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Judge David Davis
and the Eighth Circuit Court

Amy Kalbacken
Washington School, Peoria

People in Springfield, Illinois, were busy on a Monday in August 1848 exchanging local and state news, attending auctions, and engaging in horse trading. At two o'clock, the bailiff threw open the windows of the courtroom and announced that the Eighth Circuit Court would begin. At the front of the muggy, insect-ridden room sat a large, well-groomed man, David Davis, who at the age of thirty-three had been elected in 1848 by popular vote to serve as the Eighth Circuit Judge for a six-year term. He was well known throughout the circuit and was considered a good lawyer and businessman as well as an honest, capable judge. David Davis, a prominent judge of the Illinois Eighth Judicial Circuit Court, was later instrumental in nominating and electing Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States.

Judge Davis served from 1848 to 1852 in the circuit court, working hard and building relationships that would help him later in life with his judicial career. He traveled extensively throughout the Eighth Judicial Circuit, which covered over 15,000 square miles in rural central Illinois. The circuit consisted of fourteen counties—Sangamon, Tazewell, Woodford, McLean, Logan, DeWitt, Piatt, Champaign, Vermilion, Edgar, Shelby, Moultrie, Macon, and Christian. The journey around the circuit was approximately five hundred miles. Judge Davis and his group of lawyers would leave before dawn and ride late into the night to reach their appointed county. At that time lawyers still covered their circuit on horseback, but, as one historian recalled, Davis was

a Brobdingnagian of a man, standing over six feet tall and weighing, by 1850, more than three hundred pounds, ... a two-horse buggy was required to haul this mountan of flesh over the rugged terrain.

For years Davis and his buggy and the lawyers on horseback plowed over dirt roads that were not covered with gravel. With few bridges, the roads were often impassible due to flooded streams. Judge Davis frequently encountered other unfavorable conditions on his travels. In many of the smaller towns, Davis found poor lodging and inadequate food. He looked for accommodations at a local inn or private boarding house. Davis frequently stopped at a halfway house between Bloomington and Springfield called Hoblit's Tavern.

Despite travel conditions, Judge Davis was ready to administer the law. One of his early court cases occurred in Logan County in late 1848. The case involved moving the county seat from Postville to Mt. Pulaski. Earlier, Postville had agreed to build a courthouse and then give the building and land to the county. When the county seat was transferred, county commissioners sold the land and building to private owners. Postville then contested the right to sell, and sued for damages. The lawsuit was tried before Judge Davis at Mt. Pulaski. He followed Lincoln's argument that Postville had taken a chance that the county seat might one day change sites. Davis ruled that the deed to sell was absolute and decided in favor of Mt. Pulaski. His decision was upheld by the Illinois Supreme Court.

Judge Davis often saw the governor about pardons for people convicted on his circuit. A jury in Paris, Illinois, decided that Joseph Knight was guilty of murder and should receive the death sentence. The murder went unsentenced because Davis did not like the death penalty. Finally, Judge Davis contacted the governor and secured a change in Joseph Knight's sentence. Instead of death, Knight received life imprisonment.

The years between 1853 and 1857 were busy ones for Judge Davis. In 1853 the Eighth Circuit was reduced in size to Sangamon, Logan, McLean, Woodford, Tazewell, DeWitt, Champaign, and Vermilion counties. Davis was also reelected in 1855 as judge of the Eighth Judicial Court. He was well respected by the lawyers of his circuit. During court he was judicious, dignified, and authoritative. Davis reminded one lawyer of "a big schoolmaster with a lot of little boys at his heels . . . stumping toward the courthouse." No one questioned Davis's ability as leader of the circuit. He made the rules for the "Davis Club." Even though Judge Davis took his responsibilities on the bench very seriously, as early as 1854 he often delegated his duties to others. When personal business or illness prevented Davis from holding court, he appointed Abraham Lincoln or another lawyer to preside. Once, Lincoln was judge for Davis throughout an entire term of court. After court, Davis and the lawyers spent their evenings in a tavern drinking and joking. Davis was congenial and had a loud, infectious laugh. When court was in session in Bloomington, Davis's home, "Clover Lawn," was a social center in the evening for the lawyers.

Despite Judge Davis's dedication to law, it did not make him a rich man. Davis entered tracts of land in Champaign county and sold sections of them. When payment on a piece of land was not made, Davis had his clerk bring suit within his own court. When court was to end, the judge stayed on the bench and looked busy until everyone but the


clerk, the sheriff, and Davis himself had left. The clerk then called the case of "Davis vs. Smith" for nonpayment of a land note. The defendant had been served with the papers in adequate time but did not appear in court. The judge defaulted the case and had the clerk assess for damages. Davis continued his reading and formally dismissed court knowing he had rendered judgment in his own case.

Judge Davis's judicial career reached its peak between 1858 and 1862. He strengthened a lifelong friendship with Abraham Lincoln, whom he thought could be nominated as the Republican candidate for president of the United States. Davis began to devote his time, with the help of Jesse Fell and Leonard Swett, to organizing the Illinois delegates at the state convention that would be held in Decatur on May 9 and 10, 1860. Davis then took charge of Lincoln's headquarters at the national convention in Chicago. Although it seemed an impossible task that Lincoln would receive the nomination over Seward, Davis began to win the votes of friends, lawyers, and judges in other states. In the midst of being Lincoln's campaign manager, Davis was re-elected as judge of the Eighth Circuit in 1861. In 1862, one-and-a-half years after Lincoln became president, he appointed Davis to the United States Supreme Court. Swett, a mutual friend, had to remind Lincoln that he owed Davis a job. There had been concern about Davis's qualifications because of his limited experience on the Illinois Judicial Circuit. In the end, friendship had ruled, and Davis became a capable, respected judge noted for his progressive views.—[From J. J. Duff, A. Lincoln; F. T. Hill, Lincoln the Lawyer; W. L. King, Lincoln's Manager, David Davis; Stephen B. Oates, With Malice Toward None: E. M. Prince, ed.. Transactions of the McLean County Historical Society, vol. 3; Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln, vols. 1-2; J. L. Thomas, ed., Abraham Lincoln and the American Political Tradition; and A. A. Woldman, Lawyer Lincoln.]


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