Monday, March 24, 2008

Standing Where Lincoln Stood?

Mike Schneider, Monroe County, IL

Dozens of communities throughout the Midwest claim to have a connection to Abraham Lincoln. Signs marking the spot where he slept or spoke are not uncommon. Proving or disproving such claims is often quite difficult. Historians might assemble their evidence, but local tradition is often a hard thing to contradict. Today, I found a nice example of this phenomenon.

Officials in Monroe County, Illinois are planning to renovate the courthouse. They want to turn the old courtroom into a modern conference room. The project, which might cost as much as $125,000, calls for multi-media capabilities, wireless networking, and nice "upholstered, fold-up seats" to repelace the old nineteenth-century "church pew" seating.

Sounds good so far, right?

Well, local tradition says Lincoln, then just a young circuit-riding lawyer, argued a case in the old courtroom.

The community is proud of their Lincoln connection. When schoolchildren visit the courthouse, tour guides tell them they are standing where Lincoln once stood.

A Lincoln connection is unusual for a small county in the St. Louis Metro Area. Why would they erase their connection to Lincoln? Why convert a courtroom steeped in tradition into a mundane conference room?

It turns out their Lincoln connection is dubious.

The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Second Edition has documented the sixteenth president’s twenty-five year legal career. Researchers have identified 5,200 cases in which Lincoln was involved; unfortunately, there are no entries for Monroe County.

The database contains every known Lincoln legal case, but others may still be out there. Over the last eight years, researchers have added dozens of cases to the database. They will continue to do so whenever new cases emerge.

If documentary evidence of Lincoln in Monroe County exists, the folks at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield would love to hear about it, as would, I suspect, the opponents of the courtroom-turned-conference room in Monroe County.

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