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Abraham Lincoln was a Divorce Lawyer

Abraham Lincoln, our 16th President, is the in-thing as far as historical celebrities go. But, what many people don’t realize is that Mr. Lincoln was a divorce lawyer before he became President. Joe Palazzolo reviewed Mr. Lincoln’s work as a divorce lawyer in his blog post Abraham Lincoln: Divorce Lawyer for the Wall Street Journal Law Blog.

Abraham Lincoln

Illinois was apparently a progressive state for its time, providing greater access to divorce for women than most southern and eastern states, according to Stacy Pratt McDermott in her report on Lincoln Legal Briefs.

One report shows that between 1837 and 1861, Lincoln’s law practice handled 131 divorce cases across 17 Illinois state courts. Women brought 82 of those cases and divorces were granted to those women in 79% of the cases, while only 69% of men were successful in obtaining divorces. The most common grounds for divorce included desertion, adultery, cruelty, and drunkenness. Other asserted but less common grounds included impotence, fraud, and bigamy. Statistics showed that when desertion was asserted by a woman, it was the most successful grounds, resulting in divorce being granted 82% of the time. When women cited desertion as grounds for divorce, the courts granted the divorce 72% of the time. Men were also most successful in obtaining divorce based on the grounds of desertion and adultery.

Additionally, women in Lincoln’s law practice often obtained custody of their children, especially when they cited cruelty, drunkenness and desertion in combination as grounds. The Illinois courts also provided financial support in the manner of child support and alimony for these women.

During this time, Illinois was granting more divorces per capita than Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri or Ohio. In fact, by 1857, Illinois was leading the nation in granting divorces. Possible reasons for the high rate of divorce in Illinois during this time could be that the population was extremely mobile as an early frontier state with industrialization and railroad development. Also, Illinois had a more liberal viewpoint toward women’s right to divorce than most other states. The Lincoln Legal Briefs website lists some of the cases that Lincoln handled.

It is clear that even though Lincoln was successful in obtaining divorces for women in his day, divorce in generally was not as easy to come by. Fault grounds had to be proven to obtain a divorce. In today’s world, most states, including Texas divorce laws, allow for divorce on no-fault grounds called insupportability. Most women can get divorced if they want to without having to prove who-did-what-to-whom. Can you imagine having a judge tell a women in today’s society that she had to stay married to a man just because she couldn’t prove that he was a drunk or cheater?

In Texas, divorce can be granted based on no-fault grounds of insupportability. Or, if a spouse chooses to plead fault grounds, a divorce can be granted based on adultery, cruelty, abandonment for 1 year or living apart for 3 years (aka desertion), felony conviction, or mental hospitalization for 3 years. Fault grounds for divorce can be used to support a request for a larger division of property, or in some cases where the children may be effected by the behavior, it can be used in a custody case.