Abraham Lincoln: Divorce Lawyer

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Written By admin at Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president, but he is probably best known for his work as a divorce lawyer. Or for slaying vampires. Historians are divided.

Though it isn’t a part of his life that we typically celebrate, Lincoln actually was a divorce lawyer. In fact, he was involved in more than 140 divorce cases in his law career, according to Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War of Middle Tennessee.

The group is sponsoring a program Tuesday night at Columbia State Community College, in Nashville, Tenn., that will explore how Lincoln’s divorce work lends insight into the man he was, and into the society in which he operated.  The AP has a story on the event here.

Thomas Flagel, a history instructor at the college who has written several books on the Civil War, will present the program.

There is some work out there on Lincoln’s divorce practice. In 1998, Stacy Pratt McDermott cobbled together this brief based on her research of Lincoln’s papers. She found that between 1837 and 1861, Lincoln and his law partners handled 131 divorce cases in 17 Illinois county circuit courts across the state.

Women brought 82 of the those cases, and the courts granted divorces to women plaintiffs in those cases 79% of the time. Male plaintiffs obtained divorces only 69% of the time, according to McDermott.

The brief also gives a good rundown of the nature of the cases Lincoln handled:

The divorce cases that Lincoln and his partners handled offer evidence that women plaintiffs sued their husbands for divorce on all the grounds for which the statutes provided, but impotence, fraud and bigamy were far less common grounds than desertion, adultery, cruelty, and drunkenness. In divorce cases that Lincoln and his partners handled, plaintiffs cited desertion as at least one of the grounds 48 percent of the time and adultery 26 percent of the time. Women cited cruelty and drunkenness in combination as the grounds for requesting a divorce in 9 percent of the cases. Women were most successful when they cited cruelty and drunkenness as the grounds, obtaining divorces 100 percent of the time. When women cited desertion, the courts granted them divorces 82 percent of the time; and when they cited adultery, the courts decreed divorces 72 percent of the time. By contrast, men were most successful when they cited adultery as the grounds, obtaining divorces in 75 percent of those cases. In cases in which they cited desertion, the court granted them divorces only 72 percent of the time.

Image credit: AP

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