COULD THE KANE COUNTY BAR REALLY BE 150 YEARS OLD?

This article was published in Bar Briefs, the monthly journal of the Kane County Bar Association in October, 2008

I'm not trying to be an iconoclast (for once) on the subject of the ancient legal roots of the local bar. In fact, as you'll understand if you read on, I discovered proof of the existence of an active local political group dating from the years immediately before the American Civil War. But when I first heard about the sesquicentennial, I wondered if an area that sported cornfields on Randall Road until recently would have really contained an active lawyers' group.

Everyone has heard of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, but how many of us have read their actual texts? (Some people who study ancient Latin and Greek occasionally divert their attention to modern history.1) My modern studies disclosed a reference to Kane County during these debates. In the very first debate held in Ottawa,2 Douglas accused Lincoln of acting with his "friends" to draw adherents of the Whig and Democratic parties into a newly-formed "Abolition party under the name and disguise of a Republican party." He claimed that the first mass state convention held in Illinois by the "Black Republican party" occurred in Springfield in October 1854, which passed a number of resolutions reflecting Lincoln's criticism of Douglas' pet project, namely the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Douglas read a number of resolutions from the supposed platform of the state Republican party, including its pledge to accomplish the following purposes:

"… to bring the administration of the government back to the control of first principles; to restore Nebraska and Kansas to the position of free territories; that, as the constitution of the United States, vests in the States, and not in Congress, the power to legislate for the extradition of fugitives from labor, to repeal and entirely abrogate the fugitive slave law; to restrict slavery to those States in which it exists; to prohibit the admission of any more slave States into the Union; to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia; to exclude slavery from all the territories over which the general government has exclusive jurisdiction; and to resist the acquirements of any more territories unless the practice of slavery therein forever shall have been prohibited."3

The senator from Illinois then demanded to know whether his opponent affirmed or denied his support for each of these positions by posing a series of pointed questions to Lincoln, such as, "I desire to know whether Mr. Lincoln to-day stands as he did in 1854, in favor of the unconditional repeal of the fugitive slave law…. I ask Abraham Lincoln to answer these questions, in order that when I trot him down to lower Egypt4 I may put the same questions to him." Douglas then drew a distinction between Lincoln's anticipated waffling on these questions and the Senator's own uncompromising principles:

"My principles are the same everywhere. I can proclaim them alike in the North, the South, the East, and the West. My principles will apply wherever the Constitution prevails and the American flag waves. I desire to know whether Mr. Lincoln's principles will bear transplanting from Ottawa to Jonesboro? I put these questions to him to-day distinctly, and ask an answer. I have a right to an answer for I quote from the platform of the Republican party, made by himself and others at the time that party was formed, and the bargain made by Lincoln to dissolve and kill the old Whig party, and transfer its members, bound hand and foot, to the Abolition party, under the direction of Giddings and Fred Douglass."5

When Lincoln delivered his reply, he denied having a hand in promulgating the platform quoted by Douglas. In fact, he denied attending the Springfield convention, adding that he was in court elsewhere at the time. Lincoln sought to clarify his position regarding Douglas' Kansas-Nebraska Act by quoting from one of his earlier speeches, including his position on slavery and the principles underlying the foundation of the country:

" 'This declared indifference, but as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I can not but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world -- enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites -- causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty -- criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.' "6

Lincoln was quick to add that he did not consider blacks to be his equals in all matters:

"… anything that argues me into [Douglas'] idea of perfect social and political equality with the negro, is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse…. I agree with Judge Douglas [the negro] is not my equal in many respects -- certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment. But in the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man."7

By prior arrangement of the participants, Lincoln had the opportunity to speak first at the second debate in Freeport. First, he answered each of Douglas' questions posed in Ottawa. For example, he stated that he had never favored the unconditional repeal of the fugitive slave law and did not currently support that position. After using this opportunity to contradict Douglas' implication that Lincoln "was afraid to say at one place what [he] uttered at another," the Springfield lawyer posed his own questions to Douglas,8 whose answers later led to the decline of the Little Giant's popularity. But I digress.

Because Lincoln had had an opportunity to research the provenance of Douglas' earlier questions, he was ready to pounce. The future president explained that the resolution Douglas tried to pin on him was not really passed by the Republican Party at its state convention in Springfield:

"I repeat here to-day, that I never in any possible form had anything to do with that set of resolutions. It turns out, I believe, that those resolutions were never passed in any Convention held in Springfield. It turns out that they were never passed at any Convention or any public meeting that I had any part in. I believe it turns out in addition to all this, that there was not, in the fall of 1854, any convention holding a session in Springfield, calling itself a Republican State Convention; yet it is true there was a Convention, or assemblage of men calling themselves a Convention, at Springfield, that did pass some resolutions. But so little did I really know of the proceedings of that Convention, or what set of resolutions they had passed, though having a general knowledge that there had been such an assemblage of men there, that when Judge Douglas read the resolutions, I really did not know but they had been the resolutions passed then and there…. Now it turns out that he had got hold of some resolutions passed at some Convention or public meeting in Kane County…. I had just as much to do with the Convention in Kane County as that in Springfield. I am just as much responsible for the resolutions at Kane County as those at Springfield, the amount of the responsibility being exactly nothing in either case; no more than there would be in regard to a set of resolutions passed in the moon."9

While this discovery may not answer the question posed in the title of this article, it does support the conclusion that at least one political group was active in this county 150 years ago. Because lawyers like Lincoln and Douglas were active in politics during the sectional crisis, it is not a great leap of logic to believe that those same individuals or their colleagues had formed a bar association as well. We can only hope that the upcoming presidential debates will be as spirited as those held all across Illinois on the eve of the Civil War.

Footnotes

1. I.e., events occurring subsequent to the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476.

2. In Ottawa you can still walk the same ground tread by the Little Giant and Father Abraham at the debate, kitty-corner from the building housing the Appellate Court for the 3rd Judicial District, including a magnificent two-story library.

3. Lincoln: Speeches and Writings, 1832-1858, The Library of America (N.Y. 1989), pp. 497-498

4. Southern Illinois

5. Ibid., pp. 499-500. Senator Douglas made no bones about his views that blacks belonged to "an inferior race," including mentioning abolitionist Frederick Douglass in this context.

6. Ibid., pp. 508-510 (italics in original)

7. Ibid., pp. 511-512 (italics in original)

8. Ibid., pp. 538-541

9. Ibid., pp. 542-543

Larry Wechter is the primary of the Law Offices of Larry Wechter, 1770 S. Randall Road, Suite A, #212, Geneva, Illinois 60134, phone: 630/232-4354, e-mail: larry.wechter@sbcglobal.net. Larry served as a felony prosecutor in Kane County for 5 years and has been in private practice since 1987.