Abraham Lincoln in Illinois
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives

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December 13, 1838

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This is a bill that demonstrates "inside politics" in the state legislature. This document is a bill written by Lincoln but introduced by another legislator, Representative James T. Cunningham, a farmer from Coles County.

Justices of the peace were not full judges and often did not have a legal background. They ruled on minor cases, settled small disputes or referred cases to a higher court. Justices provided quick justice at a time when travel made it difficult for a circuit court, with judges, lawyers, defendants, plaintiffs, and witnesses, to meet in a small county. This bill limits the authority of justices and also of constables, who were law enforcement officials who worked for the justices of the peace.

It is not known if Lincoln wrote the bill and gave it to Cunningham to introduce in the House or if Cunningham had the idea for the bill and asked Lincoln to draft it to make it better.

According to Paul Simon in his book Lincoln's Preparation For Greatness, the issue of limiting the authority of justices of the peace was one that interested Lincoln throughout his political career. One of the bills Lincoln introduced in his first session limited the authority of justices of the peace. In that session, he helped defeat a bill that would have expanded the powers of the justices. Simon speculates that Lincoln's financial difficulties in New Salem, which resulted in the sale of some of his personal property, may have soured him on some of the powers of justices of the peace.

Lincoln may have wanted this legislation but thought it would go better with a different sponsor. Cunningham, who had served several years as a justice of the peace, would have brought credibility to the issue that Lincoln did not have. If the bill was Cunningham's idea, he may have gone to Lincoln for ideas on how to improve it and on how to better draft it.

Whatever the strategy, the legislature failed to pass the bill. A similar bill introduced in the next session also failed.

Points to Consider

What were the possible reasons Lincoln wrote this bill but did not introduce it himself?

Why would Representative Cunningham bring "credibility" to this bill?

Why would justices of the peace handle minor cases, rather than full judges?

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