“As a young lawyer, Lincoln quickly learned that success in the legal profession, and in
politics, requires boundless energy and the ability to juggle multiple responsibilities.”
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
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.”
Training Ground for the Presidency
BY FRANK J. WILLIAMS
WHEN LINCOLN WAS ELECTED PRESIDENT IN 1860, HE
had less experience in public office than almost every
president who had preceded him. His career in government amounted to eight years in the Illinois General
Assembly and another two in the U.S. House of Representatives.
What Lincoln did have, however, was a quarter-century of experience practicing law, much of it “riding circuit” in the often rough-and-tumble courts of central
Illinois. Lincoln relied on his extensive legal experience to inform the difficult decisions he would be
forced to make as president.
Political philosopher Edmund Burke once opined
that “the legal profession renders its practitioners
acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready
in defense, full of resources. No other profession is
more closely connected with actual life than the law. It
concerns the highest of all temporal interests of man—
property, reputation, the peace of all families, the arbitrations and peace of nations, liberty, life even, and the
very foundations of society.”
Law practice certainly had such an effect on Lincoln.
The numerous lessons he learned as a lawyer prepared
him as president to confront those issues at the “very
foundations of society.”
As a young lawyer, Lincoln quickly learned that success in the legal profession, and in politics, requires
boundless energy and the ability to juggle multiple responsibilities. He had to balance the demands of his
heavy caseload with his duties as an Illinois state legislator and emerging party leader. This served him well
later as president, when he had the awesome responsibility of guiding the nation in multiple capacities as
commander in chief, chief executive, legislative leader,
chief diplomat and party head.
Another benefit of Lincoln’s legal career was that it
offered him plenty of chances to develop his rhetorical
skills. Lincoln had countless public-speaking opportunities in the courtroom, on the campaign trail and on
the floor of the legislature. Without this experience and
practice, he would have been no match for Stephen A.
Douglas in their famous debates as U.S. Senate candidates in 1858. Douglas won that election, but the debates ultimately propelled Lincoln to the presidency.
Like any good lawyer, Lincoln worked hard at devel-
PHOTOGRAPHS: SHAWN THEW/EPA/CORBIS, MORTON BEEBE/CORBIS, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS PRINTS AND PHOTOGRAPHS
DIVISION, BETTMANN/CORBIS GEORGE EASTMAN HOUSE/GETTY IMAGES, CORBIS. GRAPHIC BY JAMIE JACKSON.