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Biography of Abraham Lincoln


Home > Social Studies > Holidays > Presidents Day > Abraham Lincoln > Lawyer Lincoln

Biography of Abraham Lincoln - Captain Lincoln The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln - A children's biography about President Abe Lincoln - Table of Contents Biography of Abraham Lincoln - Congressman Lincoln

Chapter III. Lawyer Lincoln

Unlucky as Lincoln's attempt at storekeeping had been, it served one good purpose. Indeed, in a way it may be said to have determined his whole future career. He had had a hard struggle to decide between becoming a blacksmith or a lawyer; and when chance seemed to offer a middle course, and he tried to be a merchant, the wish to study law had certainly not faded from his mind.

There is a story that while cleaning up the store, he came upon a barrel which contained, among a lot of forgotten rubbish, some stray volumes of Blackstone's "Commentaries," and that this lucky find still further quickened his interest in the law. Whether this tale be true or not it seems certain that during the time the store was running its downward course from bad to worse, he devoted a large part of his too abundant leisure to reading and study of various kinds. People who knew him then have told how he would lie for hours under a great oak-tree that grew just outside the store door, poring over his book, and "grinding around with the shade" as it shifted from north to east.

Lincoln's habit of reading was still further encouraged by his being appointed postmaster of New Salem on May 7, 1833, an office he held for about three years--until New Salem grew too small to have a post-office of its own, and the mail was sent to a neighboring town. The office was so insignificant that according to popular fable it had no fixed abiding-place, Lincoln being supposed to carry it about with him in his hat! It was, however, large enough to bring him a certain amount of consideration, and, what pleased him still better, plenty of newspapers to read-- newspapers that just then were full of the exciting debates of Clay and Webster, and other great men in Congress.

The rate of postage on letters was still twenty-five cents, and small as the earnings of the office undoubtedly were, a little change found its way now and then into his hands. In the scarcity of money on the frontier, this had an importance hard for us to realize. A portion of this money, of course, belonged to the government. That he used only what was rightfully his own we could be very sure, even if a sequel to this post office experience were not known which shows his scrupulous honesty where government funds were concerned. Years later, after he had become a practising lawyer in Springfield, an agent of the Post-office Department called upon him in his office one day to collect a balance due from the New Salem post-office, amounting to about seventeen dollars. A shade of perplexity passed over his face, and a friend, sitting by, offered to lend him the money if he did not at the moment have it with him. Without answering, Lincoln rose, and going to a little trunk that stood by the wall, opened it and took out the exact sum, carefully done up in a small package. "I never use any man's money but my own, he quietly remarked, after the agent had gone.

Soon after he was raised to the dignity of postmaster another piece of good fortune came in his way. Sangamon County covered a territory some forty miles long by fifty wide, and almost every citizen in it seemed intent on buying or selling land, laying out new roads, or locating some future city. John Calhoun, the county surveyor, therefore, found himself with far more work than he could personally attend to, and had to appoint deputies to assist him. Learning the high esteem in which Lincoln was held by the people of New Salem, he wisely concluded to make him a deputy, although they differed in politics. It was a flattering offer, and Lincoln accepted gladly. Of course he knew almost nothing about surveying, but he got a compass and chain, and, as he tells us, "studied Flint and Gibson a little, and went at it." The surveyor, who was a man of talent and education, not only gave Lincoln the appointment, but, it is said, lent him the book in which to study the art. Lincoln carried the book to his friend Mentor Graham, and "went at it" to such purpose that in six weeks he was ready to begin the practice of his new profession. Like Washington, who, it will be remembered, followed the same calling in his youth, he became an excellent surveyor.

Lincoln's store had by this time "winked out," to use his own quaint phrase; and although the surveying and his post-office supplied his daily needs, they left absolutely nothing toward paying his "National Debt." Some of his creditors began to get uneasy, and in the latter part of 1834 a man named Van Bergen, who held one of the Lincoln-Berry notes, refusing to trust him any longer, had his horse, saddle, and surveying instruments seized by the sheriff and sold at public auction, thus sweeping away the means by which, as he said, he "procured bread and kept soul and body together." Even in this strait his known honesty proved his salvation. Out of pure friendliness, James Short bought in the property and gave it back to the young surveyor, allowing him time to repay.

It took Lincoln seventeen years to get rid of his troublesome "National Debt," the last instalment not being paid until after his return from his term of service in Congress at Washington; but it was these seventeen years of industry, rigid economy, and unflinching fidelity to his promises that earned for him the title of "Honest Old Abe," which proved of such inestimable value to himself and his country.

During all this time of trial and disappointment he never lost his courage, his steady, persevering industry, or his determination to succeed. He was not too proud to accept any honest employment that offered itself. He would go into the harvest-field and work there when other tasks were not pressing, or use his clerkly hand to straighten up a neglected ledger; and his lively humor, as well as his industry, made him a welcome guest at any farm-house in the county. Whatever he might be doing, he was never too busy to help a neighbor. His strong arm was always at the service of the poor and needy.

Two years after his defeat for the legislature there was another election. His friends and acquaintanceS in the county had increased, and, since he had received such a flattering vote the first time, it was but natural that he should wish to try again. He began his campaign in April, giving himself full three months for electioneering. It was customary in those days for candidates to attend all manner of neighborhood gatherings--"raisings" of new cabins, horseraces, shooting-matches, auctions--anything that served to call the settlers together; and it was social popularity, quite as much as ability to discuss political questions, that carried weight with such assemblies. Lincoln, it is needless to say, was in his element. He might be called upon to act as judge in a horse-race, or to make a speech upon the Constitution! He could do both. As a laughing peacemaker between two quarrelsome patriots he had no equal; and as contestant in an impromptu match at quoit-throwing, or lifting heavy weights, his native tact and strong arm served him equally well. Candidates also visited farms and outlying settlements, where they were sometimes unexpectedly called upon to show their mettle and muscle in more useful labor. One farmer has recorded how Lincoln "came to my house near Island Grove during harvest. There were some thirty men in the field. He got his dinner, and went out in the field where the men were at work. I gave him an introduction, and the boys said that they could not vote for a man unless he could make a hand. 'Well, boys,' said he, "if that is all, I am sure of your votes.' He took hold of the cradle and led the way all the round with perfect ease. The boys were satisfied, and I don't think he lost a vote in the crowd."

Sometimes two or more candidates would meet at such places, and short speeches would be called for and given, the harvesters throwing down their scythes meanwhile to listen, and enlivening the occasion with keen criticisms of the method and logic of the rival orators. Altogether the campaign was more spirited than that of two years before. Again there were thirteen candidates for the four places; but this time, when the election was over, it was found that only one man in the long list had received more votes than Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln's election to the legislature of Illinois in August, 1834, marks the end of the pioneer period of his life. He was done now with the wild carelessness of the woods, with the rough jollity of Clary's Grove, with odd jobs for his daily bread--with all the details of frontier poverty. He continued for years to be a very poor man, harassed by debts he was constantly laboring to pay, and sometimes absolutely without money: but from this time on he met and worked with men of wider knowledge and better-trained minds than those he had known in Gentryville and New Salem, while the simple social life of Vandalia, where he went to attend the sessions of the legislature, was more elegant than anything he had yet seen.

It must be frankly admitted that his success at this election was a most important event in his life. Another failure might have discouraged even his hopeful spirit, and sent him to the blacksmith-shop to make wagon-tires and shoe horses for the balance of his days. With this flattering vote to his credit, however, he could be very sure that he had made a wise choice between the forge and the lawyer's desk. At first he did not come into special notice in the legislature. He wore, according to the custom of the time, a decent suit of blue jeans, and was known simply as a rather quiet young man, good-natured and sensible. Soon people began to realize that he was a man to be reckoned with in the politics of the county and State. He was reelected in 1836, 1838, and 1840, and thus for eight years had a full share in shaping the public laws of Illinois. The Illinois legislature may indeed be called the school wherein he learned that extraordinary skill and wisdom in statesmanship which he exhibited in later years. In 1838 and 1840 all the Whig members of the Illinois House of Representatives gave him their vote for Speaker, but, the Democrats being in a majority, could not elect him.

His campaign expenses were small enough to suit the most exacting. It is recorded that at one time some of the leading Whigs made up a purse of two hundred dollars to pay his personal expenses. After the election he returned the sum of $199.25, with the request that it be given back to the subscribers. "I did not need the money," he explained. "I made the canvass on my own horse; my entertainment, being at the houses of friends, cost me nothing; and my only outlay was seventy-five cents for a barrel of cider, which some farm-hands insisted I should treat them to."

One act of his while a member of the legislature requires special mention because of the great events of his after-life. Even at that early date, nearly a quarter of a century before the beginning of the Civil War, slavery was proving a cause of much trouble and ill-will. The "abolitionists," as the people were called who wished the slaves to be free, and the "pro-slavery" men, who approved of keeping them in bondage, had already come to wordy war. Illinois was a free State, but many of its people preferred slavery, and took every opportunity of making their wishes known. In 1837 the legislature passed a set of resolutions "highly disapproving abolition societies." Lincoln and five others voted against it; but, not content with this, Lincoln also drew up a paper protesting against the passage of such a resolution and stating his views on slavery. They were not extreme views. Though declaring slavery to be an evil, he did not insist that the black people ought to be set free. But so strong was the popular feeling against anything approaching "abolitionism" that only one man out of the five who voted against the resolution had the courage to sign this protest with him. Lincoln was young, poor, and in need of all the good-will at his command. Nobody could have blamed him for leaving it unwritten; yet he felt the wrong of slavery so keenly that he could not keep silent merely because the views he held happened to be unpopular; and this protest, signed by him and Dan Stone, has come down to us, the first notable public act in the great career that made his name immortal.

During the eight years that he was in the legislature he had been working away at the law. Even before his first election his friend John T. Stuart, who had been major of volunteers in the Black Hawk War while Lincoln was captain, and who, like Lincoln, had reenlisted in the Independent Spy Battalion, had given him hearty encouragement. Stuart was now practising law in. Springfield. After the campaign was over, Lincoln borrowed the necessary books of Stuart, and entered upon the study in good earnest. According to his own statement, "he studied with nobody. . . . In the autumn of 1836 he obtained a law license, and on April 15, 1837, removed to Springfield and commenced the practice, his old friend Stuart taking him into partnership."

Lincoln had already endeared himself to the people of Springfield by championing a project they had much at heart--the removal of the State capital from Vandalia to their own town. This was accomplished, largely through his efforts, about the time he went to Springfield to live. This change from New Salem, a village of fifteen or twenty houses, to a "city" of two thousand inhabitants, placed him once more in striking new relations as to dress, manners, and society. Yet, as in the case of his removal from his father's cabin to New Salem six years earlier, the change was not so startling as would at first appear. In spite of its larger population and its ambition as the new State capital, Springfield was at that time in many ways no great improvement upon New Salem. It had no public buildings, its streets and sidewalks were still unpaved, and business of all kinds was laboring under the burden of hard times.

As for himself, although he now owned a license to practise law, it was still a question how well he would succeed--whether his rugged mind and firm purpose could win him the livelihood he desired, or whether, after all, he would be forced to turn his strong muscles to account in earning his daily bread. Usually so hopeful, there were times when he was greatly depressed. His friend William Butler relates how, as they were riding together on horseback from Vandalia to Springfield at the close of a session of the legislature, Lincoln, in one of these gloomy moods, told him of the almost hopeless prospect that lay immediately before him. The session was over, his salary was all drawn, the money all spent; he had no work, and did not know where to turn to earn even a week's board. Butler bade him be of good cheer, and, kind practical friend that he was, took him and his belongings to his own home, keeping him there for a time as his guest. His most intimate friend of those days, Joshua F. Speed, tells us that soon after riding into the new capital on a borrowed horse, with all his earthly possessions packed in a pair of saddle-bags, Lincoln entered the store owned by Speed, the saddle-bags over his arm, to ask the price of a single bed with its necessary coverings and pillows. His question being answered, he remarked that very likely that was cheap enough, but, small as the price was, he was unable to pay it; adding that if Speed was willing to credit him until Christmas, and his experiment as a lawyer proved a success, he would pay then. "If I fail in this," he said sadly, "I do not know that I can ever pay you." Speed thought he had never seen such a sorrowful face. He suggested that instead of going into debt, Lincoln might share his own roomy quarters over the store, assuring him that if he chose to accept the offer, he would be very welcome. "Where is your room ?" Lincoln asked quickly. "Upstairs," and the young merchant pointed to a flight of winding steps leading from the store to the room overhead.

Lincoln picked up the saddle-bags, went upstairs, set them down on the floor, and reappeared a moment later, beaming with pleasure. "Well, Speed," he exclaimed, "I am moved!" It is seldom that heartier, truer friendships come to a man than came to Lincoln in the course of his life. On the other hand, no one ever deserved better of his fellow-men than he did; and it is pleasant to know that such brotherly aid as Butler and Speed were able to give him, offered in all sincerity and accepted in a spirit that left no sense of galling obligation on either side, helped the young lawyer over present difficulties and made it possible for him to keep on in the career he had marked out for himself.

The lawyer who works his way up from a five-dollar fee in a suit before a justice of the peace, to a five-thousand-dollar fee before the Supreme Court of his State, has a long and hard path to climb. Lincoln climbed this path for twenty-five years, with industry, perseverance, patience--above all, with that self-control and keen sense of right and wrong which always clearly traced the dividing line between his duty to his client and his duty to society and truth. His perfect frankness of statement assured him the confidence of judge and jury in every argument. His habit of fully admitting the weak points in his case gained him their close attention to his strong ones, and when clients brought him questionable cases his advice was always not to bring suit.

"Yes," he once said to a man who offered him such a case; "there is no reasonable doubt but that I can gain your case for you. I can set a whole neighborhood at loggerheads; I can distress a widowed mother and her six fatherless children, and thereby gain for you six hundred dollars, which rightfully belongs, it appears to me, as much to them as it does to you. I shall not take your case, but I will give you a little advice for nothing. You seem a sprightly, energetic man. I would advise you to try your hand at making six hundred dollars in some other way.

He would have nothing to do with the "tricks" of the profession, though he met these readily enough when practised by others. He never knowingly undertook a case in which justice was on the side of his opponent. That same inconvenient honesty which prompted him, in his store-keeping days, to close the shop and go in search of a woman he had innocently defrauded of a few ounces of tea while weighing out her groceries, made it impossible for him to do his best with a poor case. "Swett," he once exclaimed, turning suddenly to his associate, "the man is guilty; you defend him--I can't," and gave up his share of a large fee.

After his death some notes were found, written in his own hand, that had evidently been intended for a little lecture or talk to law students. They set forth forcibly, in a few words, his idea of what a lawyer ought to be and to do. He earnestly commends diligence in study, and, after diligence, promptness in keeping up the work. "As a general rule, never take your whole fee in advance," he says, "nor any more than a small retainer. When fully paid beforehand you are more than a common mortal if you can feel the same interest in the case as if something were still in prospect for you as well as for your client." Speech-making should be practised and cultivated. "It is the lawyer's avenue to the public. However able and faithful he may be in other respects, people are slow to bring him business if he cannot make a speech. And yet, there is not a more fatal error to young lawyers than relying too much on speech-making. If any one, upon his rare powers of speaking, shall claim an exemption from the drudgery of the law, his case is a failure in advance." Discourage going to law. "Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser--in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough." "There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest. Let no young man choosing the law for a calling for a moment yield to the popular belief. Resolve to be honest at all events; and if, in your own judgment, you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave."

While becoming a lawyer, Lincoln still remained a politician. In those early days in the West, the two occupations went hand in hand, almost of necessity. Laws had to be newly made to fit the needs of the new settlements, and therefore a large proportion of lawyers was sent to the State legislature. In the summer these same lawyers went about the State, practising before the circuit courts, Illinois being divided into what were called judicial circuits, each taking in several counties, and sometimes covering territory more than a hundred miles square. Springfield and the neighboring towns were in the eighth judicial circuit. Twice a year the circuit judge traveled from one county-seat to another, the lawyers who had business before the court following also. As newspapers were neither plentiful nor widely read, members of the legislature were often called upon, while on these journeys, to explain the laws they had helped to make during the previous winter, and thus became the political teachers of the people. They had to be well informed and watchful. When, like Mr. Lincoln, they were witty, and had a fund of interesting stories besides, they were sure of a welcome and a hearing in the courtroom, or in the social gatherings that roused the various little towns during "court-week" into a liveliness quite put of the common. The tavern would be crowded to its utmost--the judge having the best room, and the lawyers being put in what was left, late comers being lucky to find even a sleeping-place on the floor. When not occupied in court, or preparing cases for the morrow, they would sit in the public room, or carry their chairs out on the sidewalk in front, exchanging stories and anecdotes, or pieces of political wisdom, while men from the town and surrounding farms, dropping in on one pretext or another, found excuse to linger and join in the talk. At meal-times the judge presided at the head of the long hotel table, on which the food was abundant if not always wholesome, and around which lawyers, jurors, witnesses, prisoners out on bail, and the men who drove the teams, gathered in friendly equality. Stories of what Mr. Lincoln did and said on the eighth judicial circuit are still quoted almost with the force of law; for in this close companionship men came to know each other thoroughly, and were judged at their true value professionally, as well as for their power to entertain.

It was only in worldly wealth that Lincoln was poor. He could hold his own with the best on the eighth judicial circuit, or anywhere else in the State. He made friends wherever he went. In politics, in daily conversation, in his work as a lawyer, his life was gradually broadening. Slowly but surely, too, his gifts as an attractive public speaker were becoming known. In 1837 he wrote and delivered an able address before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield. In December, 1839, Stephen A. Douglas, the most brilliant of the young Democrats then in Springfield, challenged the young Whigs of the town to a tournament of political speech-making, in which Lincoln bore a full and successful share.

The man who could not pay a week's board bill was again elected to the legislature, was invited to public banquets and toasted by name, became a popular speaker, moved in the best society of the new capital, and made, as his friends and neighbors declared, a brilliant marriage.

Biography of Abraham Lincoln - Captain Lincoln The Boys' Life of Abraham Lincoln - A children's biography about President Abe Lincoln - Table of Contents Biography of Abraham Lincoln - Congressman Lincoln

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