The Lawyers: Lawrence Weldon (1829 – 1905)

Judge Lawrence Weldon
Ohio-born attorney who became Lincoln’s friend and legal associate on the Eighth Judicial Circuit in Illinois. In 1861, Weldon was appointed a U.S. Attorney by President Lincoln.

“In 1854 and down to the commencement of the War, the circuit practice in Illinois was still in vogue, and the itinerant lawyer was as sure to come as the trees to bud or leaves to fall,” recalled Weldon. “Among these Mr. Lincoln was the star. He stood above and beyond them all. He travelled the circuit, attending the courts in the district of Judge David Davis, afterward a Justice of the Supreme Court, this district extending from the centre to the eastern boundary of the State, right on, spring and fall, until nominated for the Presidency. Mr. Lincoln liked the atmosphere of a courthouse, and seemed contented and happy when Judge Davis was on the bench, and there were before him the “twelve good and lawful men” constituting the jury. He was among friends and acquaintances in every county, and always knew the leading men on the jury. He could broadly be called an industrious lawyer, and when his adversary presented a reasonably good affidavit for continuance, Mr. Lincoln was willing that the case should go over until the next term. No condition could arise in a case beyond his capacity to furnish an illustration with an appropriate anecdote or story. Judge Davis was always willing that Mr. Lincoln should tell a story in court, even if it disturbed the gravity of the situation, and no one enjoyed these occasions of mirth more than his Honor on the bench, Judge Davis himself. At the same time Mr. Lincoln was always respectful and deferential toward the court, and never forgot the professional amenities of the bar. He was a lawyer who dealt with the deep philosophy of the law, always knew the cases which might be quoted as absolute authority, but beyond that contented himself in the application and discussion of general principles. He moved cautiously, and never examined or cross-examined a witness to the detriment of his side. If the witness told the truth he was safe; but woe betide the unlucky and dishonest individual who suppressed or colored the truth against Mr. Lincoln’s side. Mr. Lincoln’s speeches to the jury were most effective specimens of forensic oratory. He talked the vocabulary of the people, and the jury understood every point he made and every thought he uttered. He never made display for mere display, but his imagination was simple and pure in the richest gems of true eloquence. He constructed short sentences of small words, and never wearied the mind with mazes of elaboration.”1

Weldon remembered how as a young attorney “with what confidence I always went to him because I was certain he knew all about the matter and would most cheerfully help me and would most cheerfully help me. I can see him now,”Judge Weldon said decades later, “through the decaying memories of thirty years, standing in the corner of the old court-room, and as I approached him with a paper I did not understand, he said: ‘Wait until I fix this plug for my gallus, and I will pitch into that like a dog at a root.’ While speaking, he was busily engaged in trying to connect his suspender….”2 In August 1865, Weldon wrote in notes for a speech to the Springfield bar: “In travelling on the circuit he was in the habit owing to his regular hours of rising earlier than his brothers of the bar…on such occasion he was wont to sit by the fire having uncovered the coals[,] and must ponder and soliliquize wisper [sic] no doubt by that ths strange psychological influence which is so poetically described by Poe in the raven — On one of these occasions at the town of Lincoln the year of his nomination sitting in the posture described he quoted aloud and at length the poem entitled mortality.”3 Weldon recalled that Lincoln remembered the words of the entire poem – but not the name of the author – William Knox.

Weldon remembereded: “I can see Mr. Lincoln now, through the fading memories of forty years, as clearly as if it were yesterday. He was always clean shaven, wearing no beard, neatly dressed, but extremely plain, and apparently more indifferent to fashion than others of our profession out there, even in that day. I was young, and probably noticed Mr. Lincoln’s clothes more particularly, because I expected a man who had been in Congress to dress a little more fashionably.”4 Weldon well recalled the Senate election of 1858 between Lincoln and Senator Stephen A. Douglas:

In the latter part of July, Douglas began his regular campaign in De Witt County, which was a strong Buchanan county. We wrote Mr. Lincoln he had better come and hear Douglas speak at Clinton, which he did. There was an immense crowd for a country town, and on the way to the grove where the speaking took place, Mr. Lincoln said to me: “Weldon, I have challenged Judge Douglas for a discussion. What do you think of it?” I replied, “I approve your judgment in whatever you do.”
We went over a little to one side of the crowd and sat down on one of the boards, laid on logs for seats. Douglas spoke over three hours to an immense audience, and made one of the most forcible political speeches I ever heard. As he went on he referred to Lincoln’s Springfield speech, and became very personal, and I said to Mr. Lincoln:
“Do you suppose Douglas knows you are here?”
“Well,” he replied, “I don’t know whether he does or not; he has not looked in this direction. But I reckon some of the boys have told him I am here.”
When Douglas finished there was a tremendous shout for “Lincoln,” which kept on with no let-up. Mr. Lincoln said: “What shall I do? I can’t speak here.”
“You will have to say something,” I replied. “Suppose you get up aud say you will speak this evening at the courthouse yard.”
Mr. Lincoln mounted the board seat, and as the crowd got sight of his tall form the shouts and cheers were wild. As soon as he could make himself heard he said:
“This is Judge Douglas’s meeting. I have no right, therefore, no disposition to interfere. But if you ladies and gentlemen desire to hear what I have to say on these questions, and will meet me this evening at the courthouse yard, east side, I will try to answer the gentleman.”
Douglas had taken off his cravat, for it was extremely warm, and he was now putting it on as he turned in the direction of Mr. Lincoln. Both became posed in a tableau of majestic power. The scene was a meeting of giants, a contest of great men; and the situation was dramatic in the extreme. Lincoln made a speech that evening which in volume did not equal the speech of Douglas, but for sound and cogent argument was the superior. Douglas had charged Mr. Lincoln with being in favor of Negro equality, which was then the bugbear of politics. In his speech that evening Mr. Lincoln said:
“Judge Douglas charges me with being in favor of Negro equality, and to the extent that he charges I am not guilty. I am guilty of hating servitude and loving freedom; and while I would not carry the equality of the races to the extent charged by my adversary, I am happy to confess before you that in some things the black man is the equal of the white man. In the right to eat the bread his own hands have earned, he is the equal of Judge Douglas or any other living man.”
When Lincoln spoke the last sentence he had lifted himself to his full height, and as he reached his hands toward the stars of that still night, then and there fell from his lips one of the most sublime expressions of American statesmanship. The effect was grand, the cheers tremendous. After the meeting his friends congratulated him on the beauty of the thought, and Mr. Lincoln said:
“Do you think that is fine?” When assured it was, he laughingly added: “Well, if you think so, I will get that off again.”5

The young Clinton attorney had first met the distinguished Springfield lawyer in September 1854. “In 1854, Judge Stephen A. Douglas came to Bloomington to make a speech defending the principles of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill,” recalled James S. Ewing. “Judge Lawrence Weldon, who was then a young lawyer at Clinton, and who had come up to hear the speech, went with Mr. Stevenson and myself to call upon and pay our respects to the “Little Giant.” We were presented to Judge Douglas by Mr. Amzi McWilliams, then a prominent Democratic lawyer of this city. After we had been in Mr. Douglas* room a few minutes, Mr. Lincoln came in, and the Senator and he greeted each other most cordially as old friends, and then Mr. Douglas introduced Mr. Lincoln to Judge Weldon. He said: “Mr. Lincoln, I want to introduce you to Mr. Weldon, a young lawyer who has come to Illinois from Ohio, and has located at Clinton.” Mr. Lincoln said: ‘Well, I am glad of that; I go to Clinton sometimes myself, and we will get acquainted.’ This was the beginning of an acquaintance which ripened into a strong friendship and which, founded on mutual admiration and respect, grew and strengthened as the years passed, and ended only in death. They met again at Clinton; a sort of local partnership was formed; they tried law suits and rode the circuit together. Judge Weldon was the active promoter of Mr. Lincoln s political interests, and was an elector in the campaign of 1860. I doubt if any man living knew Mr. Lincoln better, or had in a greater degree his confidence, than our distinguished friend and citizen, Judge Lawrence Weldon.”6

Ewing himself recalled that this initial “appearance made a strong impression on me….Mr. Lincoln came over from the courthouse to the hotel where the lawyers put up, as we used to say, while attending court. Stephen A. Douglas, who was then making a campaign in defence of the Kansas Nebraska bill, was at the hotel. Judge Douglas presented me to Mr. Lincoln, and said: “Mr. Weldon is a young lawyer from Ohio who has come to make his home in Illinois.” Mr. Lincoln was very cordial, and, shaking hands with me, replied: “Well, I hope he will find he has made a good trade from Ohio to Illinois.” 7 While Weldon was in Bloomington, when there were discussions of a debate between Lincoln and Senator Douglas – proposed by Lincoln friend Jesse W. Fell. Douglas objected. Weldon told Senator Douglas: ‘Judge, I think you are right.: Fell added: “Well, perhaps you are…still I think that some other time it may be appropriate.”8 Although Douglas and Lincoln would eventually speak on the same day in Bloomington, the more publicized debates of 1854 occurred in October in Springfield and Peoria.

Weldon recalled: “‘By Jing’ was the extent of his expletives, and beyond that he did not go in the expression of surprise or indignation.” Weldon wrote: “A few weeks after Mr. Lincoln went into the White House he appointed me United States Attorney, with, of course, my duties in Illinois. But I always went to see him when I came to Washington, and, on one occasion, he revived a story about a mutual friend in Illinois, Robert Lewis, which we had often enjoyed together out therewith Mr. Lewis himself. I was stopping at Willard’s, where, just at that time, there were parties interested in cotton which it was difficult to bring up from certain insurrectionary districts, because of the contest between the civil and military authorities, as to the policy of bringing cotton out of the seceded States, permits being issued by the Treasury Department, which were nullified by the military. The gentlemen at Willard’s were anxious to learn from the President, if possible, what would be the probable result of the contest, and requested me to broach the subject, on my visit to the White House. After talking with Mr. Lincoln for some time on other matters, I referred to the cotton subject, and said these gentlemen had requested me to ask him how it would be likely to turn out. The moment I made the inquiry, a smile, amused and bright, lighted up Mr. Lincoln’s face, and he said:

By the way, what has become of our friend, Robert Lewis?'”
I replied that Mr. Lewis was still in his old home, and clerk of the court, as he had been for many years.
“Well,” said Mr. Lincoln, “do you remember a story Bob used to tell us about going to Missouri to look up some Mormon lands belonging to his father?”
I replied: “Mr. President, I’ve forgotten the details of the story. I wish you would tell it.”
Lewis was a warm personal friend of Mr. Lincoln, and he told the story that evening, with much enjoyment,” and as he only could tell it. The story was in substance as follows:
When Bob Lewis became of age he found among his father’s papers some warrants and patents for lands in Northeastern Missouri, where attempts at Mormon settlement had been made. He thought the best thing he could do would be to look up these lands, see if they were worth anything, and establish his title. It was long before the day of railroads, and Bob started on horseback, equipped with a pair of old saddlebags, in one side of which he packed his papers, and in the other some necessary articles of the toilet, but which Bob himself had said, made less bulk than his title papers. He travelled a long way round, but finally got into that part of Missouri where he thought he could locate his section of land, and, bringing up before a solitary cabin, hitched his horse, took his saddlebags, and knocked at the door. A gruff and not hospitable voice bade him enter. I am sorry I cannot give in Bob’s own words the description of the interior, as Mr. Lincoln repeated it. The conspicuous objects, however, perhaps one might say ornaments, were the proprietor, a lean, lanky-looking man, who looked to Bob about eleven feet long, stretched before a big fireplace, “necking” bullets, and above the fireplace hung on a couple of buck’s horns a rifle which also looked about eleven feet long. The man looked up as Bob entered, but made no pause in his busy occupation of preparing bullets. Bob said he was the first to pass the time of day, and then he inquired about the section of land on which the cabin was located. The proprietor knew nothing about that section, or any other in Missouri, and apparently was indifferent to his visitor’s desire for information. Finally Bob got out his papers, looked them over, and said:
“Stranger, I am looking up some lands belonging to my father. I’ve got the titles all right here in these papers,” and he proceeded to prove it by reading the papers aloud. When he had finished, he said: “Now that is my title to this section. What is yours?”
The proprietor of the cabin by this time showed a slight interest, stopped his work a moment, raised himself on his elbow and pointing to the rifle, said:
“Young man, do you see that gun?” Mr. Lewis admitted he did, very frankly.
“Well,” said the pioneer, “that is my title, and if you don’t get out of here pretty quick you will feel the force of it.”9

Weldon was one of many Lincoln’s legal friends who urged the appointment of Judge David Davis to the U.S. Supreme Court. “Friends of Judge Davis demanded the appointment as a matter of justice and reward; they admitted frankly their estimate of Lincoln’s indebtedness to Davis,” wrote historian David Silver.10 Weldon wrote Ward Hill Lamon: “Dear Hill, if justice [is] to be respected, Lincoln can do nothing less than to tender the position to Judge Davis.”11 Eventually, but not without effort, Davis’s friends prevailed.

In 1883, President Chester Arthur appointed Weldon to the U.S. Court of Claims, where he served until his death.