Book Review: Lincoln The Lawyer

Lincoln The Lawyer, by Frederick Trevor Hill

One of the more fascinating and obscure aspects of Lincoln’s career is his time as a lawyer, and at least a few books have been written about this subject [1].  That said, although there have been well over ten thousand books about Abraham Lincoln, a substantial portion of which I have read, one of the consistently neglected aspects of Lincoln’s life has been his business as a lawyer, which took up a substantial amount of his time, being his source of income for most of his adult life, and being one of the key ways he developed his own philosophy on the law and important political contacts with other lawyer-politicians with whom he interacted in the courts.  This is a book written by someone who was able to get to know people who had dealt with Lincoln personally and as a result this is a classic work that deserves to be read even if it is a somewhat old text, published in the early 20th century.  Too many people caricature Lincoln as being a silly storyteller and do not recognize the seriousness of his legal acumen even in the primitive times in which he started his legal career.

This book is a bit more than 300 pages and it is divided into twenty-five chapters and three appendices.  After a foreword, the book begins with a discussion of Lincoln’s modest family background (1) and the real source of the appeal of the law in the observation of prairie justice (2), along with a discussion of the primitive bench and bar of Indiana (3) and Illinois (7), and his legal apprenticeship (4) and early attitude towards the law (5).  The author discusses Lincoln as a law student (6) as well as an early partner (8) and looks at his early cases and competitors (9) as well as his slack habits as a managing clerk (10) and early successes (11).  The author discusses his move up in partnering with Logan (12, 13), and then his decision to strike out as a head of his own law firm (14) as well as his time in Congress (15).  The author examines Lincoln’s life on the circuit court (16), his relationship with Judge Davis (17), his experience as a leader of the bar (18), as a jury lawyer (19), and as a cross-examiner (20).  The author then points out Lincoln’s ethics (21), his legal reputation (22), the use of law in the Lincoln-Douglas debates (23), as well as how Lincoln’s time as a lawyer informed his experience as a candidate in 1860 (24) as well as president (25).  The appendices of the book then discuss some material from the Illinois Supreme Court (i), Lincoln’s case for payment against the Illinois Central Railroad (ii), and his cases in Illinois courts of last resort (iii).

Lincoln’s career as a lawyer demonstrates at least a few aspects of Lincoln the politician and Lincoln the man that are worthwhile.  We see the author correcting biographies that viewed Lincoln’s attitude towards the law as being less than serious, and the resulting picture is one that does Lincoln a lot of credit as not only a person of high ethics (and a decidedly low quality of commercial genius) but also as a person of considerable ability in practicing the law and seeing the essential aspects of a case to focus on.  The author’s preference for civil law over criminal law and his inability to present a case without having a belief in his client’s cause is certainly notable as well.  One wonders how Lincoln would have fared in a contemporary world where the vast majority of people and companies that one would deal with are even less ethical than they were in the middle 19th century.  Lincoln’s high ethics and the dividends it paid him as a constitutional scholar and practical politician are something that deserve a great deal of attention, especially when one considers the low repute that lawyers have as people of honor in our own contemporary world.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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