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Prairie Justice

Prairie Justice

A History of Illinois Courts under French, English, and American Law

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Roger L. Severns. Edited by John A. Lupton


E-book (Other formats: Hardcover)
24 illustrations


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About the Book

Winner, ISHS Superior Achievement Award for a Scholarly Publication, 2016

A concise legal history of Illinois through the end of the nineteenth century, Prairie Justice covers the region’s progression from French to British to early American legal systems, which culminated in a unique body of Illinois law that has influenced other jurisdictions. Written by Roger L. Severns in the 1950s and published in serial form in the 1960s, Prairie Justice is available now for the first time as a book, thanks to the work of editor John A. Lupton, an Illinois and legal historian who also contributed an introduction.

Illinois’ legal development demonstrates the tension between two completely different European legal systems, between river communities and prairie towns, and between agrarian and urban interests. Severns uses several rulings—including a reconstitution of the Supreme Court in 1824, slavery-related cases, and the impeachment of a Supreme Court justice—to examine political movements in Illinois and their impact on the local judiciary. Through legal decisions, the Illinois judiciary became an independent, co-equal branch of state government. By the mid-nineteenth century, Illinois had established itself as a leading judicial authority, influencing not only the growing western frontier but also the industrialized and farming regions of the country. With a close eye for detail, Severns reviews the status of the legal profession during the 1850s by looking new members of the Court, the nostalgia of circuit riding, and how a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln rose to prominence.

Illinois has a rich judicial history, but that history has not been adequately documented until now. With the publication of Prairie Justice, those interested in Illinois legal history finally have a book that covers the development of the state’s judiciary in its formative years.


Roger L. Severns (1906–61) earned degrees from Beloit College and Chicago Kent College of Law and his Juris Doctor degree in 1938 from the University of Chicago Law School. Severns taught law at Chicago Kent College of Law and practiced law at the firm of Isham, Lincoln, and Beale before leaving that firm to form Parkhill, Severns and Stansell.

John A. Lupton is the executive director at the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission in Springfield. Prior to that, he worked for the Lincoln Legal Papers and the Papers of Abraham Lincoln. He has degrees in history from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and the University of Illinois Springfield. He has published a number of articles and chapters about Illinois history and about Abraham Lincoln as an Illinois lawyer.


Prairie Justice will provide leads for students investigating a whole range of topics related to Illinois history and U.S. legal history. Though written in the 1950s, editor John Lupton has provided notes to the rich literature of legal history that has emerged in the intervening decades. Numerous now-forgotten but nevertheless important cases are glossed here, and the mini-biographies are a good place to start in looking for the background of specific Illinois justices.”—Stewart Winger, associate professor, Illinois State University

“Illinois and most of the Midwest lived under French law and justice for more than a century, and traces of the French system linger in our law today. Prairie Justice tells that story well, mixing colorful stories with sound scholarship. This book is a useful resource and a good read for anyone interested in early Illinois law and culture.”—Joseph A. Ranney, attorney and Marquette Law School adjunct professor