The Lawyers

“During my life I have been acquainted with very many able lawyers, and I have no hesitation in saying that Lincoln was the greatest trial lawyer I ever saw,” wrote Shelby M. Cullom, an Illinois lawyer and politician. “He was a man of wonderful power before a court or jury. When he was sure he was right, his strength and resourcefulness were well-nigh irresistible. In the court-room he was at home. He was frank with the court, the juries, and the lawyers, to such an extent that he would state the case of the opposite side as fairly as the opposing counsel could do it; he would then disclose his client’s case so strongly, with such honesty and candor, that the judge and jury would be almost convinced at once in advance of the testimony,” said Cullom, who was nearly two decades younger than Mr. Lincoln but sometimes served with him as a co-counsel.1

When Mr. Lincoln was admitted to the Illinois Bar in Sangamon County on March 24, 1836. he joined a new fraternity that was to be the center of his professional universe for the next two and a half decades. When he joined the Eighth Circuit, he joined a university with fourteen counties – each a school in political and human nature. The court circuit, with its easy comraderie, was conducive to legal education and political friendships. “In my opinion Lincoln was happy – as happy as he could be, when on this Circuit – and happy no other place. This was his place of Enjoyment,” observed David Davis, the judge who presided on the circuit.2 But Mr. Lincoln never quite let down his guard. He maintained his distance even from his fellow lawyers with melancholy and meditation.

Mr. Lincoln’s legal fraternity was an elite group. “The bar of the Eighth Circuit, if the Springfield lawyers are included, was probably superior to any other group of legal talent in the state,” wrote Benjamin Thomas.3 Mr. Lincoln’s last law partner, William H. Herndon, can be forgiven for a lack of objectivity when he wrote: “The very best minds in the State, if not in the great West, met here, the capital of the State, and energetically struggled for wealth or fame….These men were, taken them as a whole, great men, full of energy and of great natural capacities, and were very ambitious and struggled to rise in the world; they were giants and fought like giants.”4

It was an elite that found its spiritual and fraternal core in Mr. Lincoln. “Mr. Lincoln was loved by his brethren of the bar. His presence on the circuit was watched for with interest, and never failed to produce joy or hilarity. When [Mr. Lincoln was] casually absent the spirits of both bar and people were depressed,” Judge Davis maintained.5

Frederick Trevor Hill wrote in Lincoln The Lawyer: “Among the members of the backwoods legislature to which Lincoln was first elected were a future President of the United States, a future candidate for the Presidency, six future United States senators, eight future members of Congress, a future cabinet secretary, and no less than three future judges of the State, to say nothing of other men who distinguished themselves professionally in later years. Almost without exception, these men were lawyers, and Lincoln met and practised against them during the three and twenty years of his professional life.” 6

“‘Count me in,’ was Lincoln’s characteristic way of accepting a fellow barrister’s invitation to join him in a case,” wrote Albert A. Woldman in Lawyer Lincoln. “These connections were to prove far more important in the molding of Lincoln’s future than the mere additional revenue they brought to his nearly always empty pockets. For these circuit associates became in time bulwarks of strength during his political struggles. They became his loyal, devoted district leaders, upon whom he could rely at all times to promote his local interests among the voters of their respective regions.”7

Circuit life could be unpleasant. At one point the tavern in David Davis’s home town of Bloomington was so dirty that Davis refused to stay there – asking instead that the court clerk put up him and Mr. Lincoln. In 1851, Davis complained that the “eating is poor” at Bailey’s tavern in Urbana. But it also had its charms and life could also be “glorious fun” according to attorney Usher Linder, a fellow Kentucky native who sometimes served as a co-counsel with Mr. Lincoln.8 Although travel could be rigorous, reported Benjamin Thomas, many of “these trips were joyous and exhilarating. One lawyer remembered with pleasure the ‘good company, the exhilaration of great speed, over an elastic road, much of it a turf of grass, often crushing under our wheels the most beautiful wild flowers, every grove fragrant with blossoms, framed in the richest green, our roads not fenced in by narrow lanes.”9

Contemporary biographer William H. Herndon, wrote: “I was on the circuit with Lincoln probably one-fourth of the time. The remainder of my time was spent in Springfield looking after the business there, but I know that life on the circuit was a gay one. It was rich with incidents, and afforded the nomadic lawyers ample relaxation from all irksome toil that fell to their lot. Lincoln loved it. I suppose it would be a fair estimate to state that he spent over half the year following Judges [Samuel] Treat and [David] Davis around on the circuit. On Saturdays the court and attorneys, if within reasonable distance, would usually start for their homes. Some went for a fresh supply of clothing, but the greater number went simply to spend a day of rest with their families. The only exception was Lincoln, who usually spent his Sundays with the loungers at the country tavern, and only went home at the end of the circuit or term of court.”10

Judge Davis wrote about one weekend in June 1852: “Lincoln, Anthony, Thornton, Campbell & Moulton and myself went [Sunday morning] to Mr. John Wards about five miles from Shelbyville,’ Davis wrote. ‘Whiled away several hours, got a fine dinner, & about 3 o’clock started for Sullivan where we got about 6 o’clock.”11 Although Mr. Lincoln clearly enjoyed the circuit, he sometimes withdrew from the comradery of his colleagues – even when in their presence. Legal scholar Hill wrote that Mr. Lincoln “admitted very few friends to his confidence, and his intimates never numbered more than two or three. He was undoubtedly easy-going, pleasant-spoken, cordial, unconventional, and entirely approachable, but he had his own distinctive barrier of dignity which no one ever surmounted.”12 Mr. Lincoln’s peculiar behavior was recalled by Jonathan Birch, who observed Mr. Lincoln while studying law in Bloomington:

Having no office of his own, Mr. Lincoln, when not engaged in court, spent a good deal of his time in the [court] clerk’s office. Very often he could be seen there surrounded by a group of lawyers and such persons as are usually found about a courthouse, some standing, other seated on chairs or tables, listening intently to one of his characteristic and inimitable stories. His eyes would spark with fun, and when he had reached the point in his narrative which invariably evoked the laughter of the crowd, nobody’s enjoyment was greater than his. An hour later he might be seen in the same place or in some law office near by, but, alas, how different! His chair, no longer in the center of the room, would be leaning back against the wall; his feet drawn up and resting on the front rounds so that his knees and chair were about on a level; his hat tipped forward as if to shield his face; his eyes no longer sparkling with fun or merriment, but sad and downcast and his hands clasped around his knees. There, drawn up within himself as it were, he would sit, the very picture of dejection and gloom. Thus absorbed have I seen him sit for hours at a time defying the interruption of even his closest friends. No one ever thought of breaking the spell by speech; for by his moody silence no one dared to break through.”13

“Law was then, as it is now, the principal avenue to public life. Every lawyer was necessarily a politician, and solicited office to augment his slender income,” wrote Albert A. Woldman in Lawyer Lincoln. Law was an especially attractive avenue of ambitious avenue for ambitious young men seeking to advance themselves. “It behooved him to make himself felt on important public questions of the day. The lawyer, who was an effective stump-speaker, often was ‘retained as a likely victor in a lawsuit to be argued. Lincoln, Herndon, James Matheny, Noah Rickard, Evan Butler, Milton Hay, Newton Francis, and other young men who congregated in [Joshua]Speed’s store organized a society to encourage public speaking, debating, and literary efforts.”14

The center of this society – inside Springfield, in the courtroom, and on the circuit — was Mr. Lincoln. Hill observed that Mr. Lincoln “knew how to try a case without making a personal issue between counsel. He could utter effective replies without insulting his opponent, and during all his practice he never made an enemy in the ranks of the profession. No one but a lawyer can appreciate what this means; but it requires generosity, patience, tact, courtesy, firmness, courage, self-control, and a big-mindedness which few men possess.” ” Biographer Benjamin Thomas wrote: “Lincoln loved the life of the circuit – the excitement of court week in the small country towns, the camaraderie of judge and lawyers, the speechmaking and sociability in the evenings, and the esteem in which the simple country people held the members of the bar.”15 And the circuit loved Mr. Lincoln. “The meanest man in the bar would always pay great deference & respect to Lincoln,” recalled Judge David Davis.16 Usher Linder, a prominent Democratic lawyer and politician, later wrote: “I don’t know whether he was strongest before the judge or the jury. I certainly never liked to have him against me.”17

Fellow attorney Elihu B. Washburne noted: “Mr. Lincoln was universally popular with his associates. Of an even temper, he had a simplicity and charm of manner which took hold, at once, on all persons with whom he came in contact. He was of the most amiable disposition, and not given to speak unkindly of any person, but quick to discover any weak points that person might have. He was always the center of attraction in the court-room at the evening gatherings, and all felt there was a great void when, for any reason, he was kept away.”18 Washburne noted: “Mr. Lincoln was always a great favorite with young men, particularly with the younger members of the bar. It was a popularity not run after, but which followed. He never used the arts of the demagogue to ingratiate himself with any person. Beneath his ungainly exterior he wore a gold heart. He was ever ready to do an act of kindness whenever in his power, particularly to the poor and lowly.”19

Washburne noted: “The lawyers of that day were brought much closer together than they ever have been since, and the “esprit du corps” was much more marked. Coming from long distances and suffering great privations in their journeys, they usually remained a considerable time in attendance upon the court.”20

Clients, clerks, and lawyers all liked to work with him. Mr. Lincoln also enjoyed encouraging and practicing with young lawyers like Lawrence Weldon, who practiced law in DeWitt County. “He was particularly kind to young lawyers, and I remember with what confidence I always went to him, because I was certain he knew all about the matter, and would most cheerfully tell me. I can see him now through the decaying memories of thirty years, standing in the corner of the old courtroom, and as I approached him with a paper I did not understand, he said: ‘Wait until I fix this plug for my ‘gallis,’ and I will pitch into that like a dog at a root.”sup>21

“I became warmly attached to him because of his genial disposition and the kindness shown me as clerk,” recalled William H. Somers, who was clerk of the Champaign County Court in the late 1850s. In fact, he was always kind to young men who were striving to qualify themselves for the law; hence he was approachable, and I had no hesitancy in asking his assistance in making up the record in cases in which he was interested.”22

Mr. Lincoln remained loyal to these legal colleagues as President. For, example when Usher Linder’s son was captured while serving in the Confederate Army and imprisoned, President Lincoln ordered his release: “Please administer the oath of allegiance to him, discharge him, and send him to his father.”23

When he wasn’t on the circuit, Mr. Lincoln was frequently engaged in appeals before the Supreme Court. The center for the professional and social life of the bar was the Supreme Court Library in the State House. According to historian Benjamin Thomas, this “was the rendezvous of the bar. After completion of the day’s work, lawyers, Lincoln among them, and frequently judges, would sit there sometimes until midnight, swapping yarns, discussing cases or planning political campaigns.”24 Thomas wrote that “Most business coming up to the Supreme Court from the Eighth Circuit was entrusted to Springfield lawyers – usually to Lincoln and Herndon, Stuart and Edwards, or Logan. After Milton Hay became [Stephen T.] Logan’s partner in 1857, he had a number of cases from the circuit.”25

Mr. Lincoln was a star of the circuit – and its resident humorist as well. He was held in special esteem by Judge Davis. In the early 20th century Frederick Trevor Hill interviewed many of Mr. Lincoln’s surviving colleagues for Lincoln the Lawyer: “More than one of the judge’s coterie has testified that his Honor would brook no interruption of the conversation when Lincoln had the floor; and if his favorite happened to be absent, he took but little interest or enjoyment in the rest of the company which gathered at his rooms. ‘Where’s Lincoln?’ he would inquire irritably. ‘Here, somebody, go and tell Lincoln to come here.'”26

But there was also some occasional spirit of envy. “As Lincoln grew into public favor and achieved such marked success in the profession, half the bar of Springfield began to be envious of his growing popularity,” wrote law partner Herndon. “I believe there is less jealousy and bitter feeling among lawyers than professional men of any other class; but it should be borne in mind that in that early day a portion of the bar in every county seat, if not a majority of the lawyers everywhere, were politicians. Stuart frequently differed from Lincoln on political questions, and was full of envy. Likewise those who coincided with Lincoln in his political views were disturbed in the same way. Even Logan was not wholly free from the degrading passion. But in this respect Lincoln suffered no more than other great characters who preceded him in the world’s history.”27

Mr. Lincoln himself had a reverential attitude toward the law. He wrote in notes for an 1850 law lecture: “Let no young man choosing the law for a calling yield to that popular belief. If, in your judgment, you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.”28

Mr. Lincoln’s respect for the law and lawyers was profound. In his speech of January 27, 1837, he gave a speech in which he called for reverence for laws: “Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap – let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges;- let it be written in Primmers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; – let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice.”29

The lawyers on the circuit were not just the center of Mr. Lincoln’s professional life. They were very much at the center of his political life as well. Mr. Lincoln’s legal friends were crucial to his presidential candidacy and his nomination at the Republican National Convention in May 1860. In the early months of 1861, many of Mr. Lincoln’s legal friends, however, felt abandoned by the President. Several – David Davis, Ward Hill Lamon, Norman B. Judd – accompanied Mr. Lincoln to Washington with the expectation of government appointments. Swett, Davis, and Jesse K. Dubois all waited for appointments that didn’t come. President Lincoln wanted to appoint Davis as Commissary-General of the Army, but General Winfield Scott vetoed the appointment – saying it had to be an Army officer. The absence of appointments was politically and personally embarrassing for these friends – because “an Administration that you breathed into power is now passing away without your valuable aid and comfort,” wrote one congressman to Davis that summer.

There was particularly strong pressure on President Lincoln to appoint Davis to theU.S. Supreme Court after Justice John McLean died in April 1861. “In 1862, when Swett went to Washington to consult with Lincoln about appointments, he reminded Lincoln that he owed his nomination to the presidency largely to the efforts of the lawyers of the Eighth Circuit headed by Davis; and Lincoln admitted that it was so,” wrote historian Benjamin Thomas.30 “Tell Lincoln that Judge Davis will be an applicant,” Leonard Swett wrote Ward Hill Lamon.” Davis thought he would be better suited for a district court judgeship if President Lincoln chose Judge Thomas Drummond for the Supreme Court. But as so often happened, Lincoln’s Illinois friends were not in agreement. Orville Browning sought the nomination as well, while “Lincoln’s old circuit-riding friends,” wrote Davis biographer Willard King, “flooded him with letters for Davis, reminding him of the Judge’s great ability and his ‘instinctive hatred of rascality.’31 Among the supporters of Davis was Judge Stephen Logan, Mr. Lincoln’s former law partner and widely considered the smartest lawyer in Illinois. It would, however, take more than another 16 months for President Lincoln to reward Davis with a seat on the Supreme Court.

Those lawyers who accompanied Lincoln around the circuit had a unique perspective on Lincoln’s personality. Henry C. Whitney recalled: “One morning, I was awakened early – before daylight – by my companion sitting up in bed, his figure dimly visible by the ghostly firelight, and talking the wildest and most incoherent nonsense all to himself. A stranger to Lincoln would have supposed he had suddenly gone insane. Of course I knew Lincoln and his idiosyncracies, and felt no alarm, so I listened and laughed. After he had gone on in this way for, say, five minutes, while I was awake, and I know not how long before I was awake, he sprang out of bed, hurriedly washed, and jumped into his clothes, puts some wood on the fire, and then sat in front of it, moodily, dejectedly, in a most sombre and gloomy spell, till the breakfast bell rang, when he started, as if from sleep, and went with us to breakfast. Neither Davis nor I spoke to him; we knew this trait; it was not remarkable for Lincoln…”32

“The stubborn and prosaic fact,” wrote Whitney, “is that no lawyer’s office could have been more unkempt, untidy, and uninviting than that of Lincoln & Herndon, even when the senior partner was in the zenith of his political career.” William Herndon wrote:

It was located in the second story of a building on the west side of the public square, one building south of the street that bounds the square on the north, in a back room, dimly lighted by windows, apparently innocent of water and the scrub-man since creation’s dawn, or the settlement of Springfield.
But the lack of translucent qualities in the windows, was compensated somewhat by the transparency of the upper half of the door leading into the hall – for there was nothing there to obstruct the perfect vision – not even a gossamer’s wing, for it was perfectly diaphanous; in other words, both of the upper panels and the center piece were gone; and an agile man could readily have vaulted through the opening.

I think there was no carpet on the floor; if so, it must have been if in harmony with its surroundings, a marvelous fabric. And the sum total of the furnishing of the office, as I recollect it, was a rocking-chair ( a favorite seats of Lincoln) and several other ordinary chairs, an old table numerously indented with a jack-knife, a wood stove, and some common book-cases, occupied for the most part with session laws and public documents. It did not seem as if the inspiration of genius could haunt such a place, and yet, in this uncouth office, the later creed of the Republican party was formulated in the mutual councils of the law-partners, and more than friends. Here was fabricated, rehearsed, pruned and perfected that famous speech of June 17, 1858, which contained the key-note of the coming struggle, and rendered effete the tardy echo of the ‘irrepressible conflict,’ and its great author. I recently visited the room, which had been their office, with Herndon, and found that it had undergone a radical change; and was now a tailor shop. Alas! To what base uses we may come at last.33

Fellow attorney Shelby M. Cullom recalled Lincoln’s law office methods: “I saw Mr. Lincoln constantly and he was my friend. I have been in his law office when he returned from riding the circuit. Mr. Lincoln kept no account books to speak of. He practiced at the courts of all the counties around Springfield. After trying a case he would take the fee that he received from his client, wrap it up in a piece of paper, write on the back of the paper the name of the case and the amount – ten, fifteen or twenty-five dollars, whatever it might be – and put the paper in his pocket. When Mr. Lincoln came home he would take these papers out of his pockets, one at a time, and divide the amounts with his partner, Herndon. Theoretically, Mr. Lincoln was strong on financial questions. On political economy he was great. Practically, he knew little about money and took no care of it. As a lawyer in practice, he was very strong before both court and jury. He had a great deal of personal magnetism and his honest, plain way captured the jurors. Mr. Lincoln would lean over the jury, gesturing with his long arms and holding the jurors fascinated with his homely eloquence.”34


  1. Shelby M. Cullom, Fifty Years of Public Service, p. 84-85.
  2. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 349 (William H. Herndon interview with David Davis, September 20, 1866).
  3. Michael Burlingame, editor, “Lincoln’s Humor” and Other Essays, p. 75.
  4. Emanuel Hertz, The Hidden Lincoln, p. 431.
  5. William O. Stoddard, Abraham Lincoln: The Man and the War President, p. 132.
  6. Frederick Trevor Hill, Lincoln the Lawyer, p. 90-91.
  7. Albert A. Woldman, Lawyer Lincoln, p. 100-101.
  8. Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis, p. 89.
  9. Michael Burlingame, editor, “Lincoln’s Humor” and Other Essays of Benjamin Thomas, p. 155.
  10. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 248-249.
  11. Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis, p. 86.
  12. Frederick Trevor Hill, Lincoln the Lawyer, p. 175-176.
  13. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 105 (Jonathan Birch, Outlook of New York, February 11, 1911).
  14. Albert A. Woldman, Lawyer Lincoln, p. 31.
  15. Michael Burlingame, editor, “Lincoln’s Humor” and Other Essays of Benjamin Thomas, p. 139.
  16. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, Herndon’s Informants, p. 344-345 (William H. Herndon interview with David Davis, September 20, 1866).
  17. Charles H. Coleman, Abraham Lincoln and Coles County, Illinois, p. 123.
  18. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 14 (Elihu B. Washburne).
  19. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 16-17 (Elihu B. Washburne).
  20. Allen Thorndike Rice, editor, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, p. 14-15.
  21. Albert A. Woldman, Lawyer Lincoln, p. 106.
  22. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Intimate Memories of Lincoln, p. 100 (Letter from William H. Somers to James R. B. Van Cleave, December 7, 1908).
  23. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume VII, p. 95 (Letter to Edward M. Stanton, December 26, 1863).
  24. Michael Burlingame, editor, “Lincoln’s Humor” and Other Essays of Benjamin Thomas, p. 174.
  25. Michael Burlingame, editor, “Lincoln’s Humor” and Other Essays of Benjamin Thomas, p. 174.
  26. Frederick Trevor Hill, Lincoln the Lawyer, p. 183.
  27. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 287.
  28. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume II, p. 82 (Fragment: Notes for a Law Lecture, July 1, 1850).
  29. Roy P. Basler, editor, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 108-115 (Address before Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield on the Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions, January 27, 1838).
  30. Michael Burlingame, editor, “Lincoln’s Humor” and Other Essays of Benjamin Thomas, p. 168.
  31. Willard L. King, Lincoln’s Manager, David Davis, p. 193.
  32. Henry Clay Whitney, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, p. 68.
  33. Henry Clay Whitney, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, pp. 404-405.
  34. Walter B. Stevens, A Reporter’s Lincoln, pp. 154-155.