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Abraham Lincoln, Volume I by John T. Morse

Law and politics moved among the people


Some

of the most picturesque and amusing pages of Ford's "History of Illinois" describe the condition of the bench and bar of these times.[32] "Boys, come in, our John is going to hold court," proclaimed the sheriff; and the "boys" loitered into the barroom of the tavern, or into a log cabin where the judge sat on the bed and thus, really from the woolsack, administered "law" mixed with equity as best he knew it. Usually these magistrates were prudent in guiding the course of practical justice, and rarely summed up the facts lest they should make dangerous enemies, especially in criminal cases; they often refused to state the law, and generally for a very good reason. They liked best to turn the whole matter over to the jurors, who doubtless "understood the case, and would do justice between the parties." The books of the science were scarce, and lawyers who studied them were perhaps scarcer. But probably substantial fairness in decision did not suffer by reason of lack of sheepskin learning.

Politics for a long while were strictly personal; the elections did not turn upon principles or measures, but upon the popular estimate of the candidates individually. Political discussion meant unstinted praise and unbounded vilification. A man might, if he chose, resent a vote against himself as a personal insult, and hence arose much secrecy and the "keep dark" system. Stump-speaking, whiskey, and fighting were the chief elements of a campaign, and the worst

class in society furnished the most efficient backing.[33]

Such was the condition of men and things in the neighborhood where Abraham Lincoln was shaping in the days of his youth. Yet it was a condition which did not last long; Illinois herself changed and grew as rapidly as any youngster within her borders. The rate of advance in all that goes to make up what we now regard as a civilized society was astonishing. Between the time when Lincoln was fifteen and when he was twenty-five, the alteration was so great as to be confusing. One hardly became familiar with a condition before it had vanished. Some towns began to acquire an aspect of permanence; clothes and manners became like those prevalent in older communities; many men were settling down in established residence, identifying themselves with the fortunes of their neighborhood. Young persons were growing up and staying where they had been "raised," as the phrase of a farming community had it. Comfortable and presentable two-story houses lent an air of prosperity and stimulated ambition; law-books began to be collected in small numbers; and debts were occasionally paid in money, and could often be collected by legal process. These improvements were largely due to the swelling tide of immigration which brought men of a better type to push their enterprises in a country presumably emerging from its disagreeable stage. But the chief educational influence was to be found in the Anglo-American passion for an argument and a speech. Hand in hand, as has so long been the custom in our country, law and politics moved among the people, who had an inborn, inherited taste for both; these stimulated and educated the settlers in a way that only Americans can appreciate. When Lincoln, as is soon to be seen, turned to them, he turned to what then and there appeared the highest callings which could tempt intellect and ambition.


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