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Riding The Circuit With Lincoln

April 2024
21min read

A new picture of prairie lawyers coping with bad roads and worse inns on the Illinois frontier, drawn from David Davis’ letters

One of the most important periods in the life of Abraham Lincoln was the time when he “rode the circuit” in central Illinois in the late 1840’s and early 1850’s. Prairie lawyers and court officials traveled together from one county seat to another for sessions of the circuit court, moving by atrocious frontier roads and stopping in inns, taverns and boarding houses where accommodation was not always of the best. From this period date many of the traditional Lincoln stories—tales told in the evening around the fire, anecdotes from the courtroom, and so on. Here Lincoln grew and developed as a lawyer and as a politician; here, too, he formed personal relationships of great importance in his later life.

One of these was his friendship with David Davis, the Maryland-born lawyer and judge who rode the circuit with him, shared bed and board with him on occasion, knew him intimately, and became one of his campaign managers at the 1860 Chicago Republican convention which nominated Lincoln for the Presidency. Eventually, Davis was appointed by Lincoln to the United States Supreme Court.

Willard King, Chicago lawyer and author, has spent years on a comprehensive study of Judge Davis’ life. No biography of the man exists, and Mr. King’s labors have involved the tracking down and microfilming of vast collections of letters and other papers, scattered all the way from Illinois to Pennsylvania and from New England to Maryland. From the fruit of years of this literary detective work he has drawn a new and intimate picture of the early circuit riders—a picture colored by Lincoln’s presence and personality, shedding a revealing light on one of the homespun, formative eras in middle-western American life.


“In my opinion,” Davis declared, “Lincoln was happy, as happy as he could be, when on this circuit and happy no other place.” Twice yearly, Davis and Lincoln made the three-month circuit of the fourteen counties comprising the Eighth Judicial Circuit. More than a hundred letters, recently discovered, written from the circuit by the Judge to Sarah, his wife, make a vivid story of their course around it.


A few days before his circuit began at Springfield in March and August, Davis set out from Bloomington in his buggy. For years, on horseback, he had plodded over this familiar road. But it could scarcely be called a road. No fences marked it; no gravel covered it; the wagon ruts had merely made a trail in the prairie mud.

In good weather, however, he enjoyed this ride. Much of the land was uncultivated and the tall, luxuriant prairie grass, mottled with wild flowers, bent under every breeze. As he rode past the quail whistled, the grouse whirred up, the wolf and the deer fled. But in wet times water stood on the flat prairie making travel a nightmare. After such a trip, his friend Jesse Fell wrote: “I came pretty near losing a horse…We came to a slew that looked too deep for safety and I detached a horse and rode in to ascertain the depth. I had gone but a little way till we plunged into a deep hole and with great difficulty my horse got through, having swam some distance.” (Fell was greatgrandfather of Governor Adlai Stevenson.)

The sixty-mile ride to Springfield took two days. The first night a traveler stopped at Hoblit’s tavern, the “half-way house” between Bloomington and Springfield. After such a trip the Judge reported to Sarah: “About dark on Friday I reached Mrs. Hoblit’s. Supper was over and I asked for bread & milk…Mrs. Hoblit seemed tired & I did not want to put her to any trouble. I started after an early breakfast Saturday morning…I got to Elkhart about two o’clock and fed my own horses & got a cold dinner from Mrs. Latham (at my own request however). You can say to Lyman [the Judge’s bachelor half-brother] that Miss Latham looked very enticing…I left Elkhart about 3 o’clock—got to Mr. Clark’s about · past 5 and after watering my horses and talking to Mr. Clark about the neatness and beauty of his farm…I wended my way slowly to Springfield. The roads were bad all the way from Hoblit’s.”

By 1850, Springfield, the largest town on the circuit, had 4,500 people. “This town is overrun with foreigners,” Davis announced, “Irish, Dutch, Portuguese & Norwegians.” It had two newspapers, eight churches, a scrap of railroad, and, as early as 1848, the telegraph. When the telegraph office was opened, Davis had written to Sarah: “These old Succers, who go into the telegraph office and witness the operation, can’t believe. They shake their heads & think there is some hocus pocus about it.”

Usually the Judge arrived in Springfield on Saturday night. On Sunday he went to the Episcopal Church where the Reverend Charles Dresser, who had performed the Lincolns’ marriage service, officiated. On Monday court convened. Lincoln, Stuart, Logan and the other lawyers came in to hear the Judge open the session. With his fear of speaking extemporaneously, Davis at first wrote out in advance his charge to the Grand Jury in Sangamon County. “Every one of you,” he admonished them, “is required to throw aside all malice, hatred & ill will—to show no favor or affection—but to administer the Law righteously & fearlessly & with a single eye to truth & justice.” All of his instructions, however, counseled leniency. He cautioned the jury “not to suffer bad & designing men” to obtain indictments “to gratify a malicious heart or to wreak a petty vengeance.” “There are a class of men,” he informed them, “hovering about every Grand Jury who, on any slight quarrel with a neighbor…go to a Grand Jury…Avoid all such men—distrust their complaints…& take them with many grains of allowance.”

When the Grand Jury had retired the Judge heard motions and tried cases. Small cases predominated: minor misdemeanors for gambling or selling liquor; and, on the civil side, appeals from justices of the peace. Many land title suits, cases involving the ownership of cattle, slander and libel suits and a few murders, divorces and bastardy proceedings came before the court.

At Springfield, Davis frequently saw the governor about pardons for persons convicted on his circuit. In 1850 at Paris, on the eastern part of his circuit, a man named Joseph Knight was convicted of murder. The jury demanded the death sentence. In Life on the Circuit with Lincoln , Henry Clay Whitney afterwards reported that Judge Davis “had not the courage to pronounce sentence.” “He admitted it,” Whitney declared, “and his condition was pitiful as the term wore on leaving the murderer unsentenced. So Charlie Constable [one of the lawyers] came to his rescue: and in a bold, plain hand wrote out a form of sentence and nerved the Judge up to the performance of reading it to the victim; which he did in a shaky voice.” Whitney, an unscrupulous reporter, so far as he dared gave a false picture of Judge Davis, whom he hated bitterly. However, this story is at least partially confirmed by one of the Judge’s letters to Sarah from Springfield: “This is the day that I appointed for the execution of poor Knight at Paris. However I am glad, very glad, to be able to report to you that…I interceded with the Governor and got…Knight’s sentence commuted to imprisonment for life. A great weight is removed from my spirits in consequence of the poor fellow not having to be hung.” Kirby Benedict, a lawyer in Paris, wrote the Judge: “I sincerely thank you for the aid you rendered Joseph Knight in saving his neck. Persons who came from a distance through the rain to see him hung felt chagrined in not seeing ‘the show’ but it passed off with as little feeling and excitement as could have been anticipated under the circumstances.”

Davis got many such commutations and pardons. Usually Lincoln aided in these efforts. In 1850 when the whole country had been stirred by the Webster-Parkman murder case in Boston, Davis wrote from Springfield to Sarah: “Poor Dr. Webster was hung yesterday. It is terrible for his family. Lincoln says that his little boy Robert has been counting the days that Dr. Webster had to live & Thursday he said that Thursday was the last night he had to live. Rather singular that the event should so mark itself…on a child of seven years.”

Many of the letters of the Judge and his wife in this period mention the Lincolns. Thus, in January, 1851, Mrs. Davis asked him: “Has Mrs. Lincoln been confined yet and if so what has she? I am anxious to know.” William Wallace, Lincoln’s third son, had recently been born. The Lincolns had wanted a girl instead of a boy. The next year the fourth Lincoln boy, Tad Lincoln, was born. At about the same time the Davises became the parents of a long-wanted girl. Sarah wrote the Judge: “Is Mr. Lincoln with you on the circuit? And has be become reconciled to his little son?”

After Sangamon on the circuit came Tazewell County. Ever since Davis had come to Illinois he had been attending court in Tremont, the county seat. Tremont had a population of only 461, and Davis stayed with friends while holding court there. In 1850 the county seat was moved to Pekin, a much larger town. A new Greek-columned courthouse rose in Pekin that summer and in September Davis first held court in it. Many years later a veteran lawyer at Peoria recalled an incident of that court: “Lincoln was there in a bobtail sack coat [and] jean pants that came within sixteen inches of his feet…And while the trial was going on there was a bat flying back and forth in the courtroom. Lincoln got up on a seat in front with a broom and hit at the bat. Another fellow took a big cattle whip…six or eight feet long and made a slap at it. Finally Lincoln hit the bat and knocked it down. Everybody shouted and ran to get it. Then they threw it out of the window. Not the slightest remark was made by the court about it, although the room was in perfect tumult.” All of the Judge’s friends agreed that he was a stickler for dignity but that he also knew when to relax the rules of judicial decorum.


When court had adjourned in Pªkin, Lincoln and Davis drove to Metamora, the county seat of Woodford County, about twenty miles away. It was a small town and the tavern “Traveller’s Home,” had bad beds and worse food. “The tavern at Woodford is miserable,” Davis complained, “but it may be that Mr. Cross [the Court Clerk] may take compassion on us & take us to his house.”

After two or three days, the court’s work was done and the itinerant bar moved to Bloomington, thirty miles away. That town was growing fast. In 1848 Davis reported: “The town authorities have just taken the census…The town is nearly 1,150…It is believed that, if houses were built, by the census of 1850 (two years hence) there would be 1,500 people.” Actually the count of that year showed a population of nearly 1,600.

“They are running crazy at Bloomington with property,” Davis declared in the fall of 1851. Two weeks later Davis, as agent for his relative, Levi Davis, sold Lincoln two Bloomington lots for $325.08. Two railroads had been authorized by the legislature to be constructed through the town. But the first frenzy of the land boom soon subsided. Lincoln held his lots five years and then sold them for $400.

When court was in session in Bloomington the Davises, from their earliest days there, had held a “court party” at their home for the lawyers. Sarah once wrote the Judge that she had secured some delicious oranges which, with some apples, she was saving for his court party. Years later an elderly woman who in her youth had participated in these parties told how Sarah, at Lincoln’s request, sang “The Charming Woman”:

So Miss Mirth is going to marry, What a number of hearts she will break There is Tom Brown, Lord George and Sir Harry, All agoing in love for her sake. ’Tis a match that we all approve Let the gossips say what they can. For she is a most charming woman And he a most fortunate man.

After a week at Bloomington the circuit moved on to Mt. Pulaski, the county seat of Logan County, population 360. It was forty miles from Bloomington, a long day’s ride. While making his spring circuit with Lincoln in 1851, Davis wrote: “The tavern at Pulaski is perhaps the hardest place you ever saw. A new landlord by the name of Cass, just married—everything dirty & the eating Horrible . Judge Robbins, Lincoln, Stuart & everybody else from Springfield [were there.] The old woman looked as we would suppose the witch of Endor looked. She had a grown daughter who waited on the table—table greasy—table cloth greasy—floor greasy and everything else ditto. The girl was dressed in red calico with a black silk cardinal over it, with a wreath of artificial flowers (two full blown roses & little things in proportion) around her head. Waiting among greasy things. Think of it. I wonder if she ever washed herself. I guess the dirt must be half an inch thick all over her. The Lawyers thought she was dying to get married, but of course on such a subject as that I would not venture an opinion.” This description gives the stage setting for Davis’ amazement over the fact that, while others on the circuit complained about the food and beds, Lincoln never seemed to mind them. At the table, Lincoln was pre-occupied; buried in his own thoughts. “He thought more than any man I have ever known,” said William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and biographer.

“Lincoln & myself left Pulaski last evening about 5 o’clk & came 15 miles & stayed at Mr. Walker’s,” Davis reported. They were on their way to Clinton, population 367, the county seat of DeWitt County. The next morning they rode the remaining ten miles into Clinton where Lincoln, Gridley, Scott [John M. Scott, a young lawyer of Bloomington] and the Judge all stayed at Mrs. Hills’. “I found out,” the Judge informed his wife, “that Mrs. Hills’ was a dirty place—plenty of bedbugs, &c, &c.” A few years before he had written: “This thing of traveling in Illinois and being eaten up by bed bugs and mosquitoes (fleas you know don’t trouble me much) is not what it is cracked up to be.”

In 1851 Davis hurriedly finished court in Clinton in two days and set out for Monticello, another very small town, the county seat of Piatt County. En route Davis, Lincoln, and Campbell couldn’t resist stopping overnight at Mr. Richter’s tavern at Marion [now DeWitt] where the Judge had “a neat, clean bed—a great luxury,” he assured Sarah. They were distressed however because “a poor bound girl” in the house was pregnant, “one of the boys tho t to be the father.”

The next spring the Judge and bar had a disagreeable ride in the rain to reach Monticello. Finally they came to the Sangamon River about a mile from town. “Could not cross,” the Judge reported. “For two hours stayed in rain waiting for Ferryman. Swam the horses & took the buggy over straddle a canoe and we went over ourselves very comfortably in the Canoe.” They did not arrive at Monticello until 3 o’clock and had “quite a Court” for two days.

From there they had only a twenty-mile ride to Urbana, population 210, the seat of Champaign County. In May, 1850, a newspaper, the Danville Illinois Citizen , published a five-column report of the May term of the Champaign Circuit Court. It spoke of Judge Davis’ strength of mind, legal acumen and power of discrimination. “As a man, Judge D. will never be the object of universal admiration, but will at all times command the highest esteem and respect.”

A most striking word-picture of Lincoln as a lawyer in this article notes at this early date qualities that the world later came to know. “Rough, uncouth and unattractive,” he was also “stern…and unfamiliar…slow and guarded,” yet “profound in the depths of his musings…He lives but to ponder, reflect and cogitate…In his examination of witnesses, he displays a masterly ingenuity…that baffles concealment and defies deceit. And in addressing a jury, there is no false glitter, no sickly sentimentalism to be discovered. In vain we look for a rhetorical display…Seizing upon the minutest points, he weaves them into his argument with an ingenuity really astonishing…Bold, forcible and energetic, he forces conviction upon the mind, and, by his clearness and conciseness, stamps it there, not to be erased…Such are some of the qualities that place Mr. L. at the head of the profession in this State.”

“This town is improving…astonishingly,” Davis wrote Sarah from Urbana in 1851. “More improvements since we were here last fall than for any six years previously.” He scribbled this letter from the bench during an evening session of his court: “I am in the midst of a trial for bastardy which excites a great deal of interest. I am determined to sit it out if it will take till midnight. Mr. Lincoln, in his opening speech to the jury bore down savagely on the Def t who is now married & who has been using extraordinary exertions to prove that the woman had permitted the embraces of other men.” Davis then wrote four pages of desultory gossip concluding: “It is now nearly 10 o’clock & Lincoln to make his Closing Speech. I have scratched this scrawl in the midst of a heated trial. Pray forgive it…I think of you all the time & love you more and more.”

The court records in Champaign County show that the jury found Albert G. Carle to be the father of Nancy Jane Dunn’s bastard child. For its education and support, he was ordered to pay $50 a year.

Davis hoped to go to Danville the next day but Nancy’s father demanded a trial of his suit against Carle for seducing Nancy. Davis wrote Sarah: “I open this letter to write another word. I thought that I should have left yesterday morning but…both parties insisted on a trial in the seduction suit & I had to continue it over until this morning in order to summon extra jurymen…”

Davis’ letter then continues: “The seduction trial has been in progress this morning and they blacken her character desperately. I felt sorry for her father. I suppose he thought her virtuous. The evidence discloses a beautiful state of morals among the young men & young girls of this Grove.” The court records show that Lincoln’s client recovered $180.41 for the seduction of his daughter.

After Champaign County the judge and bar went to Vermilion, the next county on the circuit—county seat, Danville, population 736. In the legislature in 1845 Davis had succeeded, “by hard work,” as he told Colton, in getting the counties of Vermilion and Edgar added to the circuit. The people in these Wabash River counties were largely Henry Clay Whigs from Kentucky who, he hoped, would neutralize the votes of the Jackson Democrats in Moultrie and Shelby counties.

In 1850, the famous case of Fithian vs. Casseday erupted. A quarrel in the Sewing Society of the Pres-byterian Church had caused the withdrawal of one group who joined the Methodist Church. The previous spring Davis had heard from Oliver Davis about the “Squaw War” that divided the town. “Everybody is at sword’s point. The Ladies of different families that were intimate last fall won’t speak now…The result is—They build two Seminaries that cost $4 or $5,000 each.” Dr. William Fithian, an early settler, had taken a prominent part in this battle of the ladies. Casseday, the leader of the opposite faction, published an article attacking Fithian. “Now suppose, Doctor, I was to ask you,” Casseday queried in his pamphlet, “if you ever abandoned the corpse of your wife at Paris and left her to be buried at the mercy of others.” Casseday knew, he admitted, that the doctor claimed he had left town on that occasion to attend his sick son. But Fithian would have been at the funeral, his detractor asserted, had it been an election. (Fithian was an ardent Whig.) “Go cast yourself down at her grave,” Casseday exhorted, “water the green sod with tears of regret and penitence, then perchance Heaven may forgive you for abandoning the lifeless body of her that now lies in yonder graveyard.” For this alleged libel, Fithian sued Casseday for $25,000.

On the trial Davis reported to Sarah: “We had an exciting trial at Danville the last two days and nights of the week—Fithian v. Casseday—growing out of the publications of last winter. Linder & Lincoln for Fithian and Murphy & Hannegan (formerly U.S. Senator from Indiana) for Casseday. The ladies of the town in great number were present all the time. I gave your respects to them…They all seemed delighted with the speeches that were made. Mr. Hannegan is a beautiful speaker. His elocution is as fine as any man’s that I ever heard. He is as companionable [and] pleasant [a] gentleman as I ever associated with…He…entertained us greatly with descriptions of foreign countries, ambassadorial dinners, &c, &c.” But despite Hannegan’s eloquence, Linder and Lincoln secured a verdict for Dr. Fithian of $547.90.

The next spring when Lincoln and Davis were again staying at Bailey’s public house in Danville, the Judge wrote Mrs. Davis: “We are all overwhelmed here at a Tragedy occurring in Covington last Friday. You may recollect that the Hon. Edward A. Hannegan of Covington…was with us last court…He was a man of High passion & carried a knife (unfortunately) & three or four times a year took hard sprees & on such times is nearly delirious…Last Friday in a drunken frolic he killed his own Brother-in-Law…a man universally esteemed in Covington. He lived some 12 hours after he was stabbed—forgave Hannegan…Poor Hannegan is said to be crazy & has tried to kill himself…with Laudanum…We doubt about…[this last] being so.”

On this trip Davis wrote to Sarah while the lawyers were speaking, “in a cause where three young men & a certain Female Lecturer, Fanny Lee Townsend, are charged with disturbing a camp meeting.” Davis with Lincoln and Campbell had driven from Urbana. On the way, it rained so hard that they “stayed all night at a very clever family’s” about 15 miles from Danville. (“Clever” then meant “accommodating.”) “It rained again Sunday,” Davis concluded, “and we had a hard time to get to Danville, but by heading [up] streams &c we got thru.” Bailey’s tavern was still “very dirty.”

From Danville the Judge and bar moved south 35 miles to Paris, population 697, the shire town of Edgar County. The ride from Danville to Paris always delighted him. “The country the whole distance is beautiful to the eye—much better improved than in McLean and Tazewell,” he wrote his wife. In the spring, as they drove into Paris, the perfume of the locust blossoms filled the air.

But although Paris was charming the tavern was wretched. “I have got quartered in about the meanest tavern you ever saw,” he told Sarah. “It would worry your father to be about. The floors don’t look to have been scoured for a quarter of a century.”

In May, 1848, Davis had written Sarah from Paris: “The Sons of Temperance…had a procession formed at the Court House and preceded by a brass band…They number 74. Their uniform is a white sash thrown over the shoulders & united in front by a blue bow.” To hear the speeches on temperance, Davis went to the Methodist Church. “There was a fine audience of Ladies and they appeared well dressed & seemed to have more of the air of gentility about them than those I saw in the Methodist Church at Danville. U. F. Linder, Esq. of Charleston…made a pretty speech.”

Another lawyer frequently mentioned by Davis on the eastern part of his circuit was Charles H. Constable, a tall, personable young man of considerable ability. Like Davis, he was a Whig from the eastern shore of Maryland. On Taylor’s election as President, Constable sought a diplomatic appointment to one of the South American countries. He asked Davis to write to Washington in support of this application. “This is a very important move to me and failure is defeat indeed,” he declared. “From Lincoln I find no time is to be lost.” Davis wrote as requested but Constable did not secure the appointment. Thereafter Constable asked Davis and Lincoln to sponsor him for a federal judgeship in the Washington or Oregon territories. Again they wrote several letters to Whig Congressmen and Senators urging Constable’s appointment, but again they were unsuccessful.

In the fall of 1851, Davis, while writing to Sarah from Paris, was suddenly interrupted by a violent row between Lincoln and Constable. “Since I wrote the above,” Davis confided, “there has been a quarrel between Lincoln and Constable on politics, a serious one. I feel very sorry and nervous about it.”

Holland, Lincoln’s first biographer after his death, told the story of this quarrel to illustrate Lincoln’s strong party feeling. Constable called at Davis’ and Lincoln’s room at the tavern in Paris. “Mr. Lincoln stood with his coat off, shaving himself before his glass.” Constable declared that the Whig Party was “old fogyish” and indifferent to its young men and contrasted the opposite attitude of the Democratic Party. “Lincoln suddenly turned on him fiercely and said: ‘Mr. Constable, I understand you perfectly, and have noticed for some time back that you have been slowly and cautiously picking your way over to the Democratic Party’…Both men were angry and it required the efforts of all the others present to keep them from fighting.” Davis succeeded in reconciling them, but shortly thereafter Constable became a Democrat and was elected Circuit Judge in the next circuit south, where he served until his death.

The next spring, Davis, Lincoln and Campbell again came to Paris together, but Lincoln had his own buggy. It rained all the way from Danville. “We can’t ride anywhere without its raining,” Davis complained. “Pete,” one of his horses, had been hurt at the stable in Danville and the Judge was annoyed at the hostler. To cap it all, the stage driver blundered: “The Danville stage came in & passed through town just as I was leaving Court—when lo and behold the key was lost & the mail passed on to Marshall, with, I have no doubt, a letter from your own sweet self. The Postmaster says, on the stage’s return tomorrow, that he is in hopes to open the mail…Lincoln got a letter from his wife. She says…[her baby] has the nursing sore mouth—child 18 mos. old. I guess she ought to have quit nursing some time ago.”

From Paris the circuit went to Shelbyville, Shelby County, seventy miles away, population 385; it took at least two days to reach it. On the way Davis had to pass through Charleston, the seat of Coles County, which was not on his circuit. In good weather he enjoyed the first half of the trip. “The country between Paris & Charleston,” he asserted, “is handsomer than any I have ever seen in the State & if Yankees instead of Kentuckians and Tennesseans had the control of it, it would blossom as the rose.”


In November, 1851, Davis, Lincoln and Campbell avoided an overnight stop in Charleston by taking three days to go to Shelbyville and staying at farm houses. But the next spring they found a pleasant, comfortable inn at Charleston with a good supper and a clean bed. “The old tavern keeper asked a blessing at the table.” The following day’s ride to Shelbyville, however, exhausted them. “My horses were very tired,” Davis reported. “Mr. Lincoln’s old horse nearly gave out.” Davis began to grumble that Paris and Shelbyville should be taken off his circuit.

“Shelbyville,” Davis wrote in 1848, “is as ragged and dilapidated a place as you ever saw—no improvements for ten years.” But the tavern then was tolerable and the food first rate. Even when it rained for several days Davis stayed comfortably in his room reading novels and playing whist with Judge Treat. When court adjourned the Judge led the lawyers on a fishing trip on the Kaskaskia River. And some very clever, gentlemanly people then lived in Shelbyville; Davis reported a party for the court and bar at Colonel Prentiss’ home. “The entertainment was elegant—Parlors handsomely furnished—Supper at ten—Roast Pig, Ham, Turkeys, Custard, Coffee, Tea & a variety of Cakes and Pies—Wines & liquors on the side board—Card tables, &c &c.” Davis also described a dance. The young ladies and gentlemen seemed well dressed. “The music, everybody said, was good but the fiddler was drunk. The town was full of people & 2 drunken men in their shirt sleeves pushed their way through and came into the dance. I assure you everything looked democratish enough to have suited the most fastidious.”

From Shelbyville they went to Sullivan, the seat of Moultrie County. It was a small town, “not any better than Clinton,” Davis reported. “The people are the regular hunting shirt Tennesseans.” The twenty-mile ride to reach it was sometimes unpleasant. Davis described an all-day trip there in the rain; with a buffalo robe, umbrella and overcoat, he claimed that he kept from getting wet. In time they learned to stop at farms on the way. “Lincoln, Anthony Thornton, Campbell & Moulton and myself went (last Sunday morning) to Mr. John Wards about five miles from Shelbyville,” Davis wrote. “Whiled away several hours, got a fine dinner, & about 3 o’clock started for Sullivan where we got about 6 o’clock.”

As usual the tavern at Sullivan was bad and they tried to stay somewhere else: “We found Mrs. Elder with a very sick headache and abed. We went to a tavern but I only got supper. Really got vexed on account of [bad] stable for my horses. Went to Mrs. Elder’s & slept & next morning got breakfast at tavern & afterwards took all our meals & slept at Mrs. Elder’s. The tavern was so tough that I should have been in a bad humor to have staid there.”

With joy, Davis drove from Sullivan to Decatur, the seat of Macon County, his “old stamping ground.” “I left [Sullivan] yesterday morning with Campbell—Lincoln in his buggy—& we got to Decatur about 3 o’clk,” he wrote, a distance of about 25 miles. “You can’t imagine how well I feel, to get round my old haunts. The Tavern is first rate and the people old friends.” At first Mr. Crone ran the brick inn but later Davis wrote, “Mr. Elliott keeps the tavern which is as good as that kept by Mr. Crone. Everything is clean and neat. I got a straw bed for the first time.” By June, when he arrived on his spring circuit, the weather was beginning to be warm. “Slept without my flannel shirt; also took my drawers off,” he reported, asking Sarah if she couldn’t make him a light flannel nightgown. Once he took a bath in his room, his first in two weeks.

Last on the circuit came Taylorville, the seat of government in Christian County. Davis first went there as a lawyer in 1848. “I left Decatur last Sunday morning with Mr. Benedict…in the rain,” he wrote, “and went over a blind road and poor country to Taylorville, which is a new place but prettily laid out and tastefully arranged with trees & shrubs…The tavern is kept by Col. Bond who married a sister of Mrs. Ewing in Bloomington.”

In June, 1850, Sarah was ill and sent for the Judge at Decatur. He came home at once, abandoning the June term at Taylorville. To make up for this omission he called a special term there in August, just prior to the beginning of his fall circuit at Springfield. Captain H. M. Vandeveer, the leading lawyer in Taylorville, wrote him: “I shall provide a private room for you. You may invite any Gentlemen you choose to room with you.” After the special session the Judge reported to his wife: “I had pleasant accommodations at Taylorville in company with Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Thornton of Shelbyville…Sunday we left & got to Springfield towards night. Mr. Lincoln had lost his conveyance & although a heavy drag for my horse I had to take him.”

With the end of his trip the Judge had traversed an area, he informed Sarah’s father, almost as large as the whole state of Connecticut. Travel had been rigorous, living usually miserable, but, despite his complaints, he thoroughly enjoyed it. Most of the joy came from his relations with his companions and particularly Lincoln, the only lawyer, except the State’s Attorney, who traveled the entire circuit with him. Their close friendship soon became well-known throughout the circuit. As early as 1850 a prominent Whig in Taylorville wrote the Judge about the necessity of removing their postmaster who pretended to be a Whig and had a brother in Springfield who was a well-known member of that party. But actually the postmaster paid over all of the profits of the office to the old postmaster who was a rabid Loco and still ran the post office. The Taylorville Whigs had appealed to Congressman Baker without avail. To approach Lincoln through ordinary channels would be fruitless because he knew the postmaster’s brother. “We have consulted about the matter,” the letter ended, “and have concluded to…ask you to use your influence with Lincoln in procuring the removal.” For the rest of Lincoln’s life, Davis heard many such pleas.


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