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As I mentioned in last week’s article, I am a volunteer at the Vandalia Statehouse. In doing so, I have learned some interesting history – not only of the building and of the artifacts housed there, but of the men who were officeholders during the years 1819 to 1839.
Not long after I began my efforts to help out at the historic site, I was asked by Site Superintendent Steve Riddle if I knew which of the Illinois Supreme Court justices pulled a gun on the governor. It was said that the governor wrestled the gun away from the justice, pistol-whipped him and broke his jaw.
What a story – and one I had never heard before.
The four justices who sat on the Illinois Supreme Court were appointed for life and could not be removed from office unless their character came into question. My first thought was to check my copy of the “Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois,” published in 1910, to see if this incident was recorded in the annals of the state.
The four main justices who occupied the bench when Vandalia was capital included Chief Justice William Wilson and three associate justices, Thomas C. Browne, Samuel D. Lockwood and Theophilus W. Smith.
Justice William Wilson was born in Loudoun County, Va., on April 27, 1784, and studied law with the Hon. John Cook, a distinguished lawyer and minister to France. In 1817, Wilson moved to Kentucky, and two years later moved to Carmi, White County, Illinois.
In 1819, he was appointed associate justice of the Supreme Court of Illinois, as successor to William P. Foster, whom Gov. Ford described as a “great rascal and no lawyer.” In 1825, when he was 30 years old, Justice Wilson was reappointed to the state supreme court bench as chief justice.
He held the position for 29 years. It was written of Judge Wilson that “as a writer, his style was clear and distinct; as a lawyer, his judgment was sound and discriminating.”
Thomas C. Browne was born in Kentucky and studied law there. He came to Shawneetown in 1812, and served in the lower house of the territorial legislature from 1814 to 1816. In 1815, he was appointed as prosecuting attorney, and on admission of Illinois as a state was promoted to the state supreme court bench, being re-elected by joint ballot of the legislature in 1825, serving continuously until 1848.
A close friend of Browne’s said that he was a clear thinker and a good judge of men. A biographical sketch of Judge Browne in the Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois, told that his judicial character and abilities have been differently estimated, and an attempt was made to impeach him before the legislature in 1843, “for want of capacity to discharge the duties of his office.” It failed by an almost unanimous vote.
Samuel Drake Lockwood, born on Aug. 2, 1789, in Westchester County, N.Y., was left fatherless when he was 10 years old. He was sent to live with his uncle, Francis Drake of Waterford, N.Y., with whom he studied law. Samuel was admitted to the bar at Batavia, N.Y., in 1811.
In 1818, in the company of William H. Brown, who also played an important role in early Illinois history, Lockwood descended the Ohio River on a flatboat and walked across country from Shawneetown, reaching Kaskaskia in December 1818. In 1821, he was elected attorney general of Illinois, but resigned the next year to accept the position of secretary of state under Gov. Edward Coles.
In 1824, Lockwood was elected judge of the Illinois Supreme Court by the legislature, and served until 1848. He was always an uncompromising antagonist of slavery. During the years he served on the bench, his home was in Belleville.
Theophilus Washington Smith was born in New York City on Sept. 18, 1784, and served for a time in the U.S. Navy. He studied law in the office of Aaron Burr, and was admitted to the bar of New York in 1805.
Smith came west in 1816, and located in Edwardsville. In 1820, he was an unsuccessful candidate for Illinois Attorney General, being defeated by Samuel D. Lockwood, and was elected to the state senate two years later. In 1823, he was one of the leaders of the “Conventionist” party, whose aim was to adopt a new constitution that would allow slavery in Illinois.
As a jurist, he was charged by his political opponents with being unable to divest himself of his partisan bias, and even privately advising counsel in political causes, of defects in the records which the counsel had not discovered on their own.
Smith was impeached by the Illinois General Assembly in 1832 on charges of “oppressive conduct, corruption and other high misdemeanors in office,” but secured a negative acquittal, a two-thirds vote being necessary for conviction. His was the only impeachment trial held in Illinois until that of Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2009.
The Legislative Research Unit of the Illinois General Assembly has provided verbatim transcripts of the seven articles of impeachment brought against Smith. The first three were for “bargaining off” the office of circuit clerk in Madison and Bond counties.
In early December 1832, Justice Samuel Lockwood wrote a letter to his wife, Mary, telling her of his arrival in Vandalia for the upcoming judicial session and of his disappointment in his lodgings. He also wrote, “There is a great excitement in relation to Judge Smith, and a strong effort will be made to impeach or remove him. In the encounter he had with Gov. Edwards, he had his jaw broke and the bone has not united.”
Smith would carry the scar for the remainder of his life. He died in Chicago on May 6, 1846.