— Looking for Lincoln —
Nineteenth-century Illinois political campaigns and rallies were raucous affairs, part entertainment and part serious politics. The candidates were often accompanied or preceded by marchers, fireworks, flag bearers, musicians, and- - -in the case of Stephen A. Douglas- - -volleys of cannon fire. This photo shows a procession of oxen in a political rally in 1860 and in the only known photo of Charleston square of this time period. The drum (below) is a surviving physical artifact from the Lincoln parade that preceded the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debate of September 18, 1858, perhaps the most historically significant day in the history of the city of Charleston.
After the Debate between Lincoln and Douglas on September 18, 1858, both the Democrats and Republicans held separate political rallies in Charleston. The Democrats, their number of participants being smaller, were assigned to hold their rally inside of the Courthouse, while the Republicans, a group four times as large, held their rally on the southwest corner of the courthouse lawn. One of the speakers at the Republican rally was Richard J. Oglesby, who went on to become governor of Illinois in 1865. Usher Linder, who was once a member of the Whig Party, and a long-time acquaintance of Lincoln's had joined the Democratic Party supporting Stephen A. Douglas, and he spoke at their rally. In 1908, during the fifty-year anniversary of the debate, Charleston "Daily news" owner, J. K. Rardin reported that during the after-hours political rally inside the courthouse "by some trick of some kind, the lights went out in the midst of a hurrah and the rabble [Democrats] went out in the courtyard to join the Republicans. After the speeches, it was a festive affair with several bands playing music and beating drums."
"Gone for Soldiers, Everyone." On April 15, 1861, five days after Lincoln had called for 75,000 volunteers to fight for the Union, there was a "War Meeting," recruiting local soldiers to enlist on the Union side. A news article carried in the Charleston "Courier" described the day as a "glorious time." "The enthusiasm of the people was unbounded. No difficulty was experienced forming a company. During the day, a large pole was erected and the flag of our country unfurled to the breeze. Such cheering and enthusiasm at this point of the proceedings surpasses far the most graphic description. Such outbursts of patriotic zeal is wholly indescribable [sic]." On this day, 175 "noble youths" had declared themselves ready and eager to go to war for the Union. By July 1861, Charleston had provided more soldiers than its quota actually demanded.
This view of the Coles County Courthouse, which was photographed about 1858, shows the original 1835 structure on the left side of the photo, with a new addition in the center. Lawyer Abraham Lincoln practiced law in this particular Coles County Courthouse between the years 1841 and 1855. In the lower right-hand corner of the image, the Judge's Office can be seen.
While Charleston was on the Fourth Judicial Circuit, it lay on the road midway between Shelbyville, in Shelby County, and Paris, in Edgar County. Both towns were part of the Eighth Judicial Circuit in which Lincoln practiced. Lincoln used this layover to take on additional legal work, which allowed him both the opportunity to visit relatives, such as his mother's cousin Dennis Hanks, of Charleston, and his father and stepmother, Thomas and Sarah Bush Lincoln, who lived south of town. Stopping in the town of Charleston also allowed Lincoln to expand and strengthen his local political connections. Between the years 1841 and 1855, Abraham Lincoln the lawyer was often seen in Charleston when court was in session. In the evenings, Lincoln, his local acquaintances, and political contemporaries such as Orlando B. Ficklin and Usher Linder, could often be found in the town's inns and taverns, swapping jokes and stories. As a young boy, George E. Mason, a Charleston, recalled one of these visits, "[Lincoln] was always the life of the occasion" and would "entertain the crowd with his quaint and funny stories."
One of the controversial cases Lincoln pleaded while visiting Charleston was the Matson Slave Trial. Robert Matson, a slave owner, hired Usher Linder and Lincoln, who brought suit against abolitionist Gideon Ashmore and Hiram Rutherford for harboring Matson's runaway slaves, Jane Bryant and her four children. Rutherford later wrote that he had actually wanted Lincoln to represent him because he felt that Lincoln shared some of his abolitionist principles.
Judges Samuel Treat and William Wilson did, in fact, rule in favor of Ashmore and Rutherford, declaring the Bryants to be permanently settled in Illinois- -and not just in transit as Matson claimed. Abraham Lincoln's reputation as the "Great Emancipator" seems contradictory to his representing the rights of a slave owner, but Lincoln believed in upholding the law, even when it favored the rights of slave owners like Matson.