, a Lincoln partnership case is one in which Lincoln or one of his partners during the term of the partnership was involved; and our scope includes a case from beginning to end even if Lincoln or a partner was involved only for a short time. (Even though the Lincoln-Herndon partnership continued after Lincoln left for Washington, we used February 1861 as the effective end date for this partnership.) This definition, however, has led to the inclusion of a few cases that may be considered borderline. Logan was an attorney at the circuit court level and at the Illinois Supreme Court level in Mills et al. v. Brown prior to his partnership with Lincoln. He wrote a writ of error in an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1840, but the court did not decide the case until 1842. Because of Logan's involvement at the U.S. Supreme Court (by writing the writ of error), we included the entire case even though there is no documentary evidence of Logan in the case during his partnership with Lincoln.

Cases in progress during a partnership transition may cause confusion. There is no documentary evidence to tell us how the principals in the three partnerships divided on-going cases when one partnership ended and another began. Cases that Stuart and Henry Dummer (Stuart's previous partner) handled that continued into the Stuart-Lincoln partnership are included; Herndon and Charles Zane (Herndon's partner after Lincoln left for Washington) handled cases that began during the Lincoln-Herndon partnership through to the end.

Because of these factors, researchers are urged to study the search results carefully when attempting to isolate partnership cases.

Lincoln's Role

Lincoln served a variety of roles within the legal system, but his most frequent role was as plaintiff attorney. The discrepancy between his roles as plaintiff attorney and as defendant attorney is partly due to the fact that in many instances defendants in debt cases did not engage an attorney. Plaintiffs, however, had to have the services of an attorney to bring a case to trial.

An attorney sometimes played more than one role in a case, especially cases that had more than one level. Table 8 gives a count of the number of case levels in which Lincoln served specific roles. (Many of these roles are defined in the Glossary.)

Table 8 is based on case levels. If a case appeared more than once at the circuit court level, for example, and Lincoln was involved as a plaintiff attorney in both appearances, he would be counted twice. Lincoln could also have had more than one role at the same level; for example, in many federal cases Lincoln acted as a surety and as a plaintiff attorney. More specific data regarding Lincoln's role as attorney at the case level is presented in Table 9:

The nonlitigation activities represented in this collection illustrate the breadth and depth of Lincoln's roles as an attorney outside of the courtroom. The reader is reminded, however, that the nonlitigation activities in this edition are representative and not exhaustive. The following table indicates the number of activities in the collection involving Lincoln in specific nonlitigation roles. (See Case and Nonlitigation Activities for more information.)

Peers and Clients

Lincoln and his Fellow Attorneys

Table 11 lists the attorneys who appeared most frequently in this collection and the number of case levels in which they appeared:

As a more specific study of Lincoln's peers, Table 12 identifies those attorneys with whom he was co-counsel and those whom he opposed by case level:

Researchers should note that although Lincoln and one of the above attorneys may have been on the same side in the same case level (represented here as co-counsel), they may not have represented the same person. Co-litigants could, and frequently did, select different attorneys.

Lincoln, Douglas, and Davis

Stephen A. Douglas opposed Lincoln in the courtroom years before they joined in the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. They met on opposite sides in 28 cases. They were co-counsel in three cases, but in two of those cases, it appears that they were not attorneys for the same person. Douglas was Illinois Supreme Court justice from 1841 to 1843, but he only appears in the documentary record in six cases in which Lincoln pleaded cases on appeal. He undoubtedly heard Lincoln plead more cases, but did not write an opinion. Douglas served as judge for three cases in Schuyler and Sangamon counties in which Lincoln was involved. Lincoln also collected money from Douglas toward a debt that Douglas owed a client of Lincoln's. Their paths crossed a few other times in court: Douglas gave a deposition in a case; Lincoln was a witness in another case. Most of their legal interaction occurred in the 1830s and early 1840s, although some of the cases in which they appeared were not settled until much later.

David Davis is another name frequently associated with Lincoln. Lincoln argued 1,257 cases before Davis as judge from 1849 to 1861. As an attorney first in Tazewell County and then later in McLean County, Davis occasionally met Lincoln in court as opposing or co-counsel prior to ascending to the bench. There are several nonlitigation activities in the collection where Lincoln provided a legal service to Davis, from signing affidavits, to filing deeds, to doing research.

Lincoln's Clients

The following table lists Lincoln's most frequent clients. He represented these clients more than ten times, based on case level.

Lincoln and the Railroads

Lincoln and his partners tried cases for or against fourteen railroad companies. Other railroad companies were the subject of other suits or were peripherally involved. The following table lists the railroads that were represented or opposed by Lincoln and his partners (primarily Herndon). In a few cases, Lincoln and his partners had functions other than attorney, so the total cases represented or opposed do not always equal the total number of cases for the railroad. The names in parentheses indicate other names used by the railroad during the period of Lincoln's career. (See map of Major Railroads and Waterways for the location of the railroad lines.)

The Illinois Central Railroad (ICRR) was by far their most frequent client, and Lincoln or Lincoln and Herndon were attorneys in 52 of the 54 cases (Lincoln served as a judge in the other two cases). Lincoln almost always represented the ICRR (90 percent of the time), but he did oppose them on occasion. In one notable case, he sued the ICRR for his fee for representing them in the "McLean County Tax Case" (Illinois Central Railroad v. McLean County, Illinois & Parke).

Lincoln began his relationship with the ICRR in 1853. He represented the railroad mainly in the circuit court, but also represented it in ten cases before the Illinois Supreme Court and once in federal court. The most common complaint against the railroad in the early 1850s was damage to land, crops, or livestock as the railway was being built, or in a dispute over assessments of damages for right of way. Later in the decade, the railroad was sued primarily for performance (or lack thereof) in the transportation of goods.

Lincoln opposed the Northern Cross Railroad, which became the Sangamon and Morgan Railroad, and later the Great Western Railroad, in 27 cases. Most of the cases that Lincoln handled against the railroad were for clients who were appealing the Vermilion County Commissioners' assessment of damages for a right of way for the railroad.

Lincoln represented clients against the Terre Haute and Alton Railroad 17 times, but the cases involved only one main controversy. Lincoln defended stock subscribers in Shelby County in these suits brought by the Terre Haute and Alton Railroad against them. When the railroad changed its route, the subscribers refused to pay their stock subscriptions. Lincoln had argued this issue successfully for the railroad in Barret v. Alton & Sangamon Railroad. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld its ruling in Barret in favor of the Terre Haute and Alton Railroad, and the stock subscribers settled with the railroad.

Of the 133 railroad cases that Lincoln (and occasionally Herndon) handled as attorneys, overall he opposed railroads slightly more often (53 percent) than he represented them (47 percent). However, he represented two railroads, the Illinois Central Railroad and the Alton and Sangamon Railroad, in 59 cases of the 67 cases in which he participated, or almost 88 percent of the time. Except for these two railroads, Lincoln and Herndon opposed railroads more often than they represented them.

Common Subjects of Cases

Editors created a subject index for the cases and activities to supplement facts extracted from the documents. The following table lists in descending order of frequency those topics that were assigned to 100 or more cases. The topics assigned to a case were not necessarily the most significant legal issue; for example, "Animals, horses" may be an assigned topic to a case where horses were the property in a debt or replevin suit. These topics indicate fertile ground for research. (See Subject Index Development for more information about how we created the subject index.)

Interpreting Lincoln's Success as an Attorney

Although the terms "win" and "lose" are often associated with legal cases, the measure of a lawyer's success is not as simple as how many cases he won or lost. Plaintiffs at times brought questionable suits and defendants at times were admittedly in the wrong. The skill of the attorney is only one variable in winning or losing a case.

It is also difficult to classify some "wins" as successful and some "losses" as unsuccessful. If a plaintiff received a favorable judgment in an assumpsit case, for example, but only received a judgment for $5 in damages when he sued for $1,000 in damages, the plaintiff and his attorney were not very successful. The defendant in this example, who probably acknowledged that he owed the plaintiff a debt, no doubt felt successful with only an additional $5 added to his debt rather than $1,000. Judgments that ended a case, like dismissed, stricken, quashed, vacated, and nolle prosequi may have been considered successful by a defendant and his attorney, even though the judgment was not specifically for the defendant.

Statistics to measure "wins" and "losses" can be generated based on the judgment of a case, but an attorney's success cannot be accurately interpreted from those numbers alone. This interpretive question can only be answered by measuring an attorney's performance on a case-by-case basis against a standard of success, which includes, but is not limited to, the judgment rendered by a judge or a jury.