A History of Abraham Lincoln and His Lawyer Career

Abraham Lincoln is famous for being the 16th president of the United States. He is also known as the president responsible for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and winning the Civil War, which led to the end of the practice of slavery in America. Prior to becoming a famous leader, however, Lincoln had a career as an accomplished attorney. In preparing for his legal career, Lincoln enthusiastically studied law books loaned to him, and on Sept. 9, 1836, he received his law license. This license was issued by two Illinois Supreme Court justices, and several months later, on March 1, 1837, he was admitted to the Bar of Illinois after swearing an oath to support the constitutions of the United States and Illinois. His ability to gain a license with such minimal formal education was due to a law that Illinois passed in 1833 that merely required applicants to be certified by an Illinois county court as being a man of good moral character.

Highlights of Lincoln's Legal Career

  1. Lincoln had three different law partners at separate times during his career as a practicing attorney, all of whom were located in Springfield. His first partnership began in 1837 when he became the junior partner to John Todd Stuart, who was his mentor and the cousin of his future wife, Mary. The partnership of Stuart & Lincoln lasted for four years. In 1841, following his partnership with Stuart, Lincoln became the junior partner of fellow Whig Party member Stephen T. Logan. This partnership would last until it was dissolved in 1844. In this year, Lincoln entered into a partnership with William H. Herndon, who at the age of 26 became his junior partner.

  2. One of Lincoln's greatest strengths as a lawyer was to take complex cases, parse out the key points, and simplify it in court. This and his talent for offering persuasive arguments while reading the mood of the jury was of great benefit to him during his law career. His simple, friendly, and relaxed demeanor was also helpful when speaking to witnesses or during cross-examinations.

  3. Lincoln's law practices handled more than 5,000 cases, both criminal and civil. He took on a wide range of cases, including property disputes, assault, and murder, and he frequently served as a railroad attorney. Debt collection and breaches of contract were common issues presented in courts during his time as a lawyer, and as a result, these types of lawsuits represented many of his cases.

  4. During the spring and the fall, Lincoln went from one central Illinois county court session to the next as he traveled the Eighth Judicial Circuit. This was a 14-county circuit that Lincoln, court officials, and a group of fellow attorneys traveled to hold court and try cases. The cases were held at the county seat of each location they traveled to, with each of the stops lasting up to a week.

  5. According to historical records, Lincoln represented approximately 175 cases before the Illinois Supreme Court. In 1849, he argued for Thomas Lewis, the defendant in Lewis v. Lewis, which was his only case tried before the U.S. Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the court opinion, which was delivered by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, was in favor of the plaintiff and not Lincoln and his client. Justice John McLean authored a dissenting opinion that favored Lincoln's argument.

  6. During the 1850s, the Illinois Central Railroad became one of the future president's most frequent clients. He charged them his largest fee, $5,000, which was significantly higher than his typical $5 to $20, to argue Illinois Central Railroad v. McLean County, in which the railroad contested a tax that was levied on their property despite their being exempt from taxes. A ruling by Chief Justice Walter B. Scates in the Illinois Supreme Court was in Lincoln and the railroad's favor. However, the railroad initially refused to pay Lincoln's fee. Their refusal ultimately led to a lawsuit that Lincoln won.

  7. Lincoln took part in a number of legal cases over the course of his career as a lawyer. One of the more prominent cases was Fleming v. Rogers and Crothers. Famously known as the "chicken bone case," it was a malpractice suit in which a carpenter by the name of Samuel G. Fleming was severely injured in 1855 when, during a fire in the city of Bloomington, a chimney fell on him, breaking both of his legs. Unfortunately, one leg was not set properly which resulted in it being crooked. Although efforts were made to straighten the leg, Fleming called the surgery off due to the intense pain. Lincoln was hired as one of the attorneys for the doctors and successfully used a chicken bone in his arguments. In 1856, in another monumental case that earned a win for Lincoln, the steamboat Effie Afton struck the Rock Island railroad bridge, which resulted in the boat's destruction. Lincoln represented the bridge company in the case Hurd et al. v. The Rock Island Railroad Company, which would become known as the Effie Afton case. Other highlights of Lincoln's law career included the murder trial of William "Duff" Armstrong, called "the almanac trial," and the Trailor murder case, which he later dramatized in a short story.

  8. In 1861, Lincoln left Springfield to head to the White House. Upon his departure, he made note of the Lincoln and Herndon sign that was hanging outside of his law office. Determined to return and practice law following his term as president, he instructed Herndon, "Let it hang there undisturbed."

It is believed that Lincoln may have also given law lectures in the 1850s. While evidence that a lecture actually took place is scarce, his July 1, 1850, "Notes for a Law Lecture" have been found and preserved. Surviving letters and other documentation from his life as an attorney also show that he encouraged and gave advice to others interested in studying the law. He did not, however, provide them with a position in his law office, as seen in an 1855 letter to Isham Reavis, a 19-year old who had written to him seeking such a position.

More Information on Abraham Lincoln

Find out more about the author, Chicago personal injury lawyer, Jonathan Rosenfeld.