In a Monmouth Courtroom

by Terry Hogan

In a Monmouth courtroom, on June 9, 1841, there was a court case, which of its own accord, had some historical significance. But beyond the case itself, like a Shakespearean play, it brought together a number of actors in one spot in place and time in history. Some of their paths were to cross and re-cross in the future, as if their progress were influenced by the same gravitational force. Monmouth in 1841 seems to be an odd place and time for this to occur. But America in 1841 was made up of mostly Monmouth-like towns. America was growing fast and expanding to the west. It was both shaping its geography as well as its political future. That shaping process was to be painful and bloody, turning brother against brother, as the nation decided how it would deal with slavery. But this was nearly two decades in the future.

I came across the story of the court case, buried on page 687 of the "Portrait and Biographical Album of Warren County, Illinois", published by the Chapman Brothers in 1886. The title of the little section was "Trial of Joe Smith." This isn’t a particularly eye-catching title, but it was a slow evening, so I read on.

"Joe Smith" turns out to not be the guy next door, but rather Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, fresh up from Nauvoo, Illinois. It was still several years before he would be killed. He was to appear in Monmouth to determine if a warrant issued by the Governor of Missouri for Joseph Smith was valid. The Governor wanted Joseph Smith delivered to Missouri to stand charges against him there. The Governor of Illinois, Mr. Carlin, was willing to accommodate. But Joseph Smith was not. Joseph Smith challenged the legality of the proposed action.

Joseph Smith and his followers spared no expense in providing good legal talent in arguing against the legality of the Missouri warrant. He won the case, only to lose his life in a few years. But the case brought together a mix of folks who were to influence U.S. history, and each other in years to come. Lets do a quick role call.

Joseph Smith

Of course, even then, Joseph Smith, Mormon Prophet, had carved a place out in history. His premature death to occur several years later, in Carthage would seal the position in history, and would drive his followers west to establish Salt Lake City and all that is now the Church of Latter Day Saints. But as important as he is in history, his role in this act was to be a catalyst to bring the other key players together.

Stephen A. Douglas

Yes, this is the Douglas that would become in 1858, one half of the Lincoln and Douglas debates. However, this was 1841. Stephen A. Douglas’ role in this court case of June 9, 1841 was that of presiding judge. He was, at this point of his life, a circuit court judge, and he would decide whether Joseph Smith would be turned over to the State of Missouri.

Douglas had traveled some already to rise to the position of circuit court judge in Illinois in 1841. He was born near Brandon, Vermont on April 23, 1813. At age 20, he moved to Illinois. He became a lawyer at Jacksonville, Illinois. He also became a Democrat, a wealthy land speculator, and was elected to the Illinois legislature in 1836. He was to become a judge of the Supreme Court of Illinois (1841-1843), a member of the House of Representatives in 1843 and a US Senator in 1847. While in the Senate, he sponsored the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This set the stage for the debate on the expansion of slavery. Slavery was to be the core issue of the Lincoln and Douglas debates that occurred in 1858, and brought Lincoln and Douglas to the site of Knox College’s Old Main. This must have felt like familiar ground for Douglas, so near to Monmouth. Douglas beat Abe Lincoln and Douglas returned to the U.S. Senate.

However, historians believe that it was the Lincoln and Douglas debates that brought Lincoln national recognition. The debates were closely followed around the country as newspapers received detailed reports of the text and nature of the debates via the telegraph. This national recognition helped Lincoln to be nominated by the Republican Party to run for President in 1860.

In 1860, Stephen A. Douglas ("The Little Giant") was nominated by northern Democrats for the President of the United States. There were two other candidates, Abraham Lincoln and John Breckenridge. We know who won this time.

Douglas, after the election and the start of the Civil War, offered his support to Lincoln. Douglas toured the Border States, encouraging support for the Union cause.

In 1861, The Little Giant was felled by typhoid fever and died on June 3, 1861 in Chicago. Orville H. Browning was appointed to fill the remaining Senate term of Stephen A. Douglas.

Orville H. Browning

Orville H. Browning was also brought to this small courthouse in 1841. He was one of several defense attorneys who were hired to represent Joseph Smith. O. H. Browning was born in Kentucky in 1806. He attended Augusta College and studied law. He was admitted to the bar in 1831. Orville Browning moved to Quincy, Illinois, where he practiced law. Browning, like Douglas, became interested in politics and he joined the Whig Party. Browning was elected to the Illinois Senate in 1836.

After the 1841 court case in Monmouth, Browning would run for election to the US House of Representatives. None other than Stephen A. Douglas would defeat him. Orville H. Browning would also become a personal friend and advisor to Abraham Lincoln. Browning, in fact, referred a legal case concerning land title in Warren County to Abe Lincoln. Lincoln was to argue an issue created in the case before the US Supreme Court. The case was heard, but Lincoln did not submit written argument, nor did he arrive for oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court. His clients lost by a split vote, even without benefit of council. (see "Lincoln, A Supreme Court No-Show" on the "Zephyr" homepage). Browning would later advise Lincoln on the conduct of the Civil War.

However, Browning was a conservative, and was not always one of Lincoln’s best supporters. In 1860, Browning supported Edward Bates over Lincoln for nomination of the Republican party.

After the death of Stephen A. Douglas in 1861 due to typhoid, O. H. Browning was appointed to complete Douglas’ U.S. Senate term. His conservative views towards the slavery issue worked against Browning and he was not elected to the Senate after completing the Douglas term. But he did become a supporter of Lincoln’s efforts, some of which involved the stretching of the Constitution to save the nation.

In 1866, President Andrew Johnson appointed O. H. Browning as Secretary of the Interior. He held that position until 1869, at which time, he became an attorney for the CB&Q Railroad. He died in 1881.

Abraham Lincoln

No, as much as I’d like to be able to tell you that Lincoln was also in the little Monmouth courtroom on June 9, 1841, I cannot. But I can tell you the next best thing. The Chapman Brothers history reports that Abraham Lincoln was an attorney for the State of Illinois, working with the prosecuting attorney, "B. Knowlton". However, Lincoln was not present for the trial.

Of course, Lincoln was to debate Douglas in 1858 for Douglas’ Senate seat. Lincoln lost the election but gained national recognition that helped him to gain the Republication nomination for President in 1860. He, of course, won the election, only to see the nation divide, with Civil War starting at an obscure seaport fort. A fellow from Illinois, named O. H. Browning became a friend and political advisor to Lincoln during these troubled times. The Union won. Lincoln was assassinated. The South was defeated and its economy was forever changed. Few American families were spared from war’s harm.

Monmouth Court House, June 9, 1841

But this was a little courtroom in Monmouth, Illinois on June 9, 1841. Civil War and all that it was to mean was twenty years away. "Joe Smith" or the Prophet Joseph Smith stood before Judge Steven A. Douglas. The matter at hand was whether Mr. Smith would be turned over to the State of Missouri by the State of Illinois. Orville H. Browning was there to argue against such action. Lincoln, although not present in the courtroom, had participated in the preparation of the State’s argument that Mr. Smith should be turned over to Missouri.

Apparently the Illinois courtroom of 1840’s was not quite the same as the courtroom of today. Although I could not find any details of this specific case, I did find a rather interesting description of how Judge Douglas ran his courtroom. He served as circuit court judge from 1841-1843. He resigned the position to take his Congressional office. But while a judge, he apparently ran a fairly "laid back" court. According to one report on Judge Douglas:

"His sociability also made him popular; while a suit was pending, he watched every point of law, kept track of all the proceedings, while at the same time he would leave the Bench, go back among the spectators-‘the boys,’ as he would call them- and talk familiarly with Tom, Dick or Bill, take or give a cigar, enjoy a social smoke with them, and often sitting on their lap, while at the same time he would closely follow the case on trial."*

But this was a small courtroom in Monmouth on June 9, 1841. It was a small town in western America. It wasn’t Boston, or New York, or even New England. It was just the upstart Illinois.

Nobody in that courtroom knew that Smith and Lincoln would be killed.

Nobody knew that Douglas would defeat Browning for a house seat.

Nobody knew that Lincoln and Douglas would debate over slavery and a US Senate Seat.

Nobody knew that Douglas would prevail over Lincoln and return to the US Senate.

Nobody knew that Lincoln would defeat Douglas in 1860 and become President.

Nobody knew that Browning would finish Douglas’ U.S. Senate term after Douglas’ death.

It was just another day in a little midwestern courthouse, trying to bring civilization and, at least a form of justice, to this western frontier. It was just some local folks arguing the technicalities of legal documents, in perhaps a somewhat informal manner.

*Quote from Chapman Brothers. 1886. "Portrait and Biographical Album of Warren County, Illinois." Page 691, "Judges and Members of the Bar."