Abraham Lincoln: The Lawyer - Statesman

by John T. Richards

Union, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange, 1999. Book, cloth, 9" x 6-1/4", (3) vi p. (2), 260 (14) pp., illus. ISBN 1-886363-94-3. $60.00

The Lawbook Exchange of Union, New Jersey has undertaken the important task of reprinting early and groundbreaking books touching upon Abraham Lincoln's legal career. The first book reissued by the Lawbook Exchange is Abraham Lincoln The Lawyer-Statesman by John T. Richards.

First published in a limited edition of 350 copies in 1916, Richard's book closely examines Lincoln's legal practice and its influence on his career as President. The author demonstrates that despite the image then popular of Lincoln as a lawyer, that of a country lawyer of limited abilities, he was actually a skilled and successful attorney. The biography of Lincoln written by his last law partner, William H. Herndon, gave the impression that Lincoln was a somewhat careless and often ill prepared attorney. Herndon may have had this impression due to the fact that Lincoln did little research and preparation work on legal cases, leaving those details to his junior partner. Lincoln's role in the law firm was to try the cases in open court; to present the arguments in person. So it might be natural for Herndon to feel that he did much of the work preparing for a trial without being able to see Lincoln at work in the courts.

Richards demonstrates that one of Lincoln's skills as a lawyer is revealed in his ability to quickly digest materials relating to a case that was often prepared by Herndon or others, and then effectively use this information in a trial.

The author examines many of the well-known cases in which Lincoln participated. The Duff Armstrong trial, the Effie Afton case, and Lincoln's representation of the Illinois Central Railroad are all detailed. Richards also tell of Lincoln being snubbed by Edwin Stanton and George Harding during the 1855 trial in the McCormick v. Mammy reaper case tried in Cincinnati.

Richards argues that Lincoln's training as a lawyer helped him become an outstanding statesman. Through his practice Lincoln gained an appreciation for the history and development of laws. He learned to weigh evidence and carefully examine a question from several angles and dimensions. Any decision he made quickly turned into a steely resolve. Additionally, Lincoln's career as a lawyer impressed upon him the importance of constitutional law, the supremacy of the judiciary, and honed his oratorical skills, which would prove to be a lasting legacy.

Once must acknowledge that Richards' book is not without fault. In Chapter 3, titled "The Lawyer ­ President," there is an uncomfortable effort on the part of the author to convince the reader that Lincoln did not favor suffrage for the freedmen after the Civil War. Indeed, Richards goes so far as to advocate the position that African Americans, and the United States in general, would have been better off had the freed slaves been colonized in Liberia or Central America. To support this position the author uses some statements made by Lincoln when he was an advocate of colonization plans. Richards fails to point out that as the war progressed, and as Blacks contributed more and more to the war effort, that Lincoln abandoned his colonization plans and became an unswerving advocate for the rights of freed African Americans.

Richards' ideas, read from a 21st century perspective, seem shocking, almost repulsive. However, just as we must judge Abraham Lincoln's statements regarding complete racial equality using the standards of his day, so much we judge Richards' comments on the prevailing mores of his era. After all, the early 1900's was a time when Jim Crow laws and black codes took away many of the rights granted Blacks by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, and the United State Supreme Court had declared "separate but equal" a perfectly legal way to treat black citizens. So rather than judging Richards too harshly, one can look upon his positions as more of a historgraphical insight into the attitudes and opinions of his era.

In outlining his thesis, Richards proposed that the states should have retained the rights to grant voting privileges to African Americans, who refused to be colonized outside the United States, and states that the 14th amendment granting suffrage to the Black race was premature and detrimental to all citizens. Of course, Richards makes a valiant attempt, using Lincoln's own words, to prove that Lincoln felt the same way. Here again Richards fails to acknowledge Lincoln's change in attitude towards the end of his life.

Richards examines Lincoln's attitude toward the Judiciary, particularly in light of his objection to, and disagreement with, the Dred Scott decision. Richards argues quite convincingly that Lincoln had great respect for the court system and for the supremacy of judicial review. However, he also demonstrates that Lincoln recognized the fact that the judicial decisions made by judges and justices were indeed made by men, and that these men may err or their decisions might be biased. Lincoln also disdained courts that rendered decisions that exceeded their judicial authority. And according to Lincoln, such was the case with the Dred Scott decision.

Lincoln felt that the court that rendered the decision, especially Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, was biased towards the pro-slavery faction who were seeking to extend the peculiar institution into the territories. Lincoln went so far as to accuse Taney of conspiring with officials in the legislative and executive branches to put the plan into effect.

Further, Lincoln asserted that Dred Scott went far beyond the strict legal question brought before the court. The Taney court ruled that Scott was not a citizen of the United States and could therefore not sue in the federal courts. But the decision went far beyond passing judgement on this question. It went on to rule that the federal government could not exclude slavery from territories. Lincoln firmly believed that this portion of the ruling went far beyond the judicial authority of the court, as no part of the Dred Scott suit even addressed the issue.

Richards fastidiously points out that despite Lincoln's strong feelings on the subject, he was careful to confine his criticism to the decision in question and the justices who rendered it, while never attacking the judicial system which created it. During his formative years as a lawyer, Richards argues, Lincoln gained a profound respect for the system and learned to criticize only the jurists who served it.

The concluding chapter of Richard's book concerns Lincoln's gift of language. The author recognizes that Lincoln's career as an attorney aided him in developing the gift of being concise and the point. Lincoln was a master conveying a point using the fewest possible words. Richards also argues that Lincoln's gift of oratory came from an overriding and absolute belief in the truth of his convictions. Lincoln's famous declaration that "right makes might" can legitimately be applied to his speaking skills. Lincoln had a gift for language, and no small part of that gift arose from the fact that he was passionate about his beliefs.

Lincoln The Lawyer-Statesman by John T. Richards was and excellent choice for reprinting. Not only does it provide an interesting and convincing analysis of the importance of Lincoln's legal training in the development of his legendary statesmanship, but it also offers the reader a historiographical peek into the attitudes of the era in which the book was written.

This book can be ordered directly from the Lawbook Exchange at:
965 Jefferson Ave.
Union, NJ 07083

Or you can call 800-422-6686. You can also order through their website at http://www.lawbookexchange.com.

© Copyright Daniel E. Pearson, 2000