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This fascinating history explores Abraham Lincoln's legal career, investigating the origins of his desire to practice law, his legal education, his partnerships with John Stuart, Stephen Logan, and William Herndon, and the maturation of his far-flung practice in the 1840s and 1850s. Brian Dirck also examines Lincoln's clientele, how he charged his clients, and how he addressed judge and jury, as well as his views on legal ethics and the supposition that he never defended a client he knew to be guilty.
"Great God Almighty"
"What are you studying?"
Russell Godbey spotted Abraham Lincoln straddling a woodpile one day in the early 1830s, reading a book. It was an odd sight in New Salem—an Illinois village peopled by farmers who by and large weren't avid readers—though maybe not so much for Lincoln. People had grown used to seeing him here and there, propped up and down and around at strange angles, nose buried in a newspaper or book.
Godbey was a stout farmer with a goatee he liked to wear long, a clear, open stare, and a large mouth that turned downward at the ends, the combination of which gave him an almost severely frank countenance—the kind of man who did not mince words and did not like nonsense. In a few years he would make a smart sale of some horses to buy livestock, farmland, and eventually a decent degree of prosperity, settling into a comfortable, balanced life: family of eight (four sons and four daughters), church deacon, state militia captain, a gold watch chain curving out from a slowly increasing paunch. The very picture of respectability was Russell Godbey.
He was a Jackson man—like most people in New Salem—where Lincoln was a Whig. Godbey looked, dressed, and acted the part of a middle-class farmer; he would not have been very distinguishable from a half-dozen other Russell Godbeys in the area. Lincoln, on the other hand, stuck out like a sore thumb, a big one, with his towering height, ill-fitted clothes, and curious mannerisms. Still, Godbey liked Lincoln, who was if nothing else a good storyteller. He had once hired Lincoln to survey some land, and later voted for him despite his Whig politics.
"Abe, what are you studying?"
Lincoln looked up, the clouds of concentration drifting away from his eyes as he brought Godbey into focus. He furrowed his thick eyebrows. His head had been deep into the book, and his answer was uncharacteristically terse. "Studying law."
Godbey could not have been more surprised if Lincoln had told him he was reading up on moonbeams. He could only splutter, "Great God Almighty!"
Lincoln went back to his book.
He never really explained why he wanted to become a lawyer. Perhaps—as with so many other aspects of his professional life—the reasons were so pedestrian that they blended almost unnoticeably into the general background of his life. But the decision itself required effort and diligence, and careful thought. As Godbey's reaction suggests, it was not a natural fit.
People become lawyers for many different reasons. Some want to promote social justice, and decide (rightly or wrongly) that the courtroom is the best place to promote, on the practical level of dispute resolution, high ideals of justice and the greater good. "Where can I work where it will make a difference to society?" is a common question posed to modern-day law school deans. Journalist-turned-law-student Chris Goodrich wrote of a friend at Yale Law School in the late 1980s who, when asked why she was there, answered simply, to "help people."
Others think the law is a good place to feed their competitive spirit, which tends to be highly developed in the legal profession. Courtrooms appeal to some aspiring lawyers as a great place to feed their appetite for (relatively) bloodless forensic combat. Goodrich also remembered a fellow student named Denise, who "liked nothing better than a good argument ... or a bad argument, so long as her position was winning." Recalling his days growing up in tiny Kinsman, Ohio, renowned early-twentieth-century lawyer Clarence Darrow noted that the local tinsmith doubled as justice of the peace and wrote, "I never missed a chance to go over to his shop when a case was on trial. I enjoyed the way the pettifoggers abused each other."
Still others just need a good job. The law "affords fewer prospects of making great estates," Daniel Webster observed, "but more certainty of earning a comfortable living." The law offers a generally lucrative and accessible path to middle- and upper-class comforts for people who might not otherwise bring to their pursuit of happiness anything more than a sharp mind. It was "a means to a livelihood," early-twentieth-century lawyer and poet Archibald MacLeish explained, though he also admitted that "it was a very exciting intellectual discipline." "Law has always meant brains, money, security, and respect," observed one recent law student.
Those who in Lincoln's day contemplated the law as a possible occupation faced somewhat different circumstances. In an age when reform was so tightly wound around religious people and institutions, the profession seems to have attracted relatively few genuine social reformers. Its competitive aspects were appealing to those with high political ambitions: Lincoln's longtime rival Stephen Douglas, for example, who used his relatively brief stint at the bar to propel himself into the state attorney general's seat in 1834, a judgeship, and eventually the U.S. Senate.
Antebellum men could also look upon the bar as a good place to earn money and a respectable living. This was more than just a paycheck; it was an identity within which was bound up much of what it meant to be a man. In Lincoln's father's day, manhood had been a function of farming and agriculture, occupations where the lines between work, home, and family were so blurry as to be almost irrelevant. But by Lincoln's time, the relatively new concept of a profession—a lawyer, a doctor, a minister—involved separating one's way of earning a living from domestic life, and investing the workplace with an extraordinary amount of prestige and importance. "In what condition is a man placed, who has no regular calling or profession?" asked a commentator in 1852, "Certainly without any definite object or aim. He must either give himself up to indolence and ease, or else employ himself about many things and no one thing in particular." Young men knew they were crossing a line into full-blown manhood when they received whatever training was necessary to ply their profession. Future president Rutherford B. Hayes described the start of his legal studies as "enter[ing] the portals of the profession in which is locked up the passport which is to conduct me to all I am destined to receive in life."
What about Lincoln?
If a desire to promote some abstract sense of justice was a motivating factor in Lincoln's pursuit of a legal career, there is no record of the fact. In his "notes for a law lecture," Lincoln mentioned diligence, thrift, industry, and personal honesty as necessary character traits for a good lawyer, but he did not argue for a lawyer's place as an agent of the good society. Lincoln did place moral truth and its pursuit at the center of his political philosophy, speaking of the "moral lights around us" and "the light of reason and the love of liberty in this American people." But as an attorney Lincoln gave no indication that he felt it was his duty to nurture the moral lights in a courtroom.
He did have a competitive nature, as witnessed by his love of wrestling and games: everything from chess to handball. His competitiveness and his legal studies functioned in close proximity to one another, timewise. One neighbor recalled that during that winter of 1831–32, Lincoln "read in the mornings and Evenings—would play at various games." But no one around him seems to have thought him an overly fierce competitor, and no one remarked upon a manifestation in him of a win-at-all-costs mentality. Possibly he came to enjoy the forensic warfare of the courtroom, but he never actually said so; and there is no suggestion that this was decisive in bringing him to the profession in the first place.
Did he pursue the law because he wanted "brains, money, security, and respect"? This comes closer to the mark. In 1832 he was twentythree years old, and he certainly needed a steady job, for he had already sampled quite a few others—postman, store clerk, land surveyor, rafts-man and riverboat worker, and manual laborer of various types—which had combined to lift him just above the edge of poverty. Or, as he put it, all those odd jobs had merely "procured bread, and kept soul and body together." If he ever wanted to become more than the village jack-of-all-trades, he had to find a respectable, steady occupation.
But there were other routes to respectability besides the law for a healthy white man like Lincoln, routes that were less risky and fit better with his pedigree. Farming was the preferred occupation of his neighbors. In terms of accessibility and social approval, it was probably the easiest option. Given his background—"I was raised to farm work"—and lack of education, Lincoln stood a better chance of growing up to be Russell Godbey than he did John Marshall, or even Stephen Douglas. In doing so he might have better availed himself of his family's slim resources. Lincoln's father Thomas was a farmer and a carpenter. Their strained relationship aside, he could probably have obtained sufficient training in woodwork from Thomas to supplement a farming income. It was a common enough arrangement in his day.
The law was, comparatively speaking, a much riskier venture. It was easy to become a lawyer in the 1830s; a little too easy. Lawyers were "as plentiful as blackberries," and Americans routinely complained that the nation had too many of them. "A town that can't support one lawyer can always support two," went a popular joke. More than one lawyer-to-be wondered if some profession with a bit more security might not be in order. Daniel Webster temporarily interrupted his legal studies in 1802 to take up school teaching and pay the bills for his ailing father's household, and during the interlude wondered if it might not be a better idea to remain a teacher, where he was guaranteed at least a steady (if modest) living. "What shall I do?" he wrote a friend, "Shall I say 'Yes, Gentlemen,' and sit down here to spend my days in a kind of comfortable privacy, or shall I relinquish these prospects, and enter into a profession [the law] ... where my living must be squeezed from penury (for rich folks seldom go to law)?"
Lincoln had no viable alternative like teaching should he falter at his studies, fail his bar exam, prove unable to establish a good partnership, or drum up business. Other American attorneys usually came to the profession with an alternative ready at hand should the law prove a disappointment. Boston's Jeremiah Gridley ran a newspaper while studying for the bar and, like Webster, possessed experience as a schoolteacher. Edward Hatch might have fallen back on his early career as a blacksmith had his legal career proven a failure. Others could move from lawyering to more lucrative fields when the opportunity arose. Illinois attorney Lyle Smith gave up his practice not long after he started because of a fortune reaped in land speculation. Southerner Angus Patterson was able to take over the practice of an older lawyer who was slowly making the transition to cotton planter. Lincoln's future secretary of state William Seward gladly gave up his law practice to start a new career in land development.
In contrast, Lincoln did not have much in the way of viable alternatives. If the law had proven to be a disappointment, he might possibly have returned to the hand-to-mouth odd jobs he managed to pick up here and there in New Salem. He would have probably gotten by well enough, but it was not an encouraging prospect for anyone who wanted to do more than merely "keep body and soul together." Lincoln might have told himself that his education offered a reasonable security blanket—if he had any. Most other neophyte lawyers possessed the rudiments of a liberal education to help them along. John Belton O'Neal, for example, briefly attended college before he tried his hand at a legal career. Johnson Hagood was described as a "self-made man" by contemporaries, and he resembled Lincoln in his path to the law—he came from a poor family and once worked as a general store clerk—but even Hagood had gotten some exposure to the classics and what might be called a light liberal education. Although there was no formal professional standard for a prelaw education, most American attorneys agreed that no young man should seek entrance to the bar without a few years of intellectual preparation or, better yet, a college degree. But Lincoln had nothing. He himself later wrote that he hesitated before beginning his legal studies because, as he put it, he "rather thought he could not succeed at that without a better education."
He also lacked the family connections that sometimes guided a beginning attorney. Ebenezer Hoar read law in his father's office in Concord, Massachusetts, before being admitted to the bar in 1839; Thomas Coffin Amory of Boston read for the exam in his uncle's office, as did John Holley of Wayne County, New York, and Roswell Field, who would someday act as Dred Scott's lawyer. An elder family member could also steer a young man clear of the bar if it seemed like a poor choice. Future Confederate president Jefferson Davis was dissuaded by his older brother Joseph—a rich Mississippi lawyer and planter—from a legal career, and chose to attend West Point instead.
Lincoln was in many respects a cautious man. "He was Slow to form his Opinions [and] he was deliberate," according to a friend. At some point he would have carefully weighed the possible risks and rewards involved in a legal career—and there were substantial risks. On the other hand, there were aspects of his life prior to 1832 that, taken together, pushed him in the general direction of the bar. The law may not have been an inevitable fit for this lanky, semieducated farm boy—but Godbey's "Great God Almighty!" reaction wasn't quite fair, either.
Lincoln knew courtrooms at an early age. His father spent a fair amount of time serving on juries, filing deeds, and attending sheriff's sales in Kentucky. Thomas also found himself embroiled in legal disputes involving the title to his land. The state was notorious for its inaccurate land surveys and bad record keeping, and Thomas was taken to court in a variety of lawsuits stemming from conflicting claims to his property. He was sued for an unpaid debt in 1813, and he was subjected to legal action by a carpentry customer who sued Thomas for the "unworkman like manner" in which he prepared some lumber. The case was later dismissed. Even as a child, Lincoln was surely aware of his father's ongoing legal issues; he might have accompanied Thomas to one of his court appearances.
After the family relocated across the Ohio River into an area of southern Indiana known as Pigeon Creek, Lincoln lived about fifteen miles from three different courthouses in Warrick, Spencer, and Perry counties. At various times he found his way into these courts and watched their proceedings from the galleries along with other spectators. He loved a good speech, and courtrooms were a great place to hear an oratorical performance. Frontier Americans enjoyed "court day," described by one contemporary as a combination of "bustle, business, energy, hilarity, novelty, irony, sarcasm, excitement and eloquence." Trial arguments in such circumstances were one of the best forms of entertainment around. "The people came hundreds of miles to see the judges and hear the lawyers 'plead,' as they called it," remembered one Indiana attorney.
When he arrived in New Salem, Lincoln continued his courtroom hobby, attending the proceedings of a village justice named Bowling Green. Green was very fat—"weighing I should think not far from 300 pounds," according to one account. He was also a slob, especially for a judge, presiding over his little legal fiefdom in shirt and trousers, "the latter supported by one tow linnen suspender." Like Lincoln, Justice Green was given to jokes and funny stories, and the two men struck up a friendship. Some in New Salem later suggested that Green acted as an elder father figure and mentor for Lincoln. Lincoln was also said to have argued cases before Green's court, "as there were no Attorneys nearer than Springfield."
Watching (and perhaps participating) in these legal proceedings, Lincoln would have observed the need for close and careful reading, and for competent speechmaking, at the bar. He was good at both. "Lincoln was a great talker [and] a good reader," remembered his cousin, Dennis Hanks. To some of the hardscrabble farmers who were his neighbors, those habits smelled of idleness. "Abe was awful lazy," recalled a farmer, "he worked for me [but] was always reading and thinking—[and I] used to get mad at him." The law was the only profession within his reach where reading and talking were not the mark of laziness, but of merit—that, and politics.
Excerpted from Lincoln the Lawyer by Brian Dirck. Copyright © 2007 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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1 "Great God Almighty" 9
2 The Brethren 33
3 Promissory Notes 54
4 The Energy Men 76
5 The Show 99
6 Death and the Maidens 120
7 Storytelling 138
8 Grease 154
Bibliography and Sources 211
Posted January 3, 2012
This book is based on an enormous amount of collaborative research and the concept behind it is very commendable. Although, I found it somewhat disappointing. The book gives a peek into the time period of the early 1800's in the legal community of America, but many of Mr. Dirck's comments are very speculative. Rather than making the original documents available for the reader to see and form their own opinion about the 16th President as a lawyer, he makes comments about the cases in which Mr. Lincoln was involved in and flavors them with his own perspective.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.