and the U.S. Supreme Court:
110 Years Before Yoder
by Steve Nolt
In 1972 public attention focused on the Amish as never before.
That year the church well-known for separation from the world
found itself in the very halls of American political power --
the United States Supreme Court. As defendants in the landmark
case Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Amish heard the Court consider,
and then grant, the legality of Amish schools.
In the near-quarter century since then, the Yoder ruling
has continued to attract public notice and academic comment.
Judges have cited the ruling in hundreds of other legal decisions.
Subsequently, Amish persons appeared as parties in two other
Supreme Court cases, though neither attracted the same popular
interest as the school judgement. At the time, some observers
thought Yoder represented the first Amish foray into the
courtroom, although more knowledgeable parties knew that educational
concerns had brought the Amish and the judiciary together as
early as 1914.
In fact, Wisconsin v. Yoder did not mark the first time
Amish Mennonite parties appeared before the American high court.
One hundred and ten years earlier Supreme Court justices heard
a case brought to them by two Amish Mennonite brothers, Peter
and Christian Farni, of Woodford County, Ill. That case was almost
certainly the earliest encounter between the high bench and any
of the nation's Amish or Mennonite residents. Although the case,
Farni v. Tesson, did not involve dicey issues of religious
freedom or command national attention, it provides one window
into the world of early Amish Mennonite activity in the judicial
world. More importantly, its records provide important insights
into the economic life of a frontier Amish Mennonite community.
In 1830 the first Amish Mennonites settled along the Illinois
River near Fort Clark (now Peoria). Within several years, a sizable
Amish Mennonite community grew up in what became Woodford, Tazewell,
and McLean Counties, with related settlements in adjacent Livingston
and Bureau Counties. By 1834 families had taken up land along
the Mackinaw River, a Illinois tributary. The household of Christian
Farni (1800-1882) was likely the first to arrive there, though
other families soon joined them--including that of Christian's
brother, Peter (1797-1873). Natives of the Lorraine, France,
the brothers had each sojourned in Pennsylvania and Ontario before
moving to Illinois.
Both men played prominent roles in their new Midwestern home,
providing both spiritual and economic leadership in community
life. Peter was an Amish elder (bishop), and Christian, a minister.
Moreover, the two were noted entrepreneurs and agriculturalists.
Shortly after moving to the banks of the Mackinaw, they opened
a saw mill, to which they later added equipment for grinding
corn and grain. Meanwhile, Christian (and to a lesser degree,
Peter) built up a major farming operation. Indeed, the cross-roads
village which grew up around the Farni's southern Woodford County
mill and homesteads came to be known as "Farnisville."
Along with Slabtown, the village on the Mackinaw's opposite bank,
Farnisville grew into a rural commercial center.
During the 1840s and 50s, Midwestern American agriculture underwent
an important shift from subsistence farming to cash cropping.
The Farnis' grist mill catered to this emerging trend. Meanwhile,
frontier communities inevitably developed ties with regional
metropolitan centers such as St. Louis and Chicago. Although
apparently secluded from the wider commercial world, rural villages
were often closely bound to such "central cities" through
contracts, mortgages, and trade routes.
Given these developments, it was hardly surprising that around
1856 two St. Louis-based, French-born investors approached Farnisville
with a scheme to draw the economic bonds between frontier farmers
and the metropolitan marketplace more tightly. The businessmen,
Charles de Boutcam and Paul Carrey, suggested building a distillery,
which, in cooperation with the Farni grist mill, would produce
whiskey from local grain for market in St. Louis. The two Frenchmen
promised a large inheritance from Europe to support the venture,
but needed some local money to get things started. The Farnis
agreed to back the plan, and a sizable "brick and frame
steam- distillery" rose along the Mackinaw. Apparently the
firm operated quite profitably, at first. In only two or three
years, the distillery did $50,000 worth of business.
Nevertheless, trouble loomed. The French inheritance never materialized,
though the Farnis continued to hope it would. Actually, things
were much worse than the brothers realized. The two Frenchmen
had borrowed far beyond their means and experienced chronic shortages
of cash. The Panic of 1857, which struck suddenly in the fall
of that year, caused the distillery to collapse. It also uncovered
the many financial ties which bound the lives of hinterland residents
and St. Louis interests.
A Legal Maze
As the distillery's urban creditors tried to foreclose,
the Frenchmen persuaded the Farnis to post a $17,000 penal bond
to forestall proceedings, while they appealed to the court for
more mercy and time. The Farnis again agreed, but soon discovered
that de Boutcam and Carrey had fled the country leaving the brothers
holding the debt-ridden distillery, and saddled with a pending
bond due to five parties.
In the fall of 1858, one of the distillery's creditors, St. Louis
banker Edward P. Tesson, bought the distillery for a fraction
of its value at a Woodford County sheriff sale. The Farnis now
had no assets -- only liabilities -- from the failed enterprise.
Tesson wasted no time in trying to recover those debts. In December
of that year he sued the Farnis in federal circuit court for
debt of $17,000 and damages amounting to $10,000.
The Farnis now found themselves looking for other metropolitan
contacts -- this time in the form of legal help. The two worked
mostly with Samuel W. Fuller, a Chicago attorney who represented
them through most of the litigious maze. At one point Christian
Farni apparently also consulted Springfield, Ill., lawyer Abraham
Lincoln. Although his work for them was rather limited, Lincoln
did make at least one appearance on their behalf.
The trial proceeded quickly. In June 1859 the federal jury ruled
against the brothers, awarding Tesson the debt he sought, as
well as $7,394.92 in damages. The Farnis, however, were not about
to give up so easily. They had yet to exhausted their legal options.
They decided to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court on
a writ of error -- that is, they did not contend the facts of
the case, but rather the manner in which it was heard. They claimed
that the case lacked federal jurisdiction, and that it really
belonged in state court. If the Farnis owed anything, they argued,
they owed it to all the parties named in their original penal
bond, including an Illinois resident. The appeal process took
a year and a half.
By December 1861, the high court was finally ready to hear the
Farnis' arguments. In addition, the justices reviewed 138-pages
of briefs filed by lawyers for both sides, along with documents
from the lower courts. The opinion, issued the following spring
and written by Justice Robert C. Grier, sided with the Amish
Mennonite parties. The justice scolded Tesson for stripping the
other bond-holders' names from his suit so as to improperly claim
federal jurisdiction and receive the entire award.
Yet the Farnis' troubles were far from over. Although the court
had ruled in their favor, the brothers had simply won the right
to be tried again in state court. Tesson immediately refiled
his claim, this time including the other parties named in the
bond, in Woodford County Circuit Court. But the case was not
heard until December 1867. At that point, the jury sided with
the Farnis, so the plaintiffs filed a writ of error to the Illinois
State Supreme Court. That bench eventually agreed with them,
and in June 1870, sent the case back to the lower court to be
reconsidered. The case languished on the Woodford County docket
until 1873, when its venue changed in Peoria. The final ruling
came in October 1878 in favor of the creditors for the sum of
$17,000 in debt and $17,000 in damages.
By then, however, Peter Farni and one of the creditors were dead,
Christian had moved to Kansas, and Tesson was bankrupt himself.
It is unclear how the tangled judgement was ever resolved.
The case itself provides a number of curious illustrations of
Amish Mennonites and 19th-century litigation. On the one hand,
the Farnis played a much more aggressive and assertive role in
fighting a suit than many observers might expect from Amish Mennonites
living in a milieu of nineteenth-century nonresistant piety and
On the other hand, when the brothers appeared in court "in
their own proper person," they did follow traditional Anabaptist
dictates in affirming the truth, rather than swearing oaths.
Perhaps most surprising to some, the Farnis seem to have received
no official censure from their church. In fact, they continued
functioning as local, and even national church leaders during
their court room activities. In 1864 Christian attended the annual
Amish Mennonite Diener-Versammlung in Goshen, Indiana.
The meeting records no objection to his presence nor any comment
on his recently concluded Supreme Court entanglements or his
pending state trial.
Interesting as these insights into Amish Mennonite attitudes
and actions are, the legal documents which survive from these
cases provide more important source data in the form of rare
information on the economic activities and connections of nineteenth-century
Amish Mennonite frontier settlements. The surviving paperwork
helps illustrate the degree to which rural Amish Mennonite communities
were involved in broader Midwestern patterns linking frontier
economies and regional metropolitan centers.
--Steve Nolt lives in South Bend, Ind., where he is studying
American history at the University of Notre Dame.
A more detailed account of the Farnis' entrepreneurial activities
and Farnisville connections to the wider commercial world will
appear, with documentation, in future issues of Illinois Mennonite
Heritage, the periodical of the Illinois Mennonite Historical
and Genealogical Society.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, July, 1995