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Lincoln the Lawyer Hardcover – March 15, 2007

9 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This meticulous study of Lincoln leaves aside his well-covered presidency to spotlight his rather pedestrian career as an Illinois lawyer. Lincoln spent roughly 25 years practicing law, and most studies of this period cast it in terms of his later accomplishments: "admirers have done what they can to inject a little excitement into his legal life." Using the recently completed Lincoln Legal Papers Project, fourteen years of "unearthing every available primary source on Lincoln's law practice," history professor and author Dirck (Lincoln and Davis) applies the corrections, unearthing a more mundane, and more human, Lincoln. The vast majority of his nearly 4,000 cases were run-of-the-mill debt litigation, fairly standard for the growing credit economy. And although he had a few high-profile cases (murders, railroad lawsuits), Dirck's technique is to show more about Lincoln through everyday details-the masculine squalor of his Springfield office, the rough-and-tumble camaraderie of the circuit courts, and the quiet exactitude of his paperwork-than more sensational (and largely apocryphal) stories. Historians, legal scholars and practicing lawyers will find a sophisticated, thoughtful treatment of Lincoln and 19th century law practice, but Dirck's command of legal theory and straightforward prose make this book appropriate even for those without prior knowledge of the law or Lincoln's life.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

From the several thousand cases Abraham Lincoln litigated at the bar, historian Dirck delineates the categories of Lincoln's practice. He does so as a means of modulating the adulation for Lincoln-the-lawyer that he detects in memoirists and early biographers. Although a few of Lincoln's cases wend their way into modern biographies, most do not, and for good reason: they were dreary instances of debt. On the cash-poor frontier of 1830s Illinois, promissory notes proliferated. Consequently, overextensions, with which Lincoln was personally familiar as a formerly indebted storeowner, were chronic on the legal landscape. With the advent of railroads, Lincoln diversified into defending them against liability, his chief area of historical legal significance, but credit and debt were his daily grind. Dirck also relates the custom of "riding the circuit" by way of developing the regard in which Lincoln was held by his colleagues: an amiable but remote companion, an able speaker in the courtroom. Dirck's is a readably nontechnical study, searchable for hints of the presidential persona in that of the practicing lawyer. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 248 pages
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press (March 15, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0252031814
  • ISBN-13: 978-0252031816
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #709,834 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Brian Dirck is a Professor of History at Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana. He received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Kansas, where he was fortunate to have studied under the tutelage of pre-eminent Civil War and Lincoln scholar Philip S. Paludan. His first book, "Lincoln and Davis: Imagining America, 1809-1865," was based on his dissertation, offering a comparative analysis of the two Civil War presidents' lives and careers.

He has since focused most of his attention on Abraham Lincoln. He edited and contributed to a collection of essays entitled "Lincoln Emancipated: The President and the Politics of Race." In 2007 he published "Lincoln the Lawyer," an overview of Lincoln's legal career. "Lincoln the Lawyer" was awarded the Benjamin Barondess Award from the New York Civil War Roundtable for the best book published on Abraham Lincoln in 2007. In 2012 he published "Lincoln and the Constitution," as part of the Concise Lincoln Library Series, and "Lincoln and White America," an analysis of Lincoln's views concerning white supremacy and racism.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Richard Lawrence Miller, Lincoln author on September 11, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Although Lincoln's contribution to history is his handling of public policy, governance, and war, probably most of his time prior to the White House was devoted to his law practice. This book will reward anyone seeking to know how one of America's greatest minds was occupied in the troubled affairs of one ordinary person after another. The solid account is highly knowledgeable but not at all technical, written for inquiring readers rather than legal professionals. Using assorted cases as examples, the author examines the role of attorneys in what was then the American West, giving the book broader scope than just Lincoln's law practice. This is one of the first studies to exploit a recently collected mass of documents relating to Lincoln's law career.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By David J Kent on February 20, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Abraham Lincoln is one of the most written about Presidents in American history. Every facet, one would think, has been covered many times over. That said, his 25-year legal career is woefully underrepresented in the biographical literature. Author Brian Dirck examines Lincoln's substantial time as a lawyer and in doing so gives Lincoln scholars substantial insight into the career that was nearly half of his life.

Dirck takes us back in time to a period in history before the American Bar Association, formal legal training, and the emphasis on legal precedent. In Lincoln's time one could become a lawyer by showing some scholarship and convincing the local judge that you were "honest" and "of good moral character." Frontier lawyers (as Illinois at the time was "in the west") were more rustic than their eastern counterparts, and not always as well regarded. But Lincoln was a successful and busy lawyer. Dirck gives us a flavor of Lincoln's love of the circuit, the traveling road show of lawyers and judges that for months on end would move around the various rural districts to deliver justice. The camaraderie between Lincoln and his fellow jurists is well described.

In large part Lincoln's legal career was rather mundane. While there are the occasional high profile cases (e.g., the Almanac trial), the vast majority of his thousands of cases were of the debt collection variety. Petty (at least by our modern standards) cases of promissory notes unpaid, divorces, and breach of contract abounded. While many post-presidency recollections by others of Lincoln's grandiose legal career were common, the reality is that most of his career was unremarkable.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Ronald H. Clark VINE VOICE on April 13, 2009
Format: Paperback
I think this book should appeal to several audiences of readers. I am not a Lincolnholic, but there are zillions of folks who are, as demonstrated by the mountains of Lincoln books and articles. They should find this personalized view of Lincoln of interest. For myself, I am interested in the development of American law, and there are relatively few books that involve the pre-Civil War period of legal practice. That is the primary focus of this book and this is a second dimension of its value. Certainly there are a number of books out on Lincoln as a lawyer; this is the first one to be based in part on the Lincoln Legal Papers ("LLP") project which sought to locate and incorporate every piece of documentation relating to Lincoln's law practice. A huge CD-ROM of 5,000 cases resulted, as well as a 4-volume printed edition issued by the University of Virginia Press.

The book begins with an explanation of how Lincoln became a lawyer in the first place and what he hoped to accomplish by so doing--basically, a solid and comfortable middle class existence. So initially we see how the ethos of Jacksonian democracy made it relatively painless (in comparison to what I had to go through) to join the bar. The printed resources that Lincoln learned to rely upon are discussed, as well as how new lawyers in these developing areas formed partnerships and opened offices. The author then moves on to a series of individual chapters on the particular areas of Lincoln's practice. Mostly it was debt collection involving promissory notes. The author effective relates Lincoln's outlook to that of the evolving market economy driven by enterpreneuers and new technology. Lincoln was a big believer in internal improvements, railroads, and minimal restrictions on economic growth.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Jim Schmidt on August 24, 2015
Format: Paperback
4.51 stars - A terrific book by Lincoln scholar Brian Dirck - several points in its favor: 1) Dirck's knowledge/grasp of the large body of Lincoln biography really comes through, and he draws on numerous accounts, while weighing their probity judiciously; 2) great book not just for Lincoln enthusiasts but also for a look at legal education (such as it was) and practice, generally, in early/mid-1800s; 3) the discussion of the importance of his days on the 8th circuit was especially enjoyable; 4) his overall assessment of Lincoln's career is very fair and reasoned; 5) the excellent Bibliography will happily provide me with much additional reading on this subject.

When possible, I recommend reading the book with a computer at hand and consulting the freely available online collection of the "Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln" at hand so you can refer to the available documentation of cases, litigants, etc., as they are mentioned.

Criticisms of this book are very few...would like to have seen more on two points: a) readers of law under Lincoln - a brief mention is made of Elmer Ellsworth, but who else? The Lincoln Papers and/or Collected works include interesting inquiries from young men wanting to read under Lincoln, e.g. - he generally replied w/ advice but not with an invitation to join- why not? and b) how did Lincoln's presidency change the legal profession? It's interesting to note the single pension case mentioned in the book (and a very interesting one at that) - the Civil War launched an entire industry of pension attorneys - were there other changes as well?

One of the best last lines of a book I've read in some time.

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