Lincoln's Ladder to the Presidency: The Eighth Judicial Circuit. By Guy C. Fraker. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. 328 pp.
The key word here is "circuit." During the 1840s and 1850s, a bevy of lawyers, a state's attorney, and a judge itinerated twice a year through the Eighth Judicial Circuit in central Illinois, going from courthouse to courthouse to address the accumulated backlog of litigation. At its heyday between 1847 and 1853, the circuit included 14 counties--ten thousand square miles of prairie between the Indiana state line and the Illinois River, "a vast sea of tall grass stretching as far as the eye could see" (p. 10). This kind of work threw men together for many weeks at time. At the primitive inns en route, they battled insects, slept two and three to a bed, and made terms with less than appetizing fare, "generally served at a long table at which everyone--the judges, lawyers, parties, witnesses, even bailed defendants--all sat together and swapped tales long into the night" (p. 42). The court proceedings became "a popular spectator sport" and some participants gained celebrity status (p. 41).
Many endured the circuit, because they needed the fees it generated. But others also enjoyed the male sociability, the equivalent of "a long fishing trip" (p. 43). This was especially the case with the young lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, who kept his colleagues entertained with "a seemingly endless inventory of jokes and anecdotes" (p. 43). While most of his colleagues returned home on weekends, Lincoln took advantage of his time on the road to make contacts and build personal relationships with local residents. He "knew, or appeared to know, everybody we met, the name of the tenant of every farm-house, and the owner of every plat of ground," one visiting newspaper reporter discovered (p. 47). Law provided Lincoln with a way to make a living and a setting in which he might realize his political ambitions. The district he represented in Congress between 1847 and 1849 overlapped with the Eighth Circuit.
But there was nothing inevitable about the astonishing sequel. Lincoln's next elective office was president of the United States. How in the world did that come about ? Guy Fraker traces the convergence of several factors. We now know, of course, that Lincoln was endowed with "remarkable gifts," but what also mattered a great deal was "the place where he chose to use those gifts" (p. 2). During...