The Common Touch at Trial
Much of Abraham Lincoln’s law practice unfolded in the 8th Judicial Circuit in central Illinois.
But he was hardly a provincial lawyer. His practice took him to the Illinois Supreme Court, the federal courts in Springfield and Chicago, and even the U.S. Supreme Court. Practicing in log cabins, simple frame buildings and the day’s grand “temples of justice,” Lincoln used facts, humor, fairness and simplicity of language to argue effectively before judges and juries.
A popular figure in the courts, Lincoln commanded a high degree of respect among his legal colleagues. That was partly due to his impressive height, but more because of his knowledge of the law, his honesty and his jovial spirit. Not to be taken lightly as an opponent, Lincoln could be a fierce orator in the courtroom, where he honed his innate speaking and storytelling skills into effective tools for his clients.
Lincoln was a proponent of extemporaneous presentations in court (if not in other settings). “It is the lawyer’s avenue to the public,” he said. Many of his courtroom presentations were extemporaneous, but they were hardly unplanned. He often used notes to guide him through his presentations. In the notes he prepared before arguing one case, Lincoln outlined the history of the matter leading up to the trial and highlighted cases supporting his arguments.
Lincoln also was skillful at focusing on the key points in a case. A contemporary newspaper reported that he “never makes a big fight over a small or immaterial point, but frankly admits much, though never enough to damage his case.”
Leonard Swett, a fellow attorney, described Lincoln in the courtroom. At trial, he seldom objected like most attorneys, recounted Swett. Lincoln “reckoned” that it would be fair to let a piece of evidence in that his opponent could not completely prove.
If he did object, and the court overruled him, Lincoln would say that he reckoned he must be wrong. The opposition failed to realize that Lincoln was giving away points he could not win. Instead, he would focus on carrying the main point, and with it the case. Swett concluded that “any man who took Lincoln for a simple- minded man would very soon wake up with his back in a ditch.”
Lincoln used his humor—a well-known trait among colleagues—to good effect in the courtroom. Occasionally, his humorous remarks were simply a disruption, but most of the time he used his humor for a purpose. In an ejectment case, for instance, a witness testifying for the opposition displayed his survey of an addition to the city of Chicago. Lincoln blurted out that it “looks very much like a fancy bed quilt.” The remark got laughs, but it also gained a point. With a short dose of humor, Lincoln discredited an opposing witness without an objection and without rebuke from the court.
In speaking to juries, Lincoln generally followed his own advice to one of his law partners. He urged his partner not to “shoot too high.” Rather, he should “shoot down low, and the common people will understand you.”
Lincoln noted that the “educated ones will understand you anyhow. If you shoot too high your bullets will go over the heads of the mass, and only hit those who need no hitting.”
John A. Lupton Associate Director/Editor, The Papers of Abraham Lincoln project, Springfield, Ill. He wrote a chapter discussing Lincoln’s legal cases for
John A. Lupton