Abraham Lincoln, Esq.
In the public mind, Abraham Lincoln is best remembered as our 16th president—perhaps the greatest in U.S. history. He steered the nation through the turmoil of the Civil War, issued the Emancipation Proclamation and set the standard for presidential eloquence with the Gettysburg Address.
But before all that, Lincoln was a lawyer.
And not just in name. For a quarter-century—from 1836 until he was inaugurated as president in 1861—practicing law was Lincoln’s primary livelihood. Based in Springfield, Ill., but also “riding circuit” in other parts of the state, Lincoln maintained a busy and diverse practice.
Lincoln was well-liked by colleagues for his direct manner, sense of humor and storytelling abilities, but as the bicentennial of his birth is commemorated in 2009, he may be a more popular—and relevant—figure among lawyers than ever.
“Lincoln is such an iconic figure in American history that anyone who can connect with him tries to do so, and that’s particularly true of lawyers,” says Daniel W. Stowell, director and editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, a project of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield. “If you’re an attorney, you’ve got an automatic and strong connection to Lincoln.”
But Lincoln’s legal career is much more than a matter of historic interest, say Stowell and other experts. His caseload still has a very familiar ring, especially during the nation’s current economic crisis: real estate transactions, mortgage foreclosures, divorces, debtor-creditor cases and civil trial work. And even where the law has evolved since antebellum days, Stowell says, “the types of human conflicts were similar, so his approach to them still informs the work of lawyers today.”
The project has helped shed more light in recent years on the nature of Lincoln’s work as a lawyer. Last year, the University of Virginia Press published The Papers of Abraham Lincoln: Legal Documents and Cases, a four-volume print collection of 750 documents from 65 cases. And this year, a second edition of The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition, which was published originally in 2000 by the University of Illinois Press, will be available online at no charge.
Some historians contend that practicing law took second chair to Lincoln’s political ambitions, but Stowell maintains that the evidence suggests otherwise. “Yes, he was a politician early on, but being a lawyer to Lincoln was something more than a way to make money,” says Stowell. “I think the law was more than just a steppingstone to Lincoln.”
A Docket That Reflects Then and Now
Eloquence in One Draft
The Common Touch at Trial
Training Ground for the Presidency
More Than Just a Bill of Lading
See also: A Lincoln Reading List
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This month’s “What We Can Still Learn from Lincoln the Lawyer” is from 1-2 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Feb. 18.
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