The Jury in Lincoln's America. By Stacy Pratt McDermott. (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2012. Pp. v, 278. $54.95.)
Article first published online: 4 MAR 2014
© 2014 Phi Alpha Theta
Volume 76, Issue 1, pages 130–131, Spring 2014
How to Cite
Abramson, J. B. (2014), The Jury in Lincoln's America. By Stacy Pratt McDermott. (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2012. Pp. v, 278. $54.95.). Historian, 76: 130–131. doi: 10.1111/hisn.12030_26
- Issue published online: 4 MAR 2014
- Article first published online: 4 MAR 2014
This book is a fascinating and informative case study of the jury in the states of the antebellum Midwest, with a particular focus on the county surrounding Springfield, Illinois, where a young Abraham Lincoln practiced law.
Through copious use of newspapers, periodicals, and scholarly articles of the day, Stacy Pratt McDermott traces the importance of the jury to residents of the states carved out of the Northwest Territory and the general reverence with which they regarded the institution. She is able to show how practical circumstances led Midwestern practice to diverge somewhat from colonial norms. For instance, although Illinois law restricted jury service to citizens, the Illinois Supreme Court in 1846 took notice of the large immigrant population and held that, in civil cases and misdemeanor criminal cases, the (improper) seating of aliens on the jury would not support postconviction relief. Likewise, the remoteness of many towns from the courthouse made Midwestern practice depart from rotating jury duty to reliance on repeat service of jurors or even on tapping into bystanders to fill the jury pools.
McDermott provides a snapshot of the composition of the jury pool in 1860 in Sangamon County, Illinois. The data graphically establishes just how undemocratic jury selection procedures were. Out of a total population of 32,274 persons, 75 percent were immediately disqualified: 15,007 females, 8,237 underaged males, 513 overaged males, and 311 blacks. In addition, another one thousand were disqualified as aliens and another two thousand for owning no real property as was then required by law. Poor transportation and geographical distance also meant that farmers outside of the county seat in Springfield were not called or did not attend. In the end, a winnowing process left no more than 4,551 white male residents in Springfield to comprise the jury pool.
In addition to these figures, McDermott offers demographic analyses of the jury pool for both grand and petit jurors in the county at various times from 1830 to 1860—the years of Lincoln's law practice in the county. A composite portrait shows that the typical juror was a farmer in his 30s or 40s with above-average wealth in real property. They tended to have served multiple times as jurors and might even have served, as did one Zachariah Peter, on trials involving Lincoln, even though Peter himself had employed Lincoln to collect various debts through the years. McDermott's general conclusion is that juries tended increasingly through the antebellum years to be “more representative of the controlling community elites than of the general populace” (83).
As to the workload of jurors, McDermott finds that Lincoln's criminal practice was probably typical. There are 150 criminal cases Lincoln took to jury trial in the county for which we know the charge. Thirty-two percent of these involved crimes against the person, 21 percent were crimes against property, 23 percent were crimes against morality, and 24 percent were crimes against the public welfare. Lincoln's cases included twenty-two defendants accused of murder; the jury convicted only ten of them. Even in those ten, in seven cases the jury opted to convict of the lesser-included offense of manslaughter. McDermott found only one case in which Lincoln's practice, through his partner, defended African Americans—a case involving an underage, free black youth charged, along with two underage servant girls, of plotting to poison white men.
McDermott offers a mixed assessment of the quality of jury justice in antebellum Illinois. In general, verdicts favored the right of creditors over debtors and reinforced the interests of community elites. But jurors displayed a sense of mercy toward defendants in murder trials and some sympathy for women seeking divorce and the legal right to remarry.
For those interested in the jury as a political as well as legal institution, The Jury in Lincoln's America is a valuable and well-researched monograph on how the jury worked in one Midwestern county in the antebellum years. Through copious examples, the author shows how, even as the law was becoming more professionalized and rationalized throughout the period studied, the jury system still left community representatives with the power to say what the law meant in any given case.