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Judge David Davis,
Teacher and Friend of Lincoln

Meredith Hayes
Coultrap Middle School, Geneva

Who would ever suspect that a judge plowing through the mud ruts of the outlying Eighth Judicial Circuit Court of Illinois in the 1850s would help forge a strong union with the people and for the people? Who would suspect that he would ultimately change the course of our nation's history?

The judge who is the subject of this essay was a popular and prominent figure in the small communities through which he passed and of the judicial scene, as he attempted to solve the many problems and disputes that had arisen in the three months before his arrival. Cases ranged from "squaw wars" about the location of sewing circles, to manslaughter, to important rural land disputes involving thousands of acres. The judge was David Davis, and he took his duties seriously. Young inexperienced lawyers and states' attorneys accompanied him as he rode the circuit stopping at ever changing rural taverns and towns such as Paris and Danville.

When the circuit convened for six months of every year, Judge Davis was dedicated to bringing justice to those outposts, and the men filled their days with long court cases and their evenings with the study of law in order to solve problems. Judge Davis never handed down snap decisions; he always took the time to study and to "sleep on" his cases, and presented final decisions on the following day. In fact, people often turned down jury trials in favor of the judge deciding their cases. They trusted him so much that they elected him to three succeeding six-year terms on the circuit court.



Eventually many lawyers gained the same respect for the judge as they traveled along with him. Many observed him and viewed him as a role model. At the time he might never have guessed that his most important task would become the encouragement and molding of those brilliant young men.

One young man lacking in formal education listened especially carefully. He had been described in one Danville paper as "rough, uncouth, and unattractive" yet "profound in his musings." To improve his own legal defenses, the man, Abraham Lincoln grasped every opportunity to explore Judge Davis's mind. As he accompanied the judge on the circuit for ten years, he learned to carefully think over his decisions, to base them on what he believed, and then to express them clearly and soundly in spite of public opinion. That practice helped him to have more faith in his abilities, and thus to persuade juries more readily. When Lincoln presented his cases, Judge Davis polished off the "rough edges" with questions and concerns, and noted the strong aspects of Lincoln's character. One flaw was that Lincoln was weak in defending cases in which he did not believe. However, his incredible skill as an orator was quickly noted by all. The judge once analyzed Lincoln's presentations by saying, "In order to bring into full activity his great powers, it was necessary that he be convinced of the right and the justice of the matter."

One such case, according to Judge Davis, involved the seduction of a young lady, with the other side insisting she had been the aggressor. Several young men testified against her until one refused to testify. At that point Lincoln questioned all of the witnesses and in the judge's words, "Went at them, crushed them." Many people disagreed with Lincoln, but the jury and he obtained a settlement for his client, the girl's father, of $180.41. Gradually Lincoln found himself "at the head of the profession in his State," as a Davis biographer wrote.

Meanwhile, the railroad changed the landscape and the atmosphere of Illinois, making it a focal point of the nation. Cases became more complex, and time in the law library became longer for both men. Their friendship grew through close associations and began to extend into their families. At the death of one of Judge Davis's children, Davis immediately requested that Lincoln take over his duties on the circuit. After that, Lincoln often presided over Davis's court while Davis went on with private business. All lawyers on the circuit were aware of their close relationship, and the Chicago Tribune referred to Davis as "Lincoln's closest friend," but no circuit lawyer charged Davis with favoritism toward Lincoln. Both men were known and respected for their honesty, candor, and impartiality.

Davis believed that Lincoln's values reflected the nation's. People around the circuit requested Lincoln's defense. In their discussions he and the judge struggled with the great questions of the day such as emancipation and the reunion of the United States, and they agreed. Lincoln said that he had never had a thought that disagreed with the Declaration of Independence. The judge was afraid that Lincoln's views might hurt him politically, but he knew that he would stand by them as he always did.
Davis Mansion "Clover Lawn," the Bloomington mansion of David Davis

Cautiously harboring hopes of political advancement for his friend and colleague, Judge Davis became the organizer of the Lincoln forces at the Republican Convention of 1860. The judge emerged from the background and made history. In the early stages of the nomination, Lincoln had only forty-eight electoral votes, and he needed more than one hundred. In securing Indiana and Pennsylvania, Davis had to offer a cabinet post to get the votes. Knowing Judge Davis, Lincoln sent a note and announced, "I will not be bound by any bargains." His associates at the Tremont House headquarters in Chicago were shocked, but the judge simply responded, "Lincoln ain't here, and we will go ahead as if we had never heard from him." Thus Davis secured the nomination.

The Chicago Tribune stated, "To Judge Davis more than to any other man are the people of the United States indebted for the nomination of Abraham Lincoln." Thus, had Judge Davis finished one of his most lasting works resulting from the Eighth Judicial Circuit.[Olivia Coolidge, The Apprenticeship of Abraham Lincoln; Elwell Crissey, Lincoln's Lost Speech; Willard L. King, Lincoln's Manager, David Davis; Frank B. Latham, Immortals of History; May McNear, America's Abraham Lincoln; Sterling North, Abe Lincoln; and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., History of American Presidential Elections, vol. 2.]


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