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Abraham Lincoln, Esq.

Abraham Lincoln, Esq.: The Legal Career of America's Greatest President

Roger Billings
Frank J. Williams
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Abraham Lincoln, Esq.
    Book Description:

    As our nation's most beloved and recognizable president, Abraham Lincoln is best known for the Emancipation Proclamation and for guiding our country through the Civil War. But before he took the oath of office, Lincoln practiced law for nearly twenty-five years in the Illinois courts. Abraham Lincoln, Esq.: The Legal Career of America's Greatest President examines Lincoln's law practice and the effect it had on his presidency and the country.

    Editors Roger Billings and Frank J. Williams, along with a notable list of contributors, examine Lincoln's career as a general-practice attorney, looking both at his work in Illinois and at the time he spent in Washington. Each chapter offers an expansive look at Lincoln's legal mind and covers diverse topics such as Lincoln's legal writing, ethics, the Constitution, and international law. Abraham Lincoln, Esq. emphasizes this often overlooked period in Lincoln's career and sheds light on Lincoln's life before he became our sixteenth president.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-2609-8
    Subjects: History, Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-2)
    Roger Billings and Frank J. Williams

    Abraham Lincoln, Esq.features chapters by leading scholars on the professional career of Abraham Lincoln. Four chapters were first published in the “Abraham Lincoln” issue of theNorthern Kentucky Law Reviewin 2009, which was supported by a grant from the Kentucky Historical Society. Another was first published in theJournal of Illinois History(summer 2005). Three are based on presentations for a symposium cosponsored by the New York City Bar Association and Scribes, the American Society of Legal Writers. The rest were written especially for this book.

    The chapters are organized into three parts. Part One, “Evaluating Lincoln’s Career,”...

  4. Part One: Evaluating Lincoln’s Career

    • Reassessing Lincoln’s Legal Career
      (pp. 5-18)
      Harold Holzer

      At the beginning of the historic 2008 presidential campaign, an aspirant for the Democratic nomination appealingly described himself as another “tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer.”¹ Barack Obama’s declaration hardly represented the first or only example of a politician striving to identify himself with Abraham Lincoln. But it was rare indeed—perhaps unique—because then-Senator Obama called to mind not Lincoln the orator, writer, emancipator, or union-preserving commander in chief, but Lincoln the attorney—a profession that has hardly enjoyed universal approval in recent years (or even in Lincoln’s time).

      One might more rationally begin this essay by talking not about...

    • Lincoln’s Lessons for Lawyers
      (pp. 19-44)
      Frank J. Williams

      Abraham Lincoln is remembered as one of America’s greatest leaders. In poll after poll, Lincoln is ranked as the greatest of American presidents.¹ Lincoln’s life story is a large part of why he is so popular today. His rise from poor, uneducated farm boy to president of the United States represents the quintessential American tale.² Lincoln said of himself and his presidency: “I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has. It is in order that each of you may have through this free government which we have...

    • Does Lawyer Lincoln Matter?
      (pp. 45-64)
      Mark E. Steiner

      An opinion poll a few years back revealed that Abraham Lincoln was one of the five most admired lawyers in America.¹ Lincoln’s status probably has more to do with how Americans view Lincoln the president than what they actually know about Lincoln the lawyer. The lawyer in popular biographies, movies, and children’s books is a virtuous and heroic lawyer.² Early biographers, aware of the distrust and hostility toward lawyers, glossed over Lincoln’s law practice. These writers were content with somewhat superficial depictions of Lincoln as a virtuous, heroic country lawyer. The treatment of Lincoln’s law practice improved somewhat with the...

    • A. Lincoln, Respectable “Prairie Lawyer”
      (pp. 65-78)
      Brian Dirck

      In 1860, Americans did not have bumpers or stickers, but they had that same mentality. Candidate Lincoln had a lot of “bumper sticker” moments—more so than most, perhaps, because voters knew so little about him. People looked hard for a catchphrase or an easy concept that would neatly summarize him in their minds. “Railsplitter” was a big one, with its connotations of a hardworking frontier farmer (even though Lincoln hated farming). “Humble” and “Honest” were also useful handles, as was the fact that he hailed from the frontier.

      One of the more popular bumper stickers attached to Lincoln was...

  5. Part Two: The Illinois Years

    • A. Lincoln, Debtor-Creditor Lawyer
      (pp. 81-104)
      Roger Billings

      Biographers of Abraham Lincoln’s legal career tend to focus on his most famous cases. The Rock Island Bridge, Illinois Central Railroad, McCormick Reaper, Duff Armstrong, and Matson slave cases are well known. Little attention is paid, however, to the routine debtor-creditor cases that were the bread and butter of Lincoln’s practice. One can imagine Lincoln’s arrival at a county courthouse in the Illinois Eighth Judicial Circuit where potential clients were waiting to hire him to defend a debtor or collect on a note. The Lincoln Legal Papers bring to light the importance of debtor-creditor cases in Lincoln’s law practice, cases...

    • Lincoln and Illinois Real Estate: The Making of a Mortgage Lawyer
      (pp. 105-118)
      Roger Billings

      When Kentucky was part of Virginia the holders of land warrants had to provide a survey and description of their claims at their own expense. The surveys were unprofessional, using marks on trees, movable stones, and dry creeks to show division lines. By the time Lincoln’s father began to buy land in Kentucky, the titles were almost bound to be disputed, and those who could afford lawyers were the most likely to succeed. Thomas Lincoln bought his first 238 acres in 1803 near Mill Creek, another 348½ acres near Hodgensville in 1808 (called the Sinking Springs farm), and another 230...

    • The Power of Lincoln’s Legal Words
      (pp. 119-132)
      John A. Lupton

      Samuel Moulton was a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln’s on the Eighth Judicial Circuit. He was notorious for his poor penmanship. One day, his colleagues decided to play a trick on him. They found a bug, dipped its legs in ink, and let the bug run across a piece of paper. They took this paper to Moulton, who was also well known for being quite near-sighted, for him to read. Moulton looked at it and said, “I wrote it, but I’ll be damned if I can read it now.”¹ Moulton was certainly not the only lawyer in Lincoln’s antebellum America writing...

    • Competence, Diligence, and Getting Paid: Lincoln’s Lessons for Today’s Ethical Lawyer
      (pp. 133-186)
      William T. Ellis and Billie J. Ellis Jr.

      Lincoln practiced law for twenty-four years. During this time, there was virtually no formal system in place to regulate the conduct of lawyers. Without the help of a code, creed, or manual, Lincoln navigated through an astonishingly eclectic, broad-reaching practice guided only by his own judgment, informed by his own ethical intuition. Today, lawyers have at their disposal a cornucopia of guidelines and creeds espousing the principles of proper, lawyerly behavior, not to mention the official, national guideline created by the ABA: the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. And yet, to many, lawyers are no more ethical now than they...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • Lincoln’s Legal Ethics: The Client Correspondence
      (pp. 171-184)
      Roger Billings

      TheLaw Practice of Abraham Lincolnproject has opened a new window into Abraham Lincoln’s life. The project contains around 100,000 documents about Lincoln’s legal career, all available online. There are 5,600 of his cases, representing his practice of law from A to Z, or more accurately, from adoption to usury.¹ One of the least explored aspects of his practice is his legal ethics and how they stack up against the modern rules.²

      In Lincoln’s day very little was written about attorney-client relations, which are the focus of today’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Instead, ethics was a synonym for...

    • Lincoln and the Kentuckians: Placing Lincoln in Context with Lawyers and Clients from His Native State
      (pp. 185-202)
      Christopher A. Schnell

      Abraham Lincoln was born in and spent the first seven years of his life in Kentucky.¹ In 1816, his father, Thomas Lincoln, moved his family north across the Ohio River from what was then Hardin County, Kentucky, and settled on a wooded, 160-acre claim in what was then Perry County, in southern Indiana.² Lincoln later attributed his father’s move north to his dislike of slavery and his failed efforts to establish a clear title to land: disadvantages that plagued many yeomen farmers in early Kentucky.³ In migrating north of the Ohio River, the Lincolns joined thousands of other pioneers of...

  6. Part Three: The Washington Years

    • Abraham Lincoln as Practical Constitutional Lawyer
      (pp. 205-228)
      Mackubin Thomas Owens

      There is an old saying that goes, “Everybody talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” The same could be said about scholars of constitutional law. They may argue about nuances of the Constitution, but for the most part these debates are of interest only to other constitutional lawyers.

      Those who practice constitutional law do, of course, have some impact on how the Constitution is read. But it is rare for a lawyer of any kind to have a major impact on the Constitution itself. One lawyer who did was Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, no one other than...

    • President Lincoln: The International Lawyer
      (pp. 229-242)
      William D. Pederson

      Abraham Lincoln’s innate ability and tenacity were consistently underestimated prior to his election as president and even while he served. Similarly, most historians have significantly underestimated Lincoln’s contributions to foreign affairs and international law during the Civil War.¹ The flawed assumption that Lincoln could not possibly possess the background knowledge necessary for foreign affairs or international law was based partly on the fact that he was a self-taught frontier lawyer who never left the continental United States. To those who considered themselves socially and educationally superior to Lincoln, his very appearance confirmed their negative conclusions. Contrary to those judgments, this...

  7. List of Contributors
    (pp. 243-246)
  8. Index
    (pp. 247-263)