Abraham Lincoln's childhood years were spent in humble circumstances
in Kentucky and Indiana. He managed to acquire not more than one entire
year of formal schooling. In 1830, when he was 21, the family moved to
central Illinois, and the next year he struck out on his own, settling
in the small but promising village of New Salem, 18 miles northwest of
the county seat of Springfield.
During his early adult years in New Salem, Lincoln sought more learning,
entered elective politics, and began contemplating the law as a profession.
Indeed, while trying such occupations as sometime postmaster, store clerk,
Black Hawk War volunteer, surveyor, and state legislator, he also began
reading for the law. He wrote out simple legal forms for local justice
of the peace Bowling Green, and borrowed law books from Springfield attorney
and fellow legislator John T. Stuart. Lincoln was licensed to practice
law in September of 1836; six months later, in Vandalia (then the state
capital), the Clerk of the Illinois Supreme Court entered his name on the
roll of attorneys.
Early in 1837, Lincoln accepted Stuart's invitation to join him as a
junior partner. Over the next four years, they practiced law and Whig politics
together. Undoubtedly Lincoln learned much about the law on his own and
from the more experienced Stuart. Their partnership dissolved in 1841,
whereupon Lincoln joined Stephen T. Logan, one of the county's most capable
and respected lawyers. Logan was a stickler for careful preparation and
details, insisting that Lincoln pay closer attention to the finer points
of trial and appellate law. Finally, in 1845, upon the amicable termination
of his relationship with Logan, Lincoln took his own junior partner, William
H. Herndon. The two practiced together until he left Springfield for the
White House early in 1861, and their partnership endured at least in name
until Lincoln's death in 1865.
As an attorney on the Illinois frontier, Lincoln learned much about
the close relationship between law and politics. Simultaneously practicing
both occupations was both natural and compatible to the ambitious Lincoln.
While politics was his principal interest, he actually spent much more
time between 1837 and 1861 practicing law in the courtroom than politics
on the stump. That is because he needed the income from a full-time professional
career to support a growing family and also his political activities. One
element of the combined practice of law and politics was the broad exposure
to contemporary public issues offered by a general practice such as he
had. Probing legal questions of federal-state relations, taxation, corporate
behavior, and slavery gave Lincoln a continuing education in public affairs.
Moreover, his heavy courtroom caseload unquestionably sharpened his skills
of debate that proved useful in the political arena. Third, many of Lincoln's
closest legal associates were also his intimate political allies. Court
appearances and circuit travel therefore were occasions for also engaging
in some political caucusing and speech-making. There are numerous instances
in which Lincoln's visit to some Eighth Judicial Circuit county seat included
both a political address and some court work. Thus Lincoln's public life
for the quarter century he lived in Springfield embraced two careers. He
managed to juggle them with considerable success because of their compatible
and complementary nature.
The Contours of his Practice
The substantial majority of Lincoln's 5,000 cases were tried in the
circuit courts of nearly two dozen Illinois counties, most of them within
the large Eighth Judicial Circuit that stretched from Springfield's Sangamon
County eastward to Indiana. Twice a year for over 20 years, he spent two
to three months riding the circuit in company with the presiding judge
and fellow attorneys. Most of these cases were simple, often relating to
disputes over a debt or promissory note, but they comprised the bread and
butter of Lincoln's practice.
Ten percent of his state practice brought Lincoln before the state's
highest court, the Illinois Supreme Court. Much of this work came by referral
from distant counties, demonstrating the wide and favorable reputation
Lincoln had earned. These 400 cases placed him among the state's top appellate
practitioners, and exposed him to more complex and fateful (and profitable)
issues than occurred in the lower courts. Also of note were more than 300
cases that he and his partners tried before the federal courts. Most of
these were before the district and circuit courts sitting in Springfield
and Chicago, but Lincoln also was attorney of record for at least six cases
heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lawyer Lincoln in Context
Abraham Lincoln was the prototypical general practice lawyer of the
antebellum American West. In an age before specialization, he represented
clients in a bewildering variety of legal divisions (common law, chancery,
criminal, probate, bankruptcy, admiralty) and an even greater variety of
legal issues: debt, fraud, medical malpractice, murder, breach of contract,
slander, divorce, partition, assault, custody, recovery of personal property,
mortgage foreclosure, and dozens of others.
During the 1850s, there were approximately 2,700 lawyers in Illinois,
or three for every 1,000 residents. The state's disproportionately high
attorney population was a reflection of its dynamic economic and transportation
growth. Rapid settlement meant land and debt disputes, and railroad construction
brought contract and tort cases.
Within this large group, there was a degree of social and professional
stratification. At the pinnacle of the American bar was a small elite--perhaps
ten percent--who were the nationally recognized giants of litigation. Concentrated
in eastern seaboard cities, and commonly associated with a family dynasty
of law or wealth, they thrived on corporate retainers and carriage-trade
clients. By mid-century, Illinois had its own small legal elite, essentially
confined to Chicago.
At the bottom, and comprising 70 percent, were the marginal figures,
or "scramblers" of the profession. They commonly accepted any client, willingly
rode the judicial circuit, and often dabbled in real estate speculation
or other sidelines to earn their living. Finally, there were the "achievers,"
a middle group comprising twenty percent of the bar. They were successful
and capable practitioners in their communities, attracting the more desirable
and lucrative clients.
There is no question that Lincoln began practice in 1837 at the bottom
of this legal pyramid. True, he benefitted from the existing caseload of
his senior partner, Stuart. But with scant education and no established
ties, he had to scramble for clients. It is equally clear that, within
the first decade of his career, Lincoln quickly ascended to the ranks of
Illinois' legal achievers. By the mid-1840s, he and Herndon had a commanding
local practice and a substantial federal and appellate caseload. Creditor
clients replaced debtors, and his services became eagerly sought. During
the 1850s, that ascent continued and culminated, as Lincoln attracted important
corporate clients and even a lucrative retainer with the Illinois Central
Railroad. By the time he left law to assume the presidency, he had not
yet reached the apex of America's legal elite, but he did have an elite
standing within the Illinois bar. Had he opted to stay in law rather than
set his sights on the U.S. Presidency, there is evidence to suggest that
he would have become one of the foremost attorneys in America.
When Lincoln finally suspended practice at age 51, in the midst of his
1860 presidential candidacy, he had achieved material success, personal
self-confidence, political advantage, and professional stature. Widely
known and highly regarded throughout the West, he even had attracted notice
among the nation's legal elite along the east coast, due principally to
his impressive record suing and defending railroads. At his prime, Lincoln
left the profession that had sustained and shaped him, but he carried many
"lawyerly" habits, skills, and values through the presidential years.