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Remembering the judicial circuit Lincoln rode on the way to the presidency

Tim Shelley
The Abraham Lincoln Eighth Judicial Circuit marker outside the Tazewell County Courthouse along Court Street in Pekin. Two additional markers are placed at the Tazewell/Woodford County line east of Washington, and the Tazewell/Logan County line south of Delavan.

Tazewell County is rededicating a trio of markers celebrating the old Eighth Judicial Circuit where Abraham Lincoln got his start as a frontier lawyer.

Those markers stand at the Tazewell County Courthouse in Pekin, along the Tazewell/Woodford County line east of Washington, and on the Tazewell/Logan County line south of Delavan.

Historian Guy Fraker was the keynote speaker at a ceremony Monday in Pekin. He said it wasn't common for attorneys to ride the entire 500-mile circuit for its biannual processions around nine Central Illinois counties. But Lincoln was different.

"Only Lincoln and the judge, primarily, did the entire circuit," said Fraker. "And Lincoln stayed out on the weekends. And that's how he built his network."

Fraker said relationships Lincoln built up during the twelve years he spent as an attorney traveling the Eighth Judicial Circuit would later serve as the foundation of his presidency.

Fraker is author of the book Lincoln's Ladder to the Presidency: The Eighth Judicial Circuit.

Lincoln spent a lot of time in Tazewell County during his time riding the circuit, including the famous case of Nance Legins-Costley, the first enslaved person freed through the future 16th president's efforts. He was only involved in more legal cases in Sangamon and Menard counties during his legal career.

Fraker said the Eighth Circuit markers remain an important reminder today.

"This sounds sort of corny, but you're in the middle of nowhere, you're on a road you never thought you'd be on. And then you think, 'oh my gosh, Abraham Lincoln did this, twice a year coming along down this gravel road,' and you can't help but feel the presence of Lincoln," he said.

Fraker said Lincoln's presidency came at a moment when not only the question of emancipation of enslaved peoples and the union were in doubt, but the future of democracy itself as an institution as governments in Italy, Germany, and France fell.

"We sometimes overlook that fact, when you think about it, the issue, which is essential to a democracy, the issue is that the minority have to accept the will of the majority. And that was the underlying issue in the Civil War," he said. "The South was not willing to accept the judgment of the of the nation, that slavery should be contained. That was the issue."

Tazewell County Clerk John Ackerman, Delavan Mayor Liz Skinner, Washington Mayor Gary Manier, Tazewell County resident judge Paul Gilfillan, 10th Circuit Chief Judge Katherine Gorman, Tazewell County State's Attorney Stewart Umholtz, and Tazewell County Circuit Clerk Lincoln Hobson were also among the speakers at Monday's rededication event.

Wreaths were placed at each of the three Tazewell County markers following the conclusion of Monday's President's Day ceremony in Pekin.

"We really, really need to appreciate history. We all know, now, we got to have math, we got to have science. So let's forget that other stuff, said Fraker. "Well, no, you can't forget it. And that heritage that we're part of is so important."

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.