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Tom Chaney: Deconstructing Lincoln

Of Writers And Their Books: Deconstructing Lincoln. Tom says Lincoln may be found on both sides of all matters as he worked his way up the legal ladder of his state. This column first appeared 14 December 2008.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: P.D. James: Better and Better

By Tom Chaney

Deconstructing Lincoln

It is probably safe to say there have been as many books written about Abraham Lincoln as have been written about any figure in history. He has been studied and parsed and pronounced upon until there seems to be no room for more. His life and career have been chipped and chopped and ground fine in the mills of history.

But now we have more data revealing other directions for exciting new study.

The Lincoln we have known has been either the President or has been examined through the filter of his presidency. The really good, committed biographers from his law partner Billy Herndon down to the present including Carl Sandberg and a host of others have come to the antebellum Lincoln in an attempt to explain Lincoln the President.

If we remember that Lincoln was a lawyer, we have seen that profession as preparation for the presidency. Historians have tried to find in his lawyering some characteristics to explain him as President. Such anecdotal evidence does no justice to a man who spent a quarter century in the practice of law in frontier Illinois.

He was involved as attorney or judge in some 5,000 cases in the nearly two dozen Illinois counties comprising the eighth judicial circuit. Perhaps ten percent of his work was before the Illinois Supreme Court. Those 400 cases placed him among the top appellate practitioners in a lawyer-rich state. He and his partners tried another 300 cases before the federal courts.

Now comes the Lincoln Legal Papers Project. That project aims to identify all evidence of Lincoln's law practice in the period from September 1836 when he was licensed to practice law until early 1861 when he left Springfield for the White House. That evidence has lain quietly in the court houses of the eighth judicial circuit awaiting resurrection.

Scholars now have access to this body of material. Consequently, it is now possible to come directly at the bulk of Lincoln's public life which was devoted to the practice of law, and not come at it in a kind of rear view mirror approach through the filter of the presidency.

And, based on this mountain of new material, Brian Dirck has written an excellent book, Lincoln the Lawyer [University of Illinois Press, 2007].

His purpose in the study is "Abraham Lincoln, and what the law did both to and for him." Dirck is quick to put Lincoln's career in perspective -- 1981 days Lincoln spent in national elected office or ten percent of his entire life; 8552 days as a licensed, active attorney.

"During the daily encounters with humanity generated by his professional career, Lincoln must have formed basic ideas concerning how human beings interact with one another," Dirck assumes.

"I argued," says Dirck about an earlier study, "that much of his [Lincoln's] sense of community came from his law practice. In Lincoln the Lawyer, I want to broaden and deepen this argument by rooting Lincoln's sense of community firmly in his legal career."

And this he does, handsomely. Along the way we are given incredible insight into frontier Illinois -- rowling, sprawling, working to become a modern state with much opportunity for the practice of law. It is a time when the terms of modern law are being wrung into being on the frontier -- wrested from the feudal based world view of that ancient authority, Blackstone.

Lincoln may be found on both sides of all matters as he worked his way up the legal ladder of his state. He represented those in debt as well as those collecting debts; those on either side of divorce; railroads as they chuffed into prominence and those injured by railroads.

Dirck observes that the search for moral imperatives in Lincoln's law practice which drove his political behavior is quite problematic; "there is little if any evidence that Lincoln litigated cases based on some set of values that were separate from the conventions of his profession. The 'parable' approach to Lincoln's law practice offers a fundamental misreading of his life as an attorney."

The alternative is to find the story, the glue, which held Lincoln's law practice together in an understandable whole. Herndon and later biographers have tended to look to the practice for signs of the master politician and statesman to come -- not by any means a vain search. But what qualities did he get from the law that did not come from another source?

Dirck concludes that the storytelling metaphor which comes closest to answering this question is grease. He sees Lincoln as a lubricator. Quoting Lincoln in notes for a law lecture, "Discourage litigation . . . persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. . . . As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough."

The enemy is friction. Edwin Stanton, his secretary of war and one of his team of rivals remarked on "the kindness and humanity of [Lincoln's] disposition, and the tender and forgiving spirit that so eminently distinguished him." Others saw it as well, for it stood out in an era when magnanimity was in short supply.

Dirck has not got the last word on Lincoln the lawyer. But he sets the stage for much more and interesting research into the neglected career of the private lawyer and into the practice of law on a frontier yearning toward commerce and sophistication.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2013-12-15 04:08:54
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