Abraham Lincoln – Self Made Man

Law School is a long, stressful, and expensive undertaking. We hear stories of the pressure put on the students and the anxiety of just getting through just to be ready to take the bar exam. Today, if you are looking to make a career in Law, you are committing to the time, stress, and expense.

In the 19th century, most lawyers did not attend formal law school. They studied under an established, practicing lawyer. Abraham Lincoln lived in a rural village in Illinois and did not have immediate access to an established lawyer. He did, however, know John T. Stuart, a lawyer from Springfield who Lincoln met during his time as a volunteer in the Illinois Militia during the Black Hawk War. Stuart encouraged Lincoln to become a lawyer and he lent him the books necessary to start his studies on his own.

Illinois law stated that to be a lawyer someone had to “obtain a certificate procured from the court of an Illinois county certifying to the applicant’s good moral character.” In 1836, Lincoln appeared before the Illinois Supreme Court where he received his license from 2 justices of that court. In 1937, in a more formal setting before the same court, Abraham Lincoln took an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and the State of Illinois.

Lincoln went into partnership with John T. Stuart. Throughout his career as a lawyer, he would always have a partner and he would remain in Springfield.

Lincoln’s talent and success as a lawyer came from the same agile mind that would later make Lincoln one of the greatest Presidents the United States would ever see. He had an uncanny ability of taking the most complex of cases and breaking them down into its most basic points. Lincoln was noted for his focus, brevity, and clarity. Lincoln’s strongest talent was that of orator. His use of logical oral arguments, along with is ability to read a jury and influence them with his arguments, gave Lincoln a great deal of success.

Lincoln took cases of all sorts, from civil to criminal, and of any size from a farmer’s dispute over some cows to working on corporate railroad cases. Most of his cases involved debt collection and breach of contract, which was common at the time since those were the most common sort of cases. Lincoln did not shy away from even the most difficult cases, as he also took cases as a defense lawyer in murder cases. The first murder trial that Lincoln work worked on, People v. Truett, Lincoln and Stuart were hired for the defense while prosecution was appointed to Stephen A. Douglas, since the state’s attorney, John D. Urquhart was actually a witness in the case. Truett was found not guilty and the partners received $500 for their services.


This was not the last time Lincoln would square off with Douglas. In 1858, Stephen Douglas was the incumbent United States Senator from Illinois. Abraham Lincoln was running for the seat. As, at the time, the state legislatures voted for United States Senators, Lincoln and Douglas agreed to nine debates, one in each of the congressional districts of Illinois. Due to circumstances of joint appearances in Chicago and Springfield, seven debates were held between August and October of 1858. The Lincoln–Douglas debate format that is used in high school and college competition today is named after this series of debates.

Abraham Lincoln was admitted to the State Supreme Court in 1839 where he would try several hundred cases. In 1849, Lincoln was admitted to the United States Supreme Court when he argued his only case there, Lewis v. Lewis. The case regarded the construction of statute of limitations in Illinois in a case brought in Illinois by a non-resident. The Court, with a decision read by Chief Justice Roger Taney, ruled against Lincoln. Taney would later administer the oath of office to Abraham Lincoln and the two men would frustrate each other until Taney’s death in 1864.

In 1861, just as Lincoln was leaving for Washington, D.C., he stood with his last partner, William Herndon and pointed to a sign that hung from their law office, “Lincoln and Herndon”, he said, “Let it hang there undisturbed.” He promised Herndon that should he return to Springfield after his term they would go right on practicing law “as if nothing had ever happened.”


Comments are closed.