Abraham Lincoln may be best known as the 16th President of the United States. However, before taking office, Lincoln had already established a successful 25+ year career as an attorney. Lincoln, who had little-to-no formal education as a child, developed many of his presidential qualities and beliefs during his time practicing the law. Here are a few interesting things about the exciting life and legal career of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln.
Legislative Role Fueled Career as an Attorney
Lincoln’s initial relationship with the law was as an Illinois Lawmaker. In 1832, Lincoln was facing financial difficulties and could not find work. Already intrigued by the law, Lincoln decided to run for a seat on the Illinois state legislature.
He was elected and seated with a man with whom he had served as a militia soldier, John Todd Stuart. Stuart quickly became impressed by Lincoln’s abilities and encouraged him to study the law. Stuart provided Lincoln with the very first legal books he would study.
Lincoln grew up in rural Illinois and, like many other children in the 1800s, received very little formal education. In fact, it is widely believed that Lincoln received no more than a total of one year of formal education. Despite the lack of schooling, Lincoln possessed excellent listening and comprehension skills. He listened to what others around him had to say and used their experiences to supplement his knowledge.
Lincoln’s ability to teach himself came in especially handy when he decided to become an attorney. Most prospective attorneys worked directly under the wing of established senior attorneys to learn the law. Lincoln, secluded in the country, chose to read and teach himself. His self-teaching techniques proved to be successful, as is evidenced by his impressive career.
Practicing With Others
Lincoln never worked alone. Instead, he chose to partner with other attorneys. His first partner was the man who was the first to convince him to study the law, John Todd Stuart. Stuart, who was also the cousin of Lincoln’s future wife Mary Todd, helped to allow Lincoln to apply his newfound legal knowledge to real-life cases.
Lincoln worked with Stuart until 1841, when he began to work with Stephan T. Logan. Logan is reportedly responsible for teaching Lincoln how to perform detailed research and write persuasive arguments. Lincoln’s partnership with Logan lasted for three years. In 1844, Lincoln took young attorney William H. Herndon under his wing as a junior partner.
Master of Simplicity
One of Lincoln’s best qualities as an attorney was his ability to take complex issues and relay them in a very understandable way. This strength allowed him to flourish as an attorney. Juries seemed to appreciate Lincoln’s ability to connect with them, helping his success in the courtroom.
Interesting Litigation Tactics
Lincoln was well-known for having extremely interesting tactics in the courtroom. Perhaps no case is a better example than Fleming v. Rogers and Crothers. In this case, a carpenter was injured when a chimney fell onto him. A doctor, the defendant in the case, was accused of not setting the man’s legs properly after the accident. As a result, the man’s leg was crooked.
In court, Lincoln presented the jury with two chicken leg bones: one from a young chicken and one from an old chicken. Lincoln used the legs to show the jury that young legs can heal better than old legs. Since the carpenter had older legs, his were less likely to recover from a traumatic accident. This metaphor helped Lincoln win the case.
Jack of All Trades
Many attorneys today choose to focus on a single area of the law. In the 1800s, it was much more common for attorneys to handle a variety of legal issues. Abraham Lincoln was no different. Court documents show that Lincoln handled both criminal and civil matters, including:
- Breach of contract
- Railroad issues
- Property disputes
- Slavery, and
- Debt collection.
Defending Slave Owners
Lincoln took his duty to uphold the law very seriously. This was evident when he agreed to help a man attempt to retrieve his runaway slaves, despite his moral objections to slavery. In that case, the slaves ran away when they entered Illinois, believing that they were free under the Northwest Ordinance.
Lincoln argued that the right of transit allowed the slave-owner to maintain ownership over his slaves while traveling through the state of Illinois, and that simply entering the state did not make them free. Lincoln ended up losing this case.
Fighting for Slaves’ Rights
Lincoln also did his part to uphold the rights that he believed were held by all people, not just those who were white. In 1841, Lincoln argued before the Illinois Supreme Court to successfully prevent a woman from being sold as a slave. Lincoln’s primary argument was that the law presumed “every person was free, without regard to color.”
Bringing Justice to the People
In the 1800s, it was difficult for people to get to court. This is especially true for legal matters before the federal circuit and supreme courts. IN order to ensure that all Illinois citizens had the ability to reach the justice system, Lincoln traveled with a handful of other attorneys and a judge to bring the Eighth Circuit Court to the people. The group traveled throughout the state during the spring and fall, visiting 14 counties along the way.
Railroads Made for Good Business
When Lincoln was a young attorney, railroads were hailed as the next big thing in transportation. As a result, Lincoln handled his fair share of railroad disputes. In the 1850s, the Illinois Central Railroad become one of Lincoln’s most notable (and expensive) clients. Since he represented them in so many legal matters, he charged them the largest fee of his career: $5,000. Since most attorneys’ fees ranged anywhere between $5 and $30, this was quite significant.
Protecting the Westward Expansion
America was rapidly expanding into the west during Lincoln’s career. In 1856, during the height of this expansion, a steamboat traveling on the Mississippi River between Iowa and Illinois struck a bridge. The bridge was the first of its kind to be constructed on the river. The steamboat driver sued the railroad company that built the bridge, claiming that it was a hazard for navigation. In the landmark case of Hurd v. Rock Island Bridge Company (better known as the Effie Afton case), Lincoln successfully defended the railroad, thereby protecting the American expansion.
Abraham Lincoln made quite a name for himself as a young attorney before running for president. He famously (and successfully) defended a family friend against murder charges, helped to advance civil rights, and fought to protect American expansion efforts West. His dedication and passion for the law allowed him to become one of the most respected men in America’s history. As you now know, there is much more to Lincoln than being our 16th President.
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