In 1837, while serving in the Illinois state legislature in Springfield, Abraham Lincoln completed his legal training and began practicing. With the exception of a single term as a Whig congressman in Washington, D.C. from 1847-49, the law remained Lincoln’s primary profession until his election to the White House in 1860. In addition to providing a stable income, Lincoln’s modest country practice served to hone the temperament and attributes which would later distinguish him as one of our greatest presidents.
The majority of Lincoln's legal work took place on the Eighth Circuit Court—a route of Illinois county seats he traveled twice annually with his fellow lawyers and a presiding judge. Life on the circuit was not glamorous work, and didn’t pay particularly well, but there was an unpretentious camaraderie among the itinerant lawyers that Lincoln enjoyed, and his folksy charisma in the tavern made him something of an after-hours celebrity. It was, however, in the courtroom itself that Lincoln’s character was most on display.
Since the juries in the circuit’s small towns were generally drawn from farmers and other hardworking rural folk, Lincoln recognized the need to argue his cases in a simple and straightforward manner. An observer noted, “his illustrations were often quaint and homely, but always clear and apt, and generally conclusive…His wit and humor and inexhaustible store of anecdotes, always to the point, added immensely to his powers as a jury advocate.”
Ultimately, for all his skill at arguing one side of a dispute, Lincoln the lawyer was—very much like Lincoln the president—a mediator at heart. When a new justice of the peace asked him for advice, Mr. Lincoln offered the following:
There is no mystery in this matter when you have a case between neighbors before you, listen well to all the evidence, stripping yourself of all prejudice, if any you have, and throwing away, if you can, all technical law knowledge. Hear the lawyers make their argument as patiently as you can; and after the evidence and the lawyers’ arguments are through, then stop one moment and ask yourself: what is justice in this case, and let that sense of justice be your decision. Law is nothing else but the best of wise men applied for ages to the transactions and business of mankind.
In this appeal to reason, forbearance, and objectivity, we see the sensibility of a man who, as president, would struggle tirelessly to keep the nation together, and who, having failed in that, would nurture a spirit of reconciliation long before the fighting had stopped. As historian Brian Dirck has observed, “Lincoln the President tried hard to apply a lawyer’s grease to the shrill machinery of war that surrounded him.”
Gates: After only one term in Washington as a congressman, Lincoln returned to Illinois in 1849 to practice law. By now the father of two children, Lincoln needed to earn a living, but the law also offered him a respite from family obligations and a chance to hone the skills that would one day make him a formidable politician. Goodwin: I think the period as a prairie lawyer is it’s where Lincoln in some ways found his voice, both as a fair man, as an advocate in the court, but even more importantly, it was where he educated himself. Because when he was on the circuit, he was reading. He taught himself Euclidian geometry.
The lawyers would travel in Illinois on the circuit together. You know the judges, the lawyers, the sheriffs, they’re all bouncing from one county courthouse to the other, and so Lincoln developed close friendships his confidence was built up, his relationships with people, his learning, It’s a critical period in his life.
Gates: Today the tiny courthouses on Lincoln’s legal circuit have become tourist destinations, a testament to the reach of his appeal.
Gates: Lincoln was involved in over 5000 court cases, many of them minor property disputes or fights over land boundaries…
Courthouse Speaker: He would mediate cases right there in the park telling people don’t go to court, it’s a waste of time and money.
Gates: Lincoln took just about any case that came his way.
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