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Lincoln and the Eighth Judicial Circuit

For more than two decades, the Eighth Circuit brought Lincoln to McLean County and its seat of Bloomington.

Once in the spring and once in the fall, the circuit judge and a band of lawyers would make a “swing” from one county seat to another, providing a rough but generally fair system of justice.

Fair, that is, for white males. But not for most others.

Although Illinois was a free state, its Black Laws denied African Americans basic civil and political rights. Blacks could not testify in court, serve on juries, or even vote.

To settle in Illinois, African Americans had to register with local officials, provide proof of freedom, and pay a $1,000 bond that ensured they would not become wards of the state. In addition, persons caught harboring or assisting Blacks without proper documentation could be fined $500.

Photograph of legal document with torn edges. It reads “Illinois Slavery. The laws now in force, which oppress and hold in Bondage the Colored People. Copied from the Revised Statues adopted and approved in the Session of the General Assembly of Illinois for the years 1844 and ’45.’

Anti-slavery flyer published in 1844 to draw attention to Illinois’ discriminatory Black Laws

Photograph of legal document with torn edges. It reads “Illinois Slavery. The laws now in force, which oppress and hold in Bondage the Colored People. Copied from the Revised Statues adopted and approved in the Session of the General Assembly of Illinois for the years 1844 and ’45.’

Women too faced discrimination

They could not vote, serve on juries, nor run for office. But, unlike Blacks, they could testify in court.

Look at this 1859 illustration of a Washington, D.C. murder trial. Do you see any African Americans? What about women?

A black and white drawing of a courtroom full of men. One man is at the stand, and the judge looks on the crowd from his table at the front of the room.

The Trial of the Hon. Daniel E. Sickles for the murder of P. Barton Key, Esq., at Washington, D.C.

Credit: Harpers Weekly, 1859
A black and white drawing of a courtroom full of men. One man is at the stand, and the judge looks on the crowd from his table at the front of the room.

Eighth Circuit Marker

A bronze bas-relief sculpture of the right profile of Abraham Lincoln's face. He is looking to the left, and his left hand is tucked around, holding the collar of his jacket. Below the depiction of Lincoln reads

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This bronze bas-relief marker is one of 19 originally placed on county lines along the route of the Eighth Circuit.

The markers, erected 1921-1923, were commissioned by the Illinois Daughters of the American Revolution. This one still stands on the McLean/Woodford County line north of Carlock.

Circa 1922


Donated by: Richard Kellerhals
2015.15

A bronze bas-relief sculpture of the right profile of Abraham Lincoln's face. He is looking to the left, and his left hand is tucked around, holding the collar of his jacket. Below the depiction of Lincoln reads

While in Bloomington, Eighth Circuit lawyers, like Lincoln, borrowed desk space to catch up on correspondence and casework.

Lincoln often settled into David Davis’ law office, located at the northeast corner of Front and Main Streets in Downtown Bloomington.

A black and white sketch of a medium-sized, two-story brick building.

Davis' law office (the sided building on the right) was used by Lincoln and other attorneys during court week. The McLean County Museum of History restored the building in the 1980s.

Credit: Illustration by Fred Brian
A black and white sketch of a medium-sized, two-story brick building.

A Letter From Lincoln

The letter on the desk speaks to Lincoln’s busy practice with the Illinois Central Railroad.

Lincoln to James F. Joy, Illinois Central Railroad general counsel, September 14, 1855
J. F. Joy, Esq,.
Chicago, Ills,.
Bloomington Sept. 14. 1855

Dear Sir I have to day drawn on you in favor of the McLean County Bank, or rather its’ cashier, for one hundred and fifty dollars. This is intended as a fee for all services done by me for the Illinois Central Railroad, since last September, within the counties of McLean and DeWitt. Within that term,, and in the two counties, I have assisted, for the Road, in at least fifteen cases (I believe, one or two more) and I have concluded to lump them off at ten dollars a case. With this explanation, I shall be obliged if you will honor the draft

Yours truly A. Lincoln

After the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debates, Fell asked Lincoln to write something about his life and career so newspapers back east could share his story with would-be voters.

Fell caught Lincoln coming out of the McLean County Courthouse and invited him to his brother Kersey’s law office, just across the street.

American Empire Secretary Desk

American Empire style secretary desk with gothic arched glass doors on shelved bookcase at top. Doors have brass eschutchins and moulded trim around top section. Inside the doors are three shelves. A  hinged panel opens to provide writing surface in front of pigeonholes and little drawers with glass pulls. Below the writing surface are two 2 drawers. At the bottom of the desk are four large scroll or rounded feet.

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This desk was in Kersey Fell’s office when Jesse Fell encouraged Lincoln to run for the presidency. It was frequently used by Lincoln.

Circa 1850


Donated by: Darlene Fell
783.592

American Empire style secretary desk with gothic arched glass doors on shelved bookcase at top. Doors have brass eschutchins and moulded trim around top section. Inside the doors are three shelves. A  hinged panel opens to provide writing surface in front of pigeonholes and little drawers with glass pulls. Below the writing surface are two 2 drawers. At the bottom of the desk are four large scroll or rounded feet.
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