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Lincoln the Lawyer Hardcover – March 15, 2007
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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 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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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.
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. He had lots of business and made a comfortable living, but as Dirck remarks, Lincoln was "a middle class lawyer," not some obvious prophetic attorney clearly destined for greatness. In contrast to the dry middle sections where Dirck recounts Lincoln's caseload, the chapter "Storytelling" shows how his career seemed much greater post-mortem than in reality. That chapter and the next "Grease" are exceptionally insightful and interesting.
In Grease, Dirck adds his own perspective to show how Lincoln learned in his legal career to facilitate resolution, i.e., to apply grease to the gears in order to keep things running smoothly. This concept is summed up best perhaps by Lincoln himself in his "Notes for a Law Lecture" in which he states that lawyers should "Discourage litigation. 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 for being a good man. There will still be business enough." Dirck goes on to draw parallels between the lessons Lincoln learned during his legal career - compromise, lack of animosity, hard work, facilitating resolution by "greasing" to dissipate friction - and the way in which he managed one of the most difficult and brutal times in our history.
While not a quick or particularly riveting read despite its relative brevity (about 175 pages of text), the insights into Lincoln's thinking gained from this are well worth the time. Dirck has clearly researched this book well, and we are all the more knowledgeable for it.
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This book is an illustration of the very important philosophic points made in its own the last chapters.Read more