A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to be in Washington D.C. during the running of the “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life” exhibition at the National Museum of American History. The exhibition was wide-ranging in scale, but of particular interest to me was the portion describing Lincoln’s 23-year career as a “prairie lawyer” in Springfield, Illinois. I was surprised to learn that I was in good historical company when I read that Honest Abe specialized, among other things, in family law.
Lincoln or his law partner, William Herndon, were involved in around 140 divorce cases during their association. Lincoln and Herndon were in practice over a century before the dawn of “no fault” divorce laws, but at least one historian has argued that the records of Lincoln and his law partner’s divorce cases indicate that Illinois courts were relatively liberal in granting divorces during their time.
At the time that Lincoln was in active practice, Illinois state law provided seven grounds for divorce: (1) adultery, (2) bigamy, (3) impotence, (4) willful desertion, (5) extreme and repeated cruelty, (6) repeated drunkeness, or (7) commission of a felony.
According to the research of Stacy Pratt McDermoott, 63% of Lincoln’s divorce clients were women; 79% of them succeeded in their request for a divorce. His male clients obtained divorces 69% of the time. For woman plaintiffs, the most successful claim for divorce was cruelty and drunkenness. For men, claiming an adulterous wife was most effective.
According to McDermott, these rates indicate that women in Illinois had greater access to divorce than women in the southern and eastern states, perhaps due to the mobile nature of the frontier state’s population.
Check out a brief summary of some of Lincoln and Herndon’s divorce cases here.