Before he ever became President, Abraham Lincoln was a successful attorney. Summaries of his cases can be found here. These summaries make for interesting reading. When I reflect upon the practice of family law, an overriding sentiment is that truth is truly stranger than fiction. This was true in Lincoln’s time. What follows is a summary of one of Lincoln’s divorce cases, Cowls vs. Cowls. It is a great privilege to practice in the same area of the law as Lincoln.
Ann Cowls obtained a divorce from her husband, Thomas Cowls, but the court made no provisions for the two children, who remained with their father. Later, Ann Cowls sued Thomas Cowls to gain custody of the children and to obtain an increase in alimony for the children’s maintenance. Ann Cowls claimed that Thomas Cowls was living with a prostitute, whom he married two weeks before the custody suit began, that he fought with his new wife and swore in front of the children, and that he was habitually intoxicated. The court granted Ann Cowls custody of the children, and maintenance of $60 per year for five years. Thomas Cowls retained Lincoln and appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, which affirmed the decree. Thomas Cowls argued that the circuit court refused to allow him to take depositions, but the Supreme Court ruled that the lower court had allowed him to present any evidence and that the case did not warrant a continuance for depositions after the court had sufficient evidence for a ruling. The Supreme Court confirmed that a chancery court had an ancient right to interfere and control the estates, persons, and custody of all minors. The court also implemented the “best-interest-of-the-child” doctrine, which recognized that it was the special duty of a republican government to oversee the care and education of children so that they might become useful citizens. Lincoln and Herndon received $20 for their legal services.