Happy 200th, Honest Abe, Esq.

Published: Feb 12, 2009


Historians have generally glossed over Abraham Lincoln?s 25-year legal career (what, to avoid tarnishing his reputation?) ?usually reducing ?Lincoln the lawyer? to a few homely anecdotes. To address this comparative gap, the Lincoln Legal Papers project (a/k/a the ?Lincoln Legals?) was launched in the 1980s. The project sought to document every aspect of Lincoln's law practice, by painstakingly identifying and analyzing every piece of paper from Lincoln?s career in the eighty-eight Illinois courthouses in which he practiced. The project culminated this year with the debut of a massive, free, fully-searchable database of some ninety-six thousand document images. (Some interesting background on the project can be found here.)

Although the majority of Lincoln?s 4,000 or so cases were routine debt litigation (indicative of the era?s growing credit economy), he did have a few high-profile representations. In the ?Rock Island Bridge? case, Lincoln won a victory for railroad companies in litigation against steamboat interests, thereby allowing the construction of the first railway bridge across the Mississippi. Historians point to this case as pivotal in the emergence of Chicago (rather than St. Louis) as the West?s dominant commercial and transportation hub.

Lincoln?s most celebrated case was perhaps his defense of Duff Armstrong, on a murder charge. The entire case rested on the testimony of an eyewitness, who claimed he saw the killing by the light of a full moon. On cross examination, Lincoln sought to enter an almanac into evidence, which the judge allowed. Lincoln, Perry Mason-style, then had the defendant read the almanac entry for the night of the murder. Of course, there was no full moon that night; in fact, there was no moon at all. The jury quickly returned a not guilty verdict. For the time period, this use of the almanac was a highly innovative and novel use of scientific data.

The web site of the state of Idaho?s Official Lincoln Bicentennial Commission has a nice round-up of Lincoln?s thoughts on law and lawyers, culled from his writings. Some highlights:

?There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest. I say vague, because when we consider to what extent confidence and honors are reposed in and conferred upon lawyers by the people, it appears improbable that their impression of dishonesty is very distinct and vivid.?

?Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often the real loser in fees, expenses and waste of time. As a peacemaker, the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man.?

?Resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer.?

-posted by brian