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

Journal of American History 88 (September 2001)

Reviewed by Phillip Shaw Paludan, University of Kansas

Journal of American History 88 (September 2001): 648-49.

The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: The Complete Documentary Edition (DVD).  Ed. by Martha L. Benner and Cullom Davis, 2000.  (Windows)  3 DVDS, $2,000.  (University of Illinois Press, 1325 S. Oak St., Champaign, IL  61820.  ISBN 0-252-02566-0.)

Forty people spent fourteen years compiling this collection of over 200,000 documentary images and 1.5 million discrete facts.  The collection comprises 96,386 documents describing 5,173 cases and 496 nonlitigation activities.  More than cases and pleadings are included.  Newspaper reports on cases help provide context.  Essays on Abraham Lincoln, the court structure, and the legal practice of his age provide further background.  A subject index guides readers to case summaries, an overview of the law practice of Lincoln, a statistical portrait of the cases, biographies of major players, and bibliographies on Lincoln and on nineteenth-century law.  There are maps setting forth state and federal judicial districts as well as major transportation arteries.  There are lists of state and federal circuit judges and their terms, a monetary conversion table to allow modern comparisons with Lincoln's economic environment, a file on land measurements of the time, and introductions to the forms of pleading.  There is even a perpetual calendar for those who wish to know that Lincoln's birthday was on a Friday in 1828!  The editors seem to have thought of everything that might help the user of this collection.  Furthermore, being in DVD format, the materials are almost instantly available as research proceeds.  Even this novice found his way through the user-friendly files.

These documents bring Lincoln out of his monument and into the mundane world, a world of law that absorbed most of his adult life.  Lincoln spent more time being a lawyer than he spent doing anything else he ever did.  If there is an entrée to revealing or discovering the real Lincoln, this is an indispensable place to look.  Some historians have argued that those years and days of law practice made the sixteenth president essentially a conservative.  Here is a place to find out.

Yet it is important to recall that these are legal papers, created within the context of legal rules and practices.  What the documents reveal is that Lincoln practiced law to make a living, not especially to advance a cause.  He represented debtors and creditors, railroads and people injured by railroads.  He wrote deeds, registered land, and collected debts.  Lincoln and his partners tried over 3,000 debtor-creditor cases, 2,300 contract cases, over a thousand cases focused on trial by jury, 987 cases where women were litigants, 110 divorces, and lesser numbers of almost every kind of case imaginable.  His practice had no area of specialty but included every kind of law that would provide a fee.

A statistical portrait of the cases and practices provide a most helpful picture of law practice in the Midwest in Lincoln's time.  There are enough gaps in the record to make generalizations tentative, as the editors admit, but intriguing data do emerge.  For example, Lincoln has been called a railroad lawyer, yet that fact does not mean he was in the pocket of the roads.  The tables inform us that Lincoln and his partners represented railroads 71 times but opposed them 62 times.

Thus the materials gathered here are clearly and obviously foundational for understanding what Lincoln did with most of his life.  They show him "thinking like a lawyer."  But they move beyond Lincoln.  They provide the best picture we have of what lawyers did in the mid-nineteenth century.

Lack of space forbids a full picture of all the riches here, but taking one area of modern concern suggests them.  Thirty-four cases deal directly with race relations (a notably small number, by the way), but they are embedded in other legal questions, thus providing a more complex context for understanding law and race in America.  Lincoln and his partner William Herndon defend Nancy Collier, "a free woman of color," against a charge of nonpayment of a note.  Herndon defends (unsuccessfully) a fugitive slave.  Lincoln later assists a sheriff in freeing a fugitive slave on a habeas corpus writ.  Yet there is a darker side.  In the better-known Robert Matson case (1847), Lincoln defended a slave owner against a claim by slaves that, because they were brought to free-soil Illinois from Kentucky, they were free.  The court agreed with the alleged slaves and rejected Lincoln's argument.  Here stood Lincoln challenging a legal doctrine that went back to the 1772 Somerset case in England and Commonwealth v. Aves (1836) in Massachusetts, a doctrine that opened many of freedom's doors.  Even more appalling to modern sensibility is a case where Lincoln advocated the delivery of a black woman and her child to a white man to satisfy a debt.

The complexities of the legal record help us appreciate the complexities of the actual historical experience.  Facile arguments about race relations in Lincoln's America are overcome here in a subtle and diverse record of clashing claims and professional imperatives.  What can we make of Lincoln helping to sue one Spencer for calling Lincoln's client "a negro" and "Black Bill"?  What are the racial nuances when the court asks if a contract was actually made when one Nathan Cromwell promised to provide proof that an unnamed female indentured slave was actually a slave who could be sold?  Lincoln's client said that there was not a contract because the person who was supposed to supply the proof died before he delivered it.  Again, was there a breach of promise when a woman was told by her espoused that he was "half brother to a negro"?  Lincoln's client said she was wronged when the fiancé used those words as an escape clause and jilted her.  She won.  Lincoln got $70 of the $400 awarded.  And were two slaves given to a wife sufficient to satisfy her claims for a larger settlement in a will?  Lincoln's clients said it was but then settled the case.  This record shows the presence of race and even of slavery in Illinois in the 1840s and 1850s—an institution almost taken for granted.  But Lincoln's views on race and slavery are obscured here—the egalitarian advocate or the compromiser with racism never makes an unmasked appearance.  There is only the reality of a world where racism and slavery were part (these documents suggest a not all-pervasive part, however) of the atmosphere.  When we understand this, we understand more fully how complex was the past that Lincoln shaped and reflected.

In short, this marvelous collection stands as a model for what modern editing can do.  The collection is important not only for the subject matter of Lincoln but for showing what the life of the law, indeed of the society, was in nineteenth-century America.  Once the details of DVD searching have been absorbed, students of Lincoln and his nation have received a wonderful gift.  This is documentary editing at the highest level.


© Organization of American Historians, 2001.

Used by permission, Journal of American History

On Lincoln's Mind

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