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Life and Works of Abraham Lincoln/Volume 4/Lincoln as a Lawyer


Lincoln as a Lawyer.[1]

By David Davis, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

I enjoyed for over twenty years the personal friendship of Mr. Lincoln. We were admitted to the bar about the same time and traveled for many years what is known in Illinois as the Eighth Judicial Court. In 1848, when I first went on the bench, the circuit embraced fourteen counties, and Mr. Lincoln went with the Court to every county. Railroads were not then in use, and our mode of travel was either on horseback or in buggies.

This simple life he loved, preferring it to the practice of the law in a city, where, although the remuneration would be greater, the opportunity would be less for mixing with the great body of the people, who loved him, and whom he loved. Mr. Lincoln was transferred from the bar of that circuit to the office of the President of the United States, having been without official position since he left Congress in 1849. In all the elements that constitute the great lawyer he had few equals. He was great both at nisi prius and before an appellate tribunal. He seized the strong points of a cause, and presented them with clearness and great compactness. His mind was logical and direct, and he did not indulge in extraneous discussion. Generalities and platitudes had no charms for him. An unfailing vein of humor never deserted him; and he was able to claim the attention of court and jury, when the cause was the most uninteresting, by the appropriateness of his anecdotes.

His power of comparison was large, and he rarely failed in a legal discussion to use that mode of reasoning. The framework of his mental and moral being was honesty, and a wrong cause was poorly defended by him. The ability which some eminent lawyers possess, of explaining away the bad points of a cause by ingenious sophistry, was denied him. In order to bring into full activity his great powers, it was necessary that he should be convinced of the right and justice of the matter which he advocated. When so convinced, whether the cause was great or small, he was usually successful. He read law-books but little, except when the cause in hand made it necessary; yet he was usually self-reliant, depending on his own resources, and rarely consulting his brother lawyers, either on the management of his case or on the legal questions involved.

Mr. Lincoln was the fairest and most accommodating of practitioners, granting all favors which were consistent with his duty to his client, and rarely availing himself of an unwary oversight of his adversary.

He hated wrong and oppression everywhere, and many a man whose fraudulent conduct was undergoing review in a court of justice has writhed under his terrific indignation and rebukes. He was the most simple and unostentatious of men in his habits, having few wants, and those easily supplied. To his honor be it said that he never took from a client, even when his cause was gained, more than he thought the services were worth and the client could reasonably afford to pay. The people where he practiced law were not rich, and his charges were always small. When he was elected President, I question whether there was a lawyer in the circuit, who had been at the bar so long a time, whose means were not larger. It did not seem to be one of the purposes of his life to accumulate a fortune. In fact, outside of his profession, he had no knowledge of the way to make money, and he never even attempted it.

Mr. Lincoln was loved by his brethren of the bar, and no body of men will grieve more at his death, or pay more sincere tributes to his memory. His presence on the circuit was watched for with interest and never failed to produce joy or hilarity. When casually absent, the spirits of both bar and people were depressed. He was not fond of litigation, and would compromise a lawsuit, whenever practicable.

  1. From a eulogy of Lincoln delivered before the bar of Indianapolis in May, 1865.