Abraham Lincoln: His Story/Chapter 3
A man stands revealed by his work. For twenty-three years Abraham Lincoln practiced law and sowed the harvest which the nation reaped in his presidency.
He was admitted to the bar in 1836, and his bar examinations consisted simply of an inquiry into his moral character. In those frontier days judges and lawyers depended more on common-sense than on common-law, and most of the courthouses were log cabins. A contemporary of Lincoln remembered that when Judge John Reynolds sat in the Circuit Court of Washington County, the sheriff opened court by coming to the door of the one-room log-built courthouse and shouting to the crowd outside: "Come in, boys; our John is a-goin' to hold court."
Another sheriff used to announce the opening of court as follows: "Oh yes! Oh yes! Oh yes! The Honorable Judge is now opened!"
One of the judges of Lincoln's time once restored order in his court by leaving the bench and thrashing the offenders, remarking as he resumed his seat: "I don't know what power the law gives me to keep order in this court, but I know very well the power God Almighty has given me."
Another one of Lincoln's contemporaries tells of a trial which he attended, when the sheriff burst into the courtroom, out of breath, and announced to the judge that he had six jurors tied up and that his deputies were running down the others. Evidently, jury duty was no more popular in Lincoln's day than it is at present.
It was in such surroundings that Abraham Lincoln began the practice of law. His legal training dated back to the day when he bought an old barrel for his store for fifty cents, and discovered under some rubbish in the bottom a complete set of Blackstones Commentaries. He afterward said that was the best stroke of business he ever did as a storekeeper.
Some of the happiest years of Lincoln's life were spent in walking or riding the circuit, which embraced more than a dozen counties and was one hundred and fifty miles broad. Once before he was able to afford a horse he was trudging along a frozen road toward a county-seat, when he was overtaken by a man in a wagon.
"Would you mind carrying my overcoat to town for me?" inquired Lincoln, stopping him.
"Certainly," said the other, "but how will you get it again?"
"Easy enough," replied Lincoln; "I'll stay inside of it!"
Lincoln always had trouble in getting a bed that was long enough for him. Once when traveling by steamboat he found his usual difficulty with his berth. During the day while Lincoln was on deck the captain had it lengthened and widened. The next morning Lincoln came to breakfast much puzzled and said solemnly that a great miracle had happened. During the night he had shrunk at least a foot in length and over six inches in breadth!
At the taverns the judge and lawyers sat at one end of the table, while the witnesses and prisoners, with the ordinary guests, sat at the other. Lincoln, however, was often found at the wrong end of the table among the common folks. Once Judge Davis, who ruled the whole bar with a rod of iron, tried to call Lincoln back to his end of the table.
"Come up here where you belong, Lincoln," he shouted.
"Got anything better to eat at your end. Judge?" drawled Lincoln, remaining where he was.
He soon became one of the best known and best liked men throughout this great expanse of country. In his hand he usually carried a queer, old carpet-bag. Although he was always careless about his clothes he kept himself scrupulously clean, and had learned that a man who shaves every day will go much farther than one who does not. Sometimes his appearance was against him, as when he was sent by his first partner, Major Stuart, to try a case in an adjoining county for one Baddeley, an Englishman. The latter, who was accustomed to the bewigged, powdered, and gowned advocates of his home-country, was disgusted to find that he was to be represented by a tall, awkward young man whose trousers were as much too short as his coat was too large. Baddeley immediately sent him back to Stuart and retained someone else. He lived, however, to become one of Lincoln's most enthusiastic admirers.
In 1850 Lincoln in a lecture to young lawyers made some suggestions which are worth repeating:
Lincoln brought into the practice of his profession the same charity and kindness that he had shown as a laborer, a storekeeper, and a surveyor. A young lawyer tells about arguing his first case in Chicago and making a failure of it. After he had sat down in despair a complete stranger to him came forward from the back of the room and stated that, as a member of the bar, he claimed the privilege of helping a young man who was evidently embarrassed. In spite of the protests of the lawyers on the other side, the court allowed him to do this, and he delivered a short, concise summing-up of the case which won it for the novice. The latter afterward found out that the stranger was Abraham Lincoln from Springfield.
Lincoln also had the rare faculty of trying a case without insulting or quarreling with his opponent. During all the years of his practice he never made an enemy of another lawyer.
The honesty of Lincoln's character was always evident in his practice. Once Herndon, his young partner, had drawn up a dilatory plea which would throw a case over at least one term of court. "Is this founded on fact?" demanded Lincoln. Herndon admitted that it was not, but urged that it would save the interests of their clients if the delay was obtained. "You know it is a sham," replied Lincoln, "and a sham is very often another name for a lie. Don't let it go on record. The cursed thing may come staring us in the face long after this suit has been forgotten."
Such scrupulous honesty Lincoln carried through all his practice. It gave him a standing and a reputation which were worth more to him than fine gold. He never made the mistake that young lawyers sometimes make of sacrificing a reputation for honesty for the sake of winning a case. Moreover, unless he had confidence in a case he would not take it.
Once when it was shown that his client had been guilty of fraud he walked out of the court-room and refused to continue the trial. The judge sent a messenger, directing him to return, but he positively declined. "Tell the judge that my hands are dirty, and that I have gone away to wash them," was the answer that he sent back."Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser—in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough." So Lincoln lectured, and no man at the bar ever carried out this advice more conscientiously. Once he was asked to collect a claim of two and a half dollars and his client insisted, against Lincoln's advice, that suit be brought. Lincoln thereupon gravely demanded ten dollars as a retainer. Half of this he gave to the defendant, who then confessed judgment and paid the two and a half. By this method he satisfied both parties.
"Yes, there is no reasonable doubt that I can gain your case for you," he said to another client, who had stated a case which Lincoln thought an objectionable one. "I can set a whole neighborhood at loggerheads; I can distress a widowed mother and her six fatherless children and thereby get for you six hundred dollars, which rightfully belongs, it appears to me, as much to them as to you. I shall not take your case, but I will give you a little advice for nothing. You seem a sprightly, energetic man. I would advise you to try your hand at making six hundred dollars in some other way."
The lawyer, however, who under-estimated Lincoln at a trial soon found that he had made a fatal mistake. Underneath Lincoln's honesty, frankness, and fairness was a consummate mastery of tactics, an intimate knowledge of human nature, and a broad grasp of legal principles, which finally made him the leader of the Illinois bar, "A stranger going into a court when he was trying a case would after a few minutes find himself instinctively on Lincoln's side and wishing him success." This was the way his methods impressed an associate.
Lincoln's mildness and good humor were habitual, but woe be to him who relied on those qualities to take a wrongful advantage of his client. In a murder case in which he represented the defendant, the judge unexpectedly made a ruling which was contrary to the decisions of the Supreme Court and was most injurious to Lincoln's client. A spectator described what follows: "Lincoln rose to his feet as quick as thought and was the most unearthly looking man imaginable. He roared like a lion roused from his lair and he said and did more things in ten minutes than he ordinarily said and did in an hour."
Perhaps the real secret of his success at the bar can best be summed up by the statement of E. M. Prince, who had seen him try over a hundred cases of all kinds:
Often he clinched his point with some anecdote which so riveted it in the minds of the jury that it could not be dislodged by any amount of eloquence from his opponent. There was the case where he appeared for a defendant who was charged with assault and battery. It was proved that the plaintiff, who had been seriously injured, had made the first attack, but his lawyer argued that the defendant should not have defended himself so forcefully.
Another time Lincoln disposed of the contention that custom makes law with this anecdote:
The case of Duff Armstrong, who was accused of murder, well shows Lincoln as a man and as a lawyer. Duff was the son of Jack Armstrong, the leader of the Clary Grove gang, whom Lincoln had once whipped in a fight when he was working as a clerk at New Salem. Afterward Jack and he had become firm friends. Duff and two others named Norris and Metzker had been drinking and there had been a free fight. Metzker had been struck over the head with a club by Norris and had received other injuries. Norris had already been convicted of manslaughter and the case looked bad for Duff Armstrong, who claimed that although he had struck Metzker with his fist he had not been guilty of the injuries which had caused the former's death.
Jack Armstrong by this time had died, and his widow appealed to Lincoln. He was in the middle of a political campaign, but he dropped everything to help the son of his old friend. At the trial a witness by the name of Allen took the stand and swore that he had actually seen Duff strike Metzker a blow with a blackjack. On cross-examination Lincoln brought out the fact that the fight had occurred at about eleven o'clock at night, away from any house or light. Then he asked the witness how he had been able to see the occurrence so plainly. "By the moonlight," answered the witness.
Under further cross-examination Lincoln had Allen locate the position of the moon and testify that it was about full. Lincoln asked him no further questions and scarcely cross-examined the other witnesses, none of whom had actually seen the fight. Under the law of Illinois at that time the defendant was not permitted to take the stand himself. As Lincoln allowed witness after witness to testify, with scarcely a word of cross-examination, all the spectators in the courtroom felt that the case against Armstrong was hopeless. This feeling became a certainty when Lincoln announced that he would call no witnesses, and had only one exhibit to offer in evidence. This exhibit, however, turned out to be an almanac which showed that the moon was only in its first quarter and nearly set. Making but one point—the complete discrediting of the only eyewitness—Lincoln summed up to the jury and acquitted his client.
There can be no better ending to an account of Lincoln's life as a lawyer than the advice which he once gave to young lawyers:
Let no young man choosing the law for a calling yield to the popular belief that a lawyer cannot be an honest man. If in your judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation.