Divorce cases kept Lincoln busy

This is a copy of the ad that Abraham Lincoln and Ward Hill Lamon ran in the Vermilion County Press in 1852.

Following the coronavirus shutdown in China, it was reported the divorce rate in that nation skyrocketed. Time will tell if there is a change in the divorce rate in the United States following the pandemic. The shutdown in this country may have saved lives, but it has reportedly brought on increased domestic violence in the United States.

Illinois was among the first states to allow divorce as a solution to marriage problems. It was included in the 1818 Constitution. When Abraham Lincoln was traveling the judicial circuit, which included Vermilion County, he handled numerous divorce cases. Researchers have put the number he was involved in at 145. Those cases were found in the records available for research; there were undoubtedly other cases lost to time.

Divorce cases were not one of the more profitable aspects of Lincoln’s law practice. Fees were low and often impossible to collect because husbands, in many cases, had simply left a destitute wife behind. This situation was addressed by the Illinois General Assembly in 1827 with a provision to exempt poor women from paying the costs associated with a divorce.

Lincoln was sympathetic to women in divorce proceedings, even when he represented the husband. This is exemplified in the divorce of Samuel Rogers vs. Polly Rogers. Lincoln represented Samuel in the divorce and Samuel wanted to include adultery as a reason for the dissolution of the marriage. Lincoln convinced him a divorce could easily be obtained by declaring his wife had deserted him. He did this to spare Polly the embarrassment of the adultery charge.

The court granted the divorce and awarded Polly $1,000. That was an exorbitant amount for that time period and Lincoln realized he had made a mistake in not filing a complete complaint. He was evidently no longer concerned with embarrassing Polly for he filed an amended bill for divorce to the court including the adultery charge. He noted “tenderness” for the defendant had led him to file an incomplete complaint. The appeal was successful and the initial award was reduced to $126.

Even though divorce was available for couples who found they could not remain married, the playing field was far from level for women in the first half of the 19th century. Until the mid- 1800s, children were considered property of the father in divorce proceedings. This was based partially on the fact that fathers were usually the ones providing a living for the family. At mid-century, women began to receive some consideration in child custody awards.

When gold was discovered in California in 1849, it inspired numerous men to leave their wives behind and head West. Many of them never returned. This was reflected in a letter Lincoln’s Danville law partner, Ward Hill Lamon, wrote him on Nov. 21, 1854.

“A very pretty woman spoke to me yesterday to obtain a divorce from her ‘Infidel California Husband’ — judging from her conversation she would like to have a Special (court) Session for that purpose as she has a flattering chance to marry again.”

Lamon was writing from the Lincoln & Lamon law office on Main Street in Danville. There is no record of a divorce to match Lamon’s remarks in the letter, but the partners did represent Rebecca McCardle when she filed to divorce her husband John in 1856. She accused John of desertion and non-support among other things. Lincoln’s four-page document was filed in Judge David Davis’ court in Danville in 1856.

Rebecca Martin had married John McCardle in 1840; he was a widower with children from his previous marriage and 18 years older than Rebecca. By the time of the divorce filing, Rebecca and John had several children of their own. Rebecca had asked for a portion of John’s real estate and personal wealth in the divorce, but the court declined her request.

Evidently she did regain her maiden name. In the 1860 census, she was still living in the home of John McCardle, but her name was recorded as Rebecca Martin.

Lincoln did leave a bit of advice behind about marriage disagreements. “I learned a great many years ago, that in a fight between a man and wife, a third party should never get between the woman’s skillet and the man’s ax-helve.”

It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, the long-term coronavirus shutdown has on the state of matrimony in the United States.

Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.

Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.

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