Abraham Lincoln practiced law for twenty-five years in Illinois before he was elected President of the United States, handling cases as diverse as the drafting of deeds, collections, criminal cases, and representing corporate interests, including those of the railroads.
Abraham Lincoln (1809 - 1865)
A Long Legal Career
Lincoln, as many of the lawyers of the day, did not go to law school. He instead “read” the law, borrowing books from Springfield Attorney John T. Stuart, a cousin of his future wife, Mary Todd. Prior to reading the law, Lincoln had been a shopkeeper, a surveyor, and a postmaster in New Salem, IL. In 1837, his name was entered on a list of lawyers in the Illinois Supreme Court and he moved to state capital Springfield to practice law with Stuart.
Because Lincoln’s office was in the capital, he primarily took on appeals cases, but he excelled at trial practice, as well. In 1838, he successfully defended Henry Truett for the murder of a local physician, Dr. Jacob M. Early, by arguing for self defense. Legend has it that Lincoln knew not only the defendant, but the murdered physician, whom he had served under in the Black Hawk War, and at least five of the jurors as well!Lincoln and his three different law partners handled more than four hundred cases before the Illinois Supreme Court. However, Lincoln alone made an appearance at the United States Supreme Court in 1849, arguing the case of Lewis v. Lewis, which turned on an interpretation of Illinois’ statute of limitations.
Lincoln, Abraham. 24" x 30". 2003. Collection of Estate of John O’Quinn. Houston, TX.
Although Lincoln prepared meticulously for the oral argument, the Court ruled against him, Lincoln’s firms handled more than five thousand cases during the twenty-five years he practiced law.
While Lincoln is best known for the Emancipation Proclamation during his presidency, he handled only two cases involving slavery in his career. In the first, Bryant v. Matson, he represented a slave owner against a family of freed slaves who had settled in slavery-free Illinois. The “free soil doctrine” prevailed, and the slave family was determined to be free. During the second case, Bailey v. Cromwell, he came down on the same side as the free soil doctrine. The case focused on the assertion that a promissory note for the sale of a slave was null and void because Illinois was part of the Northwestern Territory, which prohibited slavery.
Lincoln’s cross-examination skills became legendary in an 1858 case, in which he represented Duff Armstrong in a murder trial at the Beardstown Courthouse. The killing had occurred during a nighttime brawl, but the key witness swore he could clearly see the fight from a distance of thirty yards at eleven o’clock in the evening. On cross, Lincoln famously produced an almanac which established that the moon had set before the fight had ensured and that the eyewitness could not have seen the fight. Armstrong was acquitted.
Lincoln’s firms handled more than five thousand cases during the twenty-five years he practiced law. Upon leaving Springfield after his election to the presidency, Lincoln insisted the sign “Lincoln and Herndon” remain on the door until he returned to continue the practice of law, “as if nothing had happened.”