Reviews of "The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition"

H-Law (January 2001)

Reviewed by Brian Dirck, Anderson University

Martha L. Benner and Cullom Davis, eds., _The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: The Complete Documentary Edition_. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000. DVD-ROM. $2000.00

THE LAWYER-PRESIDENT

Abraham Lincoln held national elected office, as a one-term congressman and president of the United States, for 1981 days, which constituted approximately ten percent of his entire life. He was a licensed, active attorney at the bar of Illinois for 8552 days, or about forty percent of his life. Lincoln spent a lot more time in a courtroom than he did in the Capitol building or the White House. In fact, he was the most experienced courtroom attorney to ever attain the presidency.

Americans have probably never been comfortable with this. It is surely no coincidence that, of the presidents who regularly appear in various "greatest presidents" opinion polls--Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy and Roosevelt--Lincoln is the only attorney. Americans are traditionally ambivalent about the legal profession, oscillating between Perry Mason-type mythologies and   . . . well, pick your favorite lawyer joke. We have always been hesitant to invest too much of our national moral capital in lawyers.  Hence, many would rather not be reminded that the Great Emancipator sometimes represented the rights of slaveholders in American courtrooms, or that Honest Abe the railsplitting commoner was an attorney for a large railroad corporation. At best, our popular culture will accept Lincoln as Henry Fonda's folksy barrister in the 1939 film _Young Mr. Lincoln_, using his sage backwoods wisdom to acquit Duff Armstrong, an innocent man, of murder (who, historians now know, wasn't innocent after all).

Unfortunately, Lincoln's legal career has also been given relatively short shrift by professional historians. While there are hundreds of books and monographs covering nearly every conceivable aspect of Lincoln's political career, studies of his law practice could fit on an average library shelf, with room to spare. In some ways this is understandable. After all, Lincoln had far more impact on American history when he drafted the Emancipation Proclamation than he did when he drafted a will for a forgotten client in an obscure Illinois county seat. But biographers, those who wish to assess the totality of the man, have less excuse for putting Lincoln's law career on the backburner. Sadly, even the best have done so. Stephen Oates' classic biography, _With Malice Toward None_ , provided little more than a brief description of Lincoln's law practice, as did David Donald's more recent biography, _Lincoln_. [1] Neither of these standard works offered much in the way of serious analysis concerning the impact of Lincoln's law practice on his personality or political outlook. Even Douglas Wilson in his superb 1998 study of Lincoln's antebellum years, _Honor's Voice: the Transformation of Abraham Lincoln_ , while acknowledging "there is reason to think that Lincoln's experiences in the courts of the justices of the peace were formative and that he carried their lessons with him throughout life" offers little analysis of how and why this was so. [2]  Lincoln biographers in most cases treat his law career as something of a chore, a topic that must be addressed, but only so the author and the reader can move on to matters more interesting and salient.  This is all the more surprising because, as antebellum lawyers go, Lincoln's practice has always been comparatively well documented. The basic edition of his papers, The _Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln_, [3] contains quite a few documents related to his law career, as does the voluminous Herndon-Weik collection, a compilation of Lincoln miscellany collected by William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner.

Read more: H-Law (January 2001)

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