Lincoln, Douglas and Their First Debate
I live in rural Central Illinois in Livingston County. Like most counties in Central Illinois, we have our Lincoln sites, places Lincoln visited while he was riding the circuit as a lawyer. In those more civilized days, courts in most areas only operated part time. On a court day, the judges and attorneys would arrive at a county seat, and the trials on the court’s docket would be called and tried. So it was on May 18, 1840 when Lincoln and his fellow attorneys rode into Pontiac, the then tiny county seat of Livingston County, for the first ever session of the Circuit Court in Livingston County.
Lincoln by this time was beginning to be well known in Central Illinois. He was a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, and was one of the leaders of the Whig Party in Central Illinois. He was only 31 and was clearly a young man on his way up in the world.
Lincoln was not the only celebrity attorney present that day in Pontiac. Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s great antagonist, was also present. Only 27, Douglas was already famous throughout the State. Douglas was a fervent Democrat and one of the great orators of his day. Already he had been Attorney General of the State, and a member of the Illinois House of Representatives. Later that year he would be appointed Secretary of State, and in 1841 he would be appointed a Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, the youngest man ever to serve on that tribunal. Douglas was also clearly a young man rising swiftly in the world.
However, on May 18, 1840 Lincoln and Douglas were not concentrating on grand issues or the future. Their attention was riveted on the case of William Popejoy vs. Isaac Wilson, the first case filed in the Circuit Court in Livingston County. Wilson had accused Popejoy of stealing meat from a Sarah McDowell, and Popejoy was suing him for slander. Slander lawsuits were not uncommon in Central Illinois of that period, and Lincoln, as was the case with most attorneys, represented quite a few clients in regard to such cases.
There was no love lost between Popejoy and Wilson. Wilson had previously sued Popejoy for the death of a horse of his that Wilson had allowed him to borrow. The horse had died and Wilson, represented by Stephen A. Douglas, had sued for $300.00 in damages. Lincoln had represented Popejoy. The jury had returned a verdict for Wilson, but assessed damages at $70.25.
In the current lawsuit for slander, Lincoln again represented Popejoy and Douglas again represented Wilson. Lincoln won the case, with the Jury deliberating on a pile of sawlogs on the bank of the Vermilion River which winds through Pontiac.
After the trial Lincoln and Douglas debated the political issues of the day before an appreciative audience. This type of activity was not unusual on a court date. People from all over a county would be in a county seat on court day and a carnival atmosphere would often ensue. Listening to speeches was a popular amusement and attorneys and politicians, then as now, love to give speeches.
We do not have a record of what was said. My guess is that it was probably a pretty low key debate. Lincoln and Douglas were not opponents seeking an office, and they knew each other and respected each other. Good humor probably persisted throughout under the holiday like atmosphere of a court date in Pontiac, with members of the audience joining in with comments from the sidelines. The upcoming Presidential election was probably one of the subjects touched upon, an election that William Henry Harrison, the Whig candidate was destined to win, denying President Van Buren a second term. Thus did Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, one hundred and seventy years ago in Pontiac, Illinois, unknowingly rehearse for future debates between them when the entire State of Illinois, and the nation, would be paying rapt attention.
There is a mural commemorating this case. It is painted on a side of the building owned by the Caring Pregnancy Center, a pro-life crisis pregnancy center in Pontiac, Illinois. I am the President of the Board of Directors of the Caring Pregnancy Center, and yesterday I was there for the monthly board meeting. The mural was painted last year by Walldogs, one of a series of murals, sponsored by a civic organization in Pontiac, celebrating events in the history of the town. The mural is quite large and depicts Abraham Lincoln giving his legal bill to Mr. Popejoy. Mr. Popejoy does not gasp at the size of the bill, which, based upon my 28 years as an attorney, I think probably detracts from the historical accuracy of the painting.