While most people know Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer prior to becoming president, few may know he also had experience as a judge. As an attorney Lincoln worked in the Eighth Judicial Circuit in Illinois, and twice a year, usually in the fall and spring, he'd spend nearly three months traveling by horseback and stopping at each county seat for a brief court term (most often two days to a week in duration). Much of the time Lincoln argued cases in front of Judge David Davis who traveled the circuit with him. When Davis was ill or had other personal business to take care of, he usually asked Lincoln to act as judge for a few days. This procedure was irregular and was altogether without statutory sanction; thus Lincoln would only preside at a trial if all parties consented. At least two of "Judge" Lincoln's cases were reversed by the Illinois Supreme Court because of this irregular assignment of the judicial duties, but usually Lincoln's integrity and character were so outstanding as to inspire confidence in his findings and weight to his judgments.
A few examples of cases Lincoln dealt with as a judge were not of enormous consequence. One time he heard a case involving a merchant and a father of a minor son. The merchant had sold the boy a $28 suit on credit without the father's knowledge or approval. The businessman held the father responsible for the son's debt. To hold the parent liable for the son's debt, the merchant had to prove that the clothes were a necessity and suitable to the boy's lifestyle. The father was prosperous, and the merchant contended he ought to pay the boy's bill. However, "Judge" Lincoln ruled against the merchant. Mr. Lincoln said, "I have rarely in my life worn a suit of clothes costing twenty-eight dollars."
In another case presided over by "Judge" Lincoln, a farmer named Hartsfeller sued his neighbor named Trowbridge for damages resulting when Trowbridge's cattle ate up the corn stored in Hartsfeller's crib (crib = a small building or rack for storing corn). Trowbridge had leased a portion of his land to Hartsfeller who had raised some corn on the land. Contrary to Trowbridge's instructions, Hartsfeller had stored the corn on the same land. Trowbridge had enclosed his farm with a fence and had turned his cattle out to graze. The cattle entered the area where Hartsfeller was storing the corn and devoured the crop.
"And you say you went over and fenced the corn after you asked him not to crib it on your land?"
"Judge" Lincoln inquired of Trowbridge.
Trowbridge replied, "Yes, sir."
"Trowbridge, you have won your case," was the terse reply from Mr. Lincoln.
The fact that Abraham Lincoln served briefly as a judge (actually a "judge pro tem") should not be too surprising. Even as a young man in New Salem, he was constantly being called upon to reconcile or referee cockfights, horse races, and fist fights. He was a "natural" as a peacemaker and arbitrator. This characteristic helped lead to his rise to being one of the most well-known and respected lawyers in the entire state of Illinois.
For more on "Judge" Lincoln, see Albert A. Woldman's book titled Lawyer Lincoln and John J. Duff's A. Lincoln: Prairie Lawyer.