around the bar
April 9, 2013

Abraham Lincoln, the Famous Divorce Lawyer?


Almost everyone is very familiar with Abraham Lincoln the president. Fewer are very familiar with Lincoln the lawyer. But the ABA Senior Lawyers Division wants to change that.

Under the leadership of division chair and retired judge Edward J. Schoenbaum, the division’s spring meeting is a cornucopia of all things Lincoln — the lawyer.

Although the Great Emancipator was born in Hodgenville, Ky., the May 2-4 meeting is set in the city forever identified with Lincoln — Springfield, Ill. “Although I love to travel, I just figured the meeting I’d be in charge of should be right here at home,” said Schoenbaum, a resident of Springfield for almost 36 years. “2009 was the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, and there was a lot going on here that triggered my thinking.”

Three Ph.D.s will give historical presentations on such subjects as “The Participation of Women in Lincoln’s Cases” and “Lincoln and Divorce Cases.” As an Illinois lawyer, Abraham Lincoln handled nearly 150 divorce cases. Because he took more than 40 percent of all the divorce suits in Sangamon County and Springfield, the county seat, some of his contemporaries may have considered him a divorce lawyer. Dr. Stacy Pratt McDermott, assistant director and associate editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, will discuss 19th-century divorce, divorce law in Illinois and Lincoln’s role in the marital disputes of his clients.

In addition to the sessions related to Lincoln as a lawyer, the division will feature programs on “Lincoln and Leadership” and “Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War Sesquicentennial.” Regarding the latter program, its presenter, historian Timothy P. Townsend, spoke of the conflicting pressures on Lincoln:

“Generally, there is a lack of appreciation of Lincoln’s courageous stand against slavery and for equality of opportunity for the African-American, a stand that was often in opposition to political opponents and the voting public. In the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates, Stephen A. Douglas declared that ‘the signers of the Declaration had no reference to the negro whatever when they declared all men to be created equal.’ Lincoln said, ‘I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men.’ Douglas won the election. Two years later, as a presidential hopeful, Lincoln said, ‘I want every man to have the chance — and I believe a black man is entitled to it — in which he can better his condition.’

“When one considers the opposition that Abraham Lincoln faced from all sides, his political courage and moral stand become apparent. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass said it best: ‘He was assailed by abolitionists; he was assailed by slave-holders; he was assailed for not making the war an abolition war; and he was bitterly assailed for making the war an abolition war,’” Townsend said.

Senior U.S. District Court Judge Richard Mills will make a special presentation on “Lincoln the Soldier” during the division’s reception and dinner at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. Noted impressionist Randy Duncan as Lincoln will attend the meeting’s opening reception.

On May 3, attendees can walk a few blocks to the Lincoln Home, his law office and the Old State Capitol that he was influential in moving to Springfield. It’s a short ride to the Lincoln Tomb (where people rub his statue’s nose for good luck). Some attendees may drive to nearby New Salem, where Lincoln had a general store before becoming a lawyer and moving to Springfield.