Calvin A. Warren was one of the earliest lawyers in Quincy. Born in Elizabethtown, New York in 1807, he moved to Ohio in the early 1830s and married in 1835. He attended law school at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, “at that time the best school of the kind in the entire West.” The couple came to Quincy in 1836, moved to Hancock County for a year, then returned to Quincy in 1839, where he practiced law for many years.
Warren’s friend Henry Asbury, also a Quincy lawyer, wrote of him, “As a natural humorist and wit, has never had his equal at our bar. His mind and mental habits seemed to make it impossible for him to keep back a flow of wit and humor as from an inexhaustible fountain…If it was a laughing case, he always had them from the start.”
Asbury, too, seemed to have a gift for being present at “laughing cases.”
From the beginning, local citizens had taken the law seriously. The election of county officers held on July 2, 1825, was the final step in organizing Adams County with Quincy as the county seat. Although there may have been fewer than 12 or 15 actual residents within the borders of the town and only about 75 voters resided in the entire county, legal matters were immediately addressed. The first session of the county court was held just two days later.
The first grand jury for the first circuit court was seated October 31, in Willard Keyes’s cabin. The grand jury convened on the front porch then moved out under a large oak tree to deliberate. They delivered five indictments, all for fighting.
John E. Jeffers, Louis Masquerier, George Logan, James H. Ralston, Archibald Williams, and Orville Browning were all practicing law in the new town before 1831 and 42 more attorneys, including Asbury, joined them between 1835 and 1847.
In the 1830s and ‘40s one often became a lawyer by apprenticing as a clerk under the guidance of an experienced lawyer. The apprenticeships often looked more like the jobs of errand boy, document copier, and silent observer. Some attorneys did, however, tutor and teach their clerks. A few private law schools existed in the nation—15 altogether by 1850, and some affiliated with universities, but they did not grant law degrees.
Asbury, who had arrived in Quincy in 1834, had been tutored in law by Abraham Lincoln’s friend, Orville H. Browning, before being admitted to the bar in 1837. It was possible—and more economical– to educate oneself sufficiently to pass the state’s bar examination, as Lincoln did. In the mention of the numerous lawyers in Quincy’s history, no distinction was made by how they attained their law education.
When Asbury wrote his history of Quincy in 1882, he stated that at least 60 lawyers resided in the town. By that time, Asbury had served as a justice of the peace and in addition to his recollections of Warren’s “laughing cases” had collected a supply of humorous stories about occurrences in his own courtrooms in the first half-century of Quincy’s existence.
Asbury heard his first case as justice of the peace soon after his election in 1836. A Mr. Williams had sworn out a warrant against a Colonel Humphrey of Virginia, who had stopped in Burton on his way to Missouri but had become stranded in Illinois when the Mississippi River closed to traffic. He had two boys with him as slaves. Williams accused Humphrey of kidnapping the boys. No evidence of kidnapping was presented, only hearsay, and slavery would not be constitutionally banned outright from Illinois until 1848, so Colonel Humphrey was released. One of the local men who had watched the proceedings, a Mr. McQuaid, was extremely distressed that the charges had even been made. When the case was dismissed, he punched Mr. Williams in the nose, as Asbury described, “making blood spurt out in a stream.” The two presiding justices that day, Asbury and Robert Williams, promptly fined McQuaid, but the assembled crowd just as promptly donated the money for the fine and ran Mr. Williams out of town. Asbury quipped, “I have given this incident to lift the curtain upon the old times, when an Abolitionist was considered by the masses of the people the meanest of men.”
In about 1838, an old man named Phelps often visited the town with a wagon load of green wood, “troops of children,” and “a rather sorry team of two horses.” He was known far and wide for being so loud everyone knew of his arrival and subsequent location, usually on the north side of Washington Square—the anti-abolitionists’ side. Asbury described the scene:
“At that time the square was not fenced, and the old man, after he got pretty full, would generally march out into the middle of this public ground and stand and curse, shake his fist at and abuse the Abolitionists. His voice could be heard all over the town” (Asbury, p. 125).
The abolitionists finally tired of his verbal abuse and had him arrested and brought before Asbury’s court for disturbing the peace. In those early days, there were no local laws, only State laws, and Asbury got out his state law book and studied it on the spot. Technically, the state law only applied to disturbing the peace at night. Asbury dismissed the case, and a slightly more subdued Mr. Phelps left town.
Asbury once had to make a ruling between next-door neighbors, German immigrants. One man’s pigpen had become so filthy, he decided to tear it down, but he simply turned the pig loose until he could rebuild. One day it entered his neighbor’s lot, where it was attacked by the neighbor’s dogs. Attempting to get back home through the fence, the terrified pig got stuck. The neighbor attempted to free the pig by pulling on its tail and pulled the tail off. The tail-less pig’s owner sued. Asbury noted, “We decided against the plaintiff.”
Asbury, Henry (1882), Reminiscences of Quincy, Illinois Containing Historical Events, Anecdotes, Matters
Concerning Old Settlers and Old Times, Etc. D. Wilcox & Sons, Quincy; Bibliolife, Open Content Alliance.
Illinois Issues: Slave State (October 20, 2016), NPR Illinois, nprillinois.og/post/Illinois-issues-slave-state#stream/0
Katcher, Susan (2006), Legal Training in the United States: A Brief History, https://hosted.law.wisc.edu/wordpress/wilj/files/2012/02/katcher.pdf
Snively, Ethan A. (1901), Slavery in Illinois, Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society—1901, http://www.museum.state.il.us/RiverWeb/landings/Ambot/Archives/transactions/1901/IL-slavery.html
Warren, Calvin Averill (2018), The Joseph Smith Papers, www.josephsmithpapers.org/person/calvin-averill-warren.