Abraham Lincoln: Prairie Lawyer, by John J. Duff
Abraham Lincoln’s career as a lawyer is one of those strange areas of history that many historians tangle with at one point or another. This author has high views of Lincoln as a lawyer, as well as specifically his being a lawyer’s lawyer, who was a ready resource for other lawyers when it came to assistance as well as representation in appellate cases. He also has a high degree of praise for Lincoln’s lawyering skills when it comes to a wide variety of tasks, including choosing juries, researching for cases, focusing on the most important parts and avoiding being too rambling, cross-examination, and closing arguments. The author sees, quite sensibly, Lincoln’s skill as a lawyer in being directly relevant to his behavior as the leader of the United States and therefore sees Lincoln’s legal career as being an essential aspect of his political career. The author points out Lincoln’s idealism as well as his judicial temperament and if not exhaustive in his treatment of Lincoln’s legal career, he certainly draws the reader’s attention to various complex aspects of this legal apprenticeship for political office and the essential nature of Lincoln’s experiences and interests to the sorts of cases he succeeded well it, including intellectual property law relating to novel technological advances and their legal implications.
This book is close to 400 pages long and begins with acknowledgements and then goes into 21 chapters dealing with various aspects of Lincoln’s legal career. The author discusses Lincoln’s early contacts with the law in frontier Indiana and Illinois (1), as well as the shape of his lawyer career and how it came to be (2) and how he got to be a partner with the more experienced Stuart in his first partnership (3). After that the author discusses the Truett murder case (4), the early law years of Lincoln’s career (5), and the two later partnerships that Lincoln was involved with with Logan (6) and Herndon (7). The author discusses the relationship between law and politics on the prairie (8), the Matson slave case where Lincoln represented a slaveowner (9), as well as Lincoln’s visits to the Supreme Court (10). The author looks at the Eighth judicial circuit in some detail (11, 12), as well as Lincoln’s experiences in the federal court (13), and the Illinois Supreme Court (14). There are chapters that deal with Lincoln’s pardon petitions (15), his law clerks (16), and his work as a judge as well as prosecuting attorney (17). There are then chapters on the McClean County Tax case (18), Lincoln’s interest in law and politics towards the close of his legal career (19), the Effie Afton case (20), and finally the closing time of his experience as a lawyer (21), after which the book closes with notes, two appendices, a bibliography, and an index.
There are at least two elements of this book that are fascinating. On one level, the book does a great job at showing the wide variety of legal work that Lincoln was involved in, including its broad range, its relationship to his political career, the complexity of Lincoln’s own personality and who he chose to associate with, and the nature of the law during the pioneer age of Illinois history. Most of this writing will be of interest to those for whom Lincoln’s law career is a worthwhile aspect of their own interests in Abraham Lincoln and his life and times. There is, however, another aspect of this book which is fascinating, and that is the author’s own hostility towards Herndon and Herndon’s approach and judgment of Abraham Lincoln’s legal abilities, which the author views as being damning with faint praise and lacking understanding. It does appear that those who wade far into Lincoln’s writing by necessity have to account for Herndon as a source and will either tend to have high or low views accordingly of Herndon’s intuitiveness as well as his occasional acts of cattiness. How you feel about Herndon will influence how you feel about this book, at least to the extent that the reader has a strong view either way.