N 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 his-
tory that anyone who can connect with him tries to do so, and that’s par-
ticularly 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
BY MARK E. STEINER
FEW LAWYERS TODAY HAVE A PRACTICE AS DI
verse as Abraham Lincoln’s was in the years
before the Civil War. But it was a caseload
that still should sound familiar to lawyers
Lincoln’s practice encompassed nearly
every kind of claim or dispute imaginable in
frontier Illinois. Even as he rose to the head
of his profession in the course of his 25-year
career, the substance of his caseload didn’t
change all that much. After his famous U.S.
Senate campaign against Stephen A. Douglas
in 1858, Lincoln was still handling debt actions, divorces, slander lawsuits and replevin
cases involving horses and mules, just as he
had done two decades earlier as the junior
partner of Stuart & Lincoln.
As a lawyer, Abraham Lincoln took business
as it came. He didn’t have any choice. His
third (and last) law partner, William Henry
Herndon, noted that there were few retainers
available in frontier Illinois, and “the greatest
as well as the least had to join the general
scramble for practice.”
The Papers of Abraham Lincoln project
maintains a database on his law practice that
contains 5,173 cases involving him and his
Lincoln wasn’t a “litigator” in the modern
sense. He was a trial lawyer. He and his partners took more than 1,000 cases to jury verdicts.
Lincoln practiced primarily in the Illinois
circuit courts. Although he “traveled the circuit” throughout his career, he and his partners handled more than 2,300 cases in
Sangamon County, which includes Springfield, where Lincoln lived during most of his
years in practice. At the time, the state circuit
courts had three main divisions: common law,
chancery and criminal.
Common-law cases made up roughly two-thirds of Lincoln’s circuit court practice. The