Koerner and Lincoln at the Illinois Supreme Court, 1845 to 1848
Research obtained by State Representative Tom Holbrook of Belleville provides new information about Gustave Koerner’s three year term on the Illinois Supreme Court. The Legislative Research Unit of the Illinois General Assembly prepared the report for Holbrook, who also has obtained state grants for stabilization work on Koerner’s home at 200 Abend, Belleville.
Koerner followed the political rise of Abraham Lincoln since the 1830’s, but, as an Illinois Supreme Court Justice in the mid 1840’s, Koerner was in a position to gain considerably more insight into Lincoln’s abilities.
Koerner’s university education began at Jenna, Germany in 1828. He and several beer-drinking friends were arrested Christmas eve of 1830 after a snow ball fight ended with a policeman being struck. He was jailed and studied his law books for the next four months. He wrote in his “Memoirs”,’ I really learned more law during my confinement than I had in Jenna for two years.” (1) Koerner immigrated to the United States in 1832 after participating in a student uprising that failed to bring liberal reforms to German government.
Koerner traveled sixty miles on horseback to the state capitol at Vandalia in June of 1835 to appear before two Justices of the Illinois Supreme Court to qualify for his law license. The interview took place in the judges’ rented room above a tavern. One judge was ill and laid in bed during the informal half-hour conversation. After being deemed fit to practice law by the judges, they went downstairs to have a drink. In his “ Memoirs”, Koerner contrasted the Illinois frontier licensing procedure with his four hour , University of Heidelberg law graduate examination- in Latin- by four law professors. In Frankfort, the licensing exam took two hours before two judges and was conducted in a banquet hall used to celebrate the coronation of German emperors. Koerner, wrote “the old imperial building and the one-horse tavern in Vandalia kept by an Irishman, whose normal state was drunkenness- what a change of historical setting.” (2)
Lincoln’s preparation for the bar was much less formal than Koerner’s and relied on his friendship with John Todd Stuart, a Springfield lawyer who lent Lincoln a copy of “Blackstone’s Commentaries” and several treatises on legal pleadings and practice. Lincoln passed the Illinois Supreme Court examination September 9, 1836, fifteen months after Koerner. (3)
Democrat Koerner observed Whig Lincoln’s speech at a political rally at the St. Clair County Courthouse in 1840:”In point of melody of voice and graceful delivery, though not in argument, most all other speakers surpassed him. His appearance was not very prepossessing. His exceedingly tall and very angular form made his movements rather awkward. Nor were his features, when he was not animated, pleasant, owing principally to his high cheek-bones. His complexion had no roseate hue of health, but was rather bilious, and when not speaking, his face seemed to be overshadowed by melancholy thoughts. I observed him closely, thought I saw a good deal of intellect in him, while his looks were genial and kind.”(4)
. Koerner, the first German native to be elected to the Illinois General Assembly in 1842, missed serving with Lincoln in the Illinois House as Koerner was elected the year in which Lincoln retired.
April 2, 1845, Koener was appointed to the high court to fill the vacancy created by James Shields who resigned to accept President James K. Polk’s appointment as Commissioner of the General Land Office. In the late 1830’s, Koerner and Shields were law partners in Belleville . In 1842, Shields, who then was State Auditor, challenged Lincoln to a duel over comments printed in a Springfield newspaper. The duel was cancelled after friends intervened. No doubt Koerner and Shields discussed the latter’s entanglement with Lincoln. Lincoln, for his part, held no grudge after the incident and later appointed Shields to the rank of General during the Civil War.
Koerner would hear Lincoln in fifty cases while on the state high court between 1845 and 1848, and in nine of the cases write the majority, concurring or dissenting opinions. (5)
What types of issues were argued by the early lawyers of Illinois? In “Life on the Circuit with Lincoln,” author Henry Whitney wrote ,“It is strange to contemplate that in those comparatively recent but primitive days, Mr. Lincoln’s whole attention should have been engrossed in petty controversies or acrimonious disputes between neighbors about trifles; that he should have puzzled his great mind in attempting to decipher who was the owner of a litter of pigs, or which party was to blame for the loss of a flock of sheep, by foot rot; or whether some irascible spirit was justified in avowing that his enemy had committed perjury; yet, I have known him to give as earnest attention to such matters as later he gave to affairs of State.” (6)
Koerner wrote four opinions in Lincoln cases in 1845. In” Patterson versus Edwards “ Lincoln had won a lower court slander award of $220 for Mrs. Patterson who was accused by Mrs. Edwards of “having children by a Negro man who was not her husband.” Koerner’s majority opinion overturned the lower court verdict because Mrs. Edwards’ words did not meet the definition of the Illinois slander law. (7) Other Lincoln cases before Koerner that year included: trespass involving a house that was transported from land whose ownership was in question; an estate dispute in which property was sold, allegedly in error, after the owner’s death; and, contract fraud where one party claimed fraud by the other party in an attempt to get the contract rescinded.(8)
In 1846 Lincoln argued five cases in which Koerner wrote opinions. Koerner wrote a dissenting opinion in a contract case where an employee left the employer without finishing the contract and the employee requested partial payment. (9) Koerner wrote the opinion overturning Lincoln’s lower court win in “Mayo versus Edgar County” in which Lincoln argued the county should reimburse court clerk Mayo $7.93; Koerner’s opinion held the state should have paid the fee. (10) Koerner’s other opinions were filed in cases involving evidence in an assault on a daughter that resulted in loss of service to the parent, a deed dispute and lastly, the length of a term for a state-issued grocery license. (11)
Other non-Lincoln cases in which Koerner authored an opinion involved allegations of fraud, debts, bankruptcy, contracts, nonpayment of rent, real estate foreclosure, real estate deed disputes, passage of counterfeit bills and a breach of marriage promise and defamation of character. (12)
Supreme Court Judges at that time also heard circuit level cases in their respective districts. Koerner traded case loads with a Peoria judge to avoid a conflict in Madison and St. Clair counties cases he had started before being appointed to the high court. He and Peoria Judge John Caton became good friends and roomed with each other in the winter of 1847-48 during court at Springfield.( 13)
Koerner and Lincoln cooperated on several private practice cases in the 1850’s. Lincoln’s appreciation of Koerner’s legal skills was evident in a July 19, 1857 letter to Koerner in which Lincoln noted one of their cases was coming up ”and I shall be glad to have the benefit of your legal assistance.” The same letter refers to a $312,000 judgment against the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad, which bought the Belleville and Illinois Town Railroad, although it is not clear what legal interests both men represented. (14)
Amanda Huston, Research Librarian with the Legislative Research Unit of the Illinois General Assembly, estimates Koerner participated in about 800 cases in his three years on the court. In 1848, a revised state constitution eliminated 6 of the 9 justices and reduced their pay. Koerner was confident he could earn three to four times as much in private practice so he returned to Belleville and, according to his “Memoirs”, “I made a plan of building myself a house. But it was late in the fall before I made the contract and the house was not finished until spring of 1849.” (15)
Koerner was elected president of the 1858 Illinois Republican Convention that nominated Lincoln to run against Democrat Stephen Douglas. When it appeared New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley and others might support Douglas, Koerner said, “We must make them understand Lincoln is our man.” 16
After 160 years, the Gustave Koerner House Restoration Committee of the St. Clair County Historical Society “has made a plan” of restoring Koerner’s 3,300 square foot home. Future updates on our progress will be reported here.
Submitted by Jack Le Chien
1) Thomas J. Mc Cormack, editor, “The Memoirs of Gustave Koerner, 1809-1896: Life-sketches Written at the Suggestion of His Children,” Torch Press Publishers, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1909, Volume 1, p 150
2) Ibid, p. 371
3) “The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: A Narrative Overview”, John Lupton, Assistant Director and Assistant Editor, The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, www.papersofabrahamlincoln.org/narrative_overview
4) Koerner’s Memoirs, p 443-444
5) Illinois Supreme Court Cases ruled on by Judge Koerner, Legislative Research Unit, Illinois General Assembly, a report prepared for State Representative Tom Holbrook.
6) “Life with Lincoln on the Circuit,” Henry Clay Whitney, Boston, Estes and Lauriat Publishers, 1892, p 65-66
7) The Lawyer as Peacemaker: Law and Community in Abraham Lincoln’s Slander Cases’, Mark Steiner, www.historycooperative.org/Journals/JALA
8) Illinois Supreme Court Cases ruled on by Judge Koerner
10) “The Lincoln Log,” www.thelincolnlog.org, July 19, 1857
11) Illinois Supreme Court Cases ruled on by Judge Koerner
13) Koerner’s Memoirs, p 509
14) “Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 2”, letter to Gustave Koerner, July 19, 1857, http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text
15) Koerner’s Memoirs, p 514
“Prelude to Greatness: Lincoln in the 1850’s”, p. 63, Don E. Fehrenbacher