CHARLESTON -- Abraham Lincoln's ability to save the Union may have cemented his presidency, but his long tours across Central Illinois as a circuit court lawyer made it possible, according to one researcher.
Guy Fraker spoke Saturday at the Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site on how impactful Lincoln's time as a Central Illinois lawyer might have been on the 16th president's success in winning the presidency in November of 1860.
Fraker, a lawyer and author from Bloomington, has done research on the president's Illinois law career. He said the network Lincoln was able to form on the 400- to 500-mile trips across 14 counties paved the way for him to become president years later.
"This rise to power was because of the circuit," Fraker said.
Fraker painted a picture of a Lincoln sharpened by his career and his environment.
Lincoln moved to an Illinois that was small in population at the time but was growing. Central Illinois was a vital part of a booming state at the time, Fraker said, and unbeknownst to Lincoln or the country was a breeding ground for a future president.
"This was really where the action was," Fraker said. "Lincoln was in the best place in Illinois that he could've been, and Illinois was the fastest growing, advancing state in the Union."
Here, he was able to grit his teeth as a lawyer and develop not only a network of talented people to support him but his thoughts on the pressing issues of the time like slavery.
At this time, Lincoln toured courtrooms in numerous towns across the circuit twice a year. This consumed much of his year. In the courtroom, he would come across lawyers and judges like David Davis, who would later become a friend, campaign manager and Supreme Court justice.
This network was built on more than just lawyers, though. Because he stayed in town on the weekends, Lincoln was able to come in contact with a large swath of people that would soon be his big support to the presidency, Fraker said.
"He built a network of support," Fraker said. "I don't know that he knew it was to run for the presidency. But when it came time to make his run, all these guys were there just waiting to be asked... These relationships were very important."
His base was largely made up of lawyers, but the president grew close relationships with other local residents, whether they were clients or people like Jesse Fell, the owner of the Bloomington Pantagraph newspaper at the time.
Fell, in particular, played a major role in exciting a younger Lincoln to continue to move forward after the bitter defeat for Stephen Douglas's Senate seat.
It was about a month after the defeat when Fell spoke with Lincoln about writing an autobiography to kick-start another chance a public office. It was another stop on his tour through the circuit.
At the time, Lincoln was tired and broke from the campaign and just ready to focus on his law practice. But Fell had come back from his hometown West Chester, Penn., where Lincoln had become famous for the debates with Douglas.
"There was so much excitement caused by Lincoln's performance in the debates that it made Lincoln a national figure," Fraker said. "Fell had seen this firsthand and was telling Lincoln of this opportunity that lay out there for him."
A year later, almost to the day, Lincoln gave Fell the Lincoln autobiography to print and jump-started his road to the presidency.
Even outside of the networking potential, his trips across the circuit allowed him to kill two birds with one stone. He would oftentimes practice law in the day and present political speeches at night in the towns he toured, Fraker said.
On these trips, he would also read books often on his horseback rides through the prairies to each town, which Fraker thinks contributed to the president becoming "one of the greatest thinkers" in American history.
The circuit made Lincoln, Fraker added.
"He was elected because he came from Central Illinois," Fraker added.