"Profession, a Lawyer": Recent Scholarship Sheds Light on Abraham Lincoln's Law Practice

By Vickrey, Barry R. | South Dakota Law Review, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

"Profession, a Lawyer": Recent Scholarship Sheds Light on Abraham Lincoln's Law Practice


Vickrey, Barry R., South Dakota Law Review


We lawyers like to emphasize the impact of Abraham Lincoln's legal training and experience on his achievements as arguably our greatest president. Why shouldn't we? What profession wouldn't want to claim a person whose extraordinary command of language, uncanny ability to assess others, strategic use of wit, keen analytical powers, inexhaustible intellectual curiosity, along with commitment to principle, willingness to change, appreciation of the necessity of hard work, and unconditional sacrifice of his ego and ultimately his life in the service of his calling, seem unparalleled in the history of our nation or perhaps even humanity.

The problem is that our professional claim on Lincoln's greatness may not be justified. The historical record suggests a disconnect between Lincoln's career as a lawyer and his presidency. In part, this may have resulted from the perceptions of Lincoln and his backers that voters are, at best, ambivalent in their opinions of lawyers. In part, it may reflect the fact that Lincoln's legal career-though quite accomplished for his time and place--was in a time and place that hardly seemed a springboard for greatness on the national stage at our nation's time of greatest crisis.

Although the completion of the Lincoln Legal Papers project a decade ago is a scholarly watershed in the evaluation of Lincoln's law practice, it is unlikely that even this event will make it possible to settle the debate about how much of

Lincoln's political greatness is attributable to his legal career. And as important as that debate may be to our professional self-image, even more important is what we can learn from Lincoln's legal career to make us better lawyers. Just as Lincoln famously challenged us as citizens to find the "better angels of our nature," (4) we should employ the "better angels" of Lincoln's life in the law as models for our professional behavior.

The Lincoln Legal Papers project has spawned three books in the last six years which add substantially to our knowledge of Lincoln's legal career. An Honest Calling: The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln, authored by South Texas College of Law Professor Mark E. Steiner in 2006, describes Lincoln's law practice in detail and examines the principles that guided him as a lawyer. (5) In Lincoln the Lawyer, published in 2007, Anderson University history Professor Brian Dirck focuses on the historical context of Lincoln's practice, suggesting that Lincoln was a typical lawyer of his time and place. (6) Abraham Lincoln, Esq.: The Legal Career of America's Greatest President, published in 2010, is a collection of essays compiled by former Rhode Island Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank J. Williams and Professor Roger Billings of Northern Kentucky University's Salmon P. Chase College of Law. (7) This latest book starts with essays that attempt to re-evaluate Lincoln's legal career within the context of the Lincoln Legal Papers project; essays by Steiner and Dirck are included in this overview section. The remaining essays cover a wide range of topics, including the legal language employed by Lincoln, specific subject areas of his practice (debtor-creditor and real estate law), ethical issues he encountered, the geographical context of his practice, and even his insights on constitutional and international law as president. Another valuable product of the Lincoln Legal Papers project is Michael Burlingame's discussion of Lincoln's law practice in his comprehensive 2008 biography. (8)

Perhaps the most surprising insight from these books--and what they glean from the Lincoln Legal Papers--is just how mundane Lincoln's law practice was. (9) While he was a leading trial and appellate lawyer of his time and place, his practice was dominated by debt-collection matters. This tedious, high-volume, low-pay work consumed three-quarters of his law practice. (10)

This raises the question of how a legal practice of such a mundane nature could prepare a person to be one of our greatest presidents. …

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