Happy Birthday Mr. Lincoln

Today marks the 201st anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the US. Born in 1809 and known historically as president and politician, Lincoln spent most of his life (nearly twenty-five years) as a practicing lawyer. Students and scholars can access several items in the Brooklyn Law School Library collection to learn more about Lincoln the Lawyer. The newest item about Lincoln in the BLS Library collection is Lincoln the Lawyer by Brian Dirck (Call #E457.2 .D575 2007) which uses items from a database of Lincolns documents to give an overview of Lincoln’s practice. One of the most interesting chapters is the one on Lincoln’s debt practice which concludes that “insofar as Lincoln specialized in any area of law, he was a debt-collection attorney”.

The author makes two basic points about Lincoln the lawyer: one, that Lincoln kept his distance from his clients. This may well have been the result of professional detachment or objectivity but the author provides instances where Lincoln became emotionally invested when personal considerations were involved. The second point the author makes is that Lincoln’s law practice taught him the value of “grease” which Lincoln used to lubricate the market economy by reducing friction to acceptable levels. These points aside, the book contains a vast collection of documents including form books, demurrers, and proposed judgments. While the author does not dwell on any cases, he does provide imagined client interviews by Lincoln.
This accessible account of the lawyer Abraham Lincoln suggests that legal historians should not overlook the usefulness of the Lincoln Legal Papers project which photocopied thousands of documents, that are now categorized, indexed, and digitized. In 2000, the fruits of this prodigious labor were published as a three-DVD set. The Lincoln Legal Papers project has spurred new interest in Lincoln’s law practice and are accessible online.

Another item accessible available in the BLS Library is the Hein Online version of Lincoln the Lawyer by Frederick Trevor Hill originally published in 1906. At page 102 of this book, Lincoln is quoted as saying “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 of being a good man.” This is a book that would be of interest to anyone interested in Lincoln; it is even of greater interest to lawyers and future lawyers.