Abraham Lincoln: American Lawyer-President

By Dirck, Brian | Social Education, January-February 2009 | Go to article overview

Abraham Lincoln: American Lawyer-President


Dirck, Brian, Social Education


Abraham Lincoln was the most experienced trial lawyer Americans have ever placed in the White House. While more than half of our nation's presidents have been attorneys, none possessed Lincoln's extensive courtroom experience: approximately 3,800 known cases, litigated during a quarter century at the Illinois bar. (1)

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However, the law's influence on Lincoln extended far beyond the mere number of cases he litigated. It was his only steady source of income; it gave him important political contacts within the state's bench and bar; and it was the means by which he met an extraordinary number of his constituents. As a lawyer, Lincoln also learned how to communicate with the common people he confronted in jury boxes and courtroom galleries, how to resolve disputes among family members and neighbors, and how to preserve law and order and maintain community harmony--all lessons that would serve him well as president

The law was not a natural choice for Lincoln. He noted in his writings that he was "raised to farm work." When he struck out on his own in 1831, at the age of 22, arriving in the Illinois village of New Salem (like a piece of "floating driftwood," as he put it), he tried all sorts of occupations--everything from postmaster to land surveyor--in an attempt to earn a living. He later wrote that he "thought of trying to study law," but "rather thought he could not succeed at that without a better education." (2)

Eventually, however, Lincoln decided that the law was his best hope for earning decent money, achieving respectability, and feeding his growing political ambitions. He never attended a law school; few lawyers back then did. Rather, he borrowed the necessary books from a friend, attorney John Todd Stuart of Springfield, studied the books carefully, and then took an oral exam. Upon passing, he was entered into the Sangamon County, Illinois, docket book as a man of "good moral character" on March 24, 1836. (3)

Stuart became Lincoln's first law partner. Theirs was a profitable--if somewhat difficult--partnership, made so by Stuart's frequent absences, including his election to Congress in 1838, which left neophyte Lincoln alone to manage their sprawling practice. Lincoln was still raw around the edges, unsure of himself, and given to sloppiness in handling paperwork and the minutiae of everyday life as an attorney. He also sometimes entered courtrooms improperly attired. One client exclaimed that Lincoln looked like "a country rustic on his visit to the circus," and fired him on the spot. (4)

Stuart and Lincoln parted ways in 1841. Lincoln then partnered with Stephen Logan, an irascible but brilliant local judge (Lincoln tried his first case in Logan's courtroom) who had decided to re-enter private practice. In many ways, Logan helped professionalize Lincoln, teaching him the fundamentals of paperwork, administration, and proper courtroom behavior. Logan later stated that Lincoln's "knowledge of the law was very small when I took him in." But Logan admired his partner's work ethic and his tenacity. "He would get a case and try to know all there was connected with it." And in this way, according to Logan, Lincoln "got to be quite a formidable lawyer." (5)

In 1844, Logan decided to create a new firm with his son, and Lincoln again found himself without a partner. By this point, Lincoln was an experienced attorney who had litigated more than 1,000 cases; he was now a senior partner, looking for a junior partner to complement his skills and expertise. He found such a man in William (Billy) H. Herndon--Lincoln's third and final law partner.

Herndon was, in many respects, quite different from Lincoln; nine years younger, he came from a comfortable middle-class household, and enjoyed a brief stint in college before entering the bar. Where Lincoln was at his best delivering jury speeches, Herndon's strong suit was research. And while their politics were similar (both were anti slavery), Herndon was very much the dreamer and philosopher, contrasting with Lincoln's eminently pragmatic approach to life. …

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