The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: A Narrative Overview

Editor's Note: This narrative of Abraham Lincoln's legal career was written primarily for the researcher with little or no exposure to this aspect of his life. The editors made no attempt to analyze the law practice, but rather provide a framework for others to undertake such endeavors. Users are directed to the reference works cited in the Bibliography for comprehensive treatments of Lincoln, Illinois, and Legal History. In this edition, the Chronology and Statistical Portrait provide additional contextual resources.

Abraham Lincoln practiced law for nearly twenty-five years in the Illinois courts. Other than part-time service in the Illinois legislature and the United States Congress, law was his full-time occupation. Lincoln handled cases in almost all court levels: justice of the peace, county, circuit, appellate, and federal. He had three successive formal partnerships: junior partner to John Todd Stuart (1837-1841), junior partner to Stephen T. Logan (1841-1844), and senior partner to William H. Herndon (1844-1861). Like many of his colleagues at the bar, Lincoln was a general practice attorney and represented clients in a variety of civil and criminal actions including debt, slander, divorce, dower and partition, mortgage foreclosure, and murder.

While Lincoln lived in New Salem, Illinois, from 1831 to 1837, he had various encounters with the legal system. He wrote legal documents for Bowling Green, the local justice of the peace, appeared in several lawsuits as a witness, and was the defendant in several cases in which creditors sued him to collect debts. Lincoln considered a career in law after he lost the 1832 election for the Illinois General Assembly, but, according to his 1860 campaign autobiography, decided against a legal career because he thought he needed more education to succeed as a lawyer. In 1834, Lincoln won election as a representative for Sangamon County to the state legislature. When he attended legislative sessions in Vandalia, fellow representative John Todd Stuart encouraged him to study law.

Aspiring attorneys typically studied with established members of the bar or served as clerks in law offices to prepare for a legal career. Lincoln had no such opportunity in New Salem. Instead, he borrowed law books from Stuart's law office in Springfield, twenty miles away, and read them while the legislature was not in session. Lincoln read Blackstone's Commentaries and legal pleading and practice treatises to become familiar with the forms of action and the legal system. On March 24, 1836, the Sangamon County Circuit Court in Springfield certified that Lincoln was a person of good moral character. This certification was the first of several necessary steps to become a lawyer in Illinois.

On September 9, 1836, the Illinois Supreme Court examined Lincoln and issued him a license to practice law in all of the courts in the state, which was the final step to become an attorney. By the spring of 1837, Lincoln had moved to Springfield and accepted Stuart's offer to become his junior law partner. Stuart was mainly interested in politics and gave Lincoln little legal instruction. Consequently, Lincoln had to learn the practice of law by trying cases in court. In November 1838, Stuart won election to the United States House of Representatives and left Lincoln to handle the legal partnership business alone. Stuart remained in Congress until March 1843.

Stuart and Lincoln's practice consisted primarily of debt-related matters in the various courts in which they practiced. They also handled a variety of legal actions in the criminal, common law, and chancery divisions of law. Stuart and Lincoln both traveled the First Judicial Circuit. When Sangamon County became part of the newly formed Eighth Judicial Circuit in 1839, Lincoln began to ride that circuit. Stuart and Lincoln concentrated their legal practice in Sangamon, Tazewell, Logan, and McLean counties, but they handled cases elsewhere as well.

The Stuart and Lincoln law office was in an upstairs room along Hoffman's Row, a group of buildings on Fifth Street in Springfield, one block north of the public square. After the state legislature voted to move the state capital from Vandalia to Springfield in February 1837, the city donated the public square for the new statehouse. As part of their office work, Stuart and Lincoln kept an office fee book as a record of their legal fees from handling cases and nonlitigation activities. According to entries in their fee book, Stuart and Lincoln generally received $5 to $10 for legal fees, but in People v. Truett, an 1838 murder case, they received $500. Stuart and Lincoln generally divided fees equally.

On April 14, 1841, Stuart and Lincoln formally dissolved their legal partnership. Stuart had won election to a second term in Congress, and Lincoln was unable to maintain the partnership by himself. Earlier in the spring of 1841, Lincoln and Stephen T. Logan had begun practicing law together. Logan introduced Lincoln to new areas of law. After Springfield officially became the Illinois state capital in 1839, the federal court and the Illinois Supreme Court, both of which had met in Vandalia, moved to Springfield. In response to the Panic of 1837, the United States Congress passed the Bankruptcy Act in 1841 granting relief to debtors, the first such federal legislation in nearly forty years. Logan and Lincoln handled many bankruptcy cases before the federal court during the brief time that the act was in effect. During his partnership with Logan, Lincoln increased his caseload before the Illinois Supreme Court and handled appeals from all areas of the state.

Logan stopped circuit traveling when Lincoln became his partner. Logan remained in Springfield, while Lincoln traveled the Eighth Judicial Circuit. Lincoln expanded his legal practice outside of the Eighth Circuit as well, routinely traveling to Coles County, where his father lived, to try cases. He also ventured as far as Clark County, on the Indiana border, and Madison County, on the Missouri border. Most of his circuit traveling took place in the spring and fall terms in each of the counties on the Eighth Circuit.

Logan and Lincoln first had a law office on the opposite side of Fifth Street from Hoffman's Row. In August 1843, they moved to the Tinsley building, which was located on the southeast corner of the public square across Adams Street from the statehouse. The Tinsley building also housed the local post office and the federal courtroom. Logan heightened Lincoln's awareness of legal fees, and they sued several delinquent clients.

Logan and Lincoln dissolved their partnership in December 1844. Logan wanted to practice law with his son David, and Lincoln wanted to begin his own law firm. He asked William H. Herndon, a young law clerk in the Logan and Lincoln law office, to be his junior partner. Initially, Lincoln and Herndon remained in Logan and Lincoln's old office in the Tinsley building. After Lincoln left for Washington in October 1847 to serve a term in the United States House of Representatives, Herndon moved to a smaller office in the same building. Upon Lincoln's return to Springfield in 1849, they continued to practice law in the smaller office. In 1852, they moved to the northwest side of the state capitol square on Fifth Street and remained there until Lincoln left Springfield in February 1861 to become president. Herndon mainly traveled to neighboring counties around Sangamon County. He maintained a large and steady practice in Menard County, which was northwest of Sangamon, even though it was not on the Eighth Circuit throughout most of the 1840s and 1850s.

Lincoln intensified his interest in law after returning from Congress in 1849. He continued to handle cases before the Illinois Supreme Court during the winter and before the federal court and the Sangamon County Circuit Court during the summer. Lincoln occasionally traveled to Chicago when the federal court held terms there in the 1850s. He interspersed regular court appearances with justice of the peace cases and nonlitigation activities. Lincoln was away from Springfield for nearly six months of the year, three months each spring and each fall riding the circuit.

He had traveled the Eighth Judicial Circuit in the past but began to spend even more time on the circuit after his return from Congress. By 1849, the circuit had fourteen counties in central Illinois, and Lincoln was the only attorney, besides the state's attorney and the judge, who traveled the entire circuit. After one county circuit court concluded its business, the circuit judge and the state's attorney left to hold court at the next county seat. Circuits usually consisted of four to ten counties, and a court term lasted from a few days to a few weeks. At its peak from 1841 to 1847, the Eighth Judicial Circuit consisted of fifteen counties. (See Circuit Courts for more information about the circuit court system.) Roads were difficult to travel during rainy weather. Itinerant court members traveled on horseback or by horse and buggy. While in a county seat, they stayed at local taverns, ate at common tables, and shared beds. When travel was particularly hazardous or lengthy, the group stayed at rural farmhouses along the way. By the end of the 1850s, railroads had become a popular mode of transportation, and Lincoln was able to travel to each of the county seats by rail. Many county seats along rail lines had grown in population and had hotels in which traveling lawyers and judges stayed.

Lincoln did not have any formal partnerships on the circuit. When he reached a county seat, local attorneys asked Lincoln to assist them with a case, or litigants themselves sought his services. Lincoln handled the business as it came to him. Generally, he chose neither clients nor co-counsels along partisan lines. In Macon County, Lincoln and Democrat Joel Seth Post argued fifteen cases together and opposed each other in fifteen cases. In Vermilion County, Lincoln and Ward Hill Lamon had a de facto partnership and advertised it in local newspapers. However, this arrangement did not prevent Lincoln from opposing Lamon in a few cases. (See Lincoln and His Fellow Attorneys for more information.)

Attorneys living in counties far away from Springfield often referred their Illinois Supreme Court cases to Lincoln. His residence in the state capital helped him build a strong appellate practice. Lincoln continued to handle a large number of cases before the Illinois Supreme Court during the first few years of his partnership with Herndon. After 1849, the Illinois Supreme Court held court at three different locations: Ottawa, Springfield, and Mt. Vernon. Lincoln maintained his appellate practice in Springfield and occasionally traveled to Ottawa for a supreme court session.

Lincoln did not practice exclusively in state courts and maintained a substantial practice in the federal courts in Illinois. The federal courts in Illinois generally ruled on disputes between citizens of different states. Out-of-state residents or businesses attempting to collect debts from Illinois residents often sued them in the federal courts if the amount in controversy exceeded $500. In such cases, Lincoln represented out-of-state residents as often as Illinois residents. Clients from major commercial centers such as New York, Boston, St. Louis, and Philadelphia retained Lincoln to represent them in Illinois courts. Lincoln argued one case before the United States Supreme Court when he was in Congress in 1849, and served as the attorney of record in four more throughout the 1850s. Lincoln probably had a substantial practice before the federal courts, but the Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed almost all of the Illinois federal records prior to 1855, so it is difficult to estimate the full extent of this aspect of his practice. (See Cases by Jurisdiction in the Statistical Portrait for more information.)

Lincoln handled many different categories of litigation during his career. Debt-related issues filled the court system during the antebellum period, and the majority of Lincoln's legal cases consisted of debt collection. In this type of litigation, he represented both creditors and debtors. As plaintiff attorney for creditors, he won the majority of cases because many defendants failed to appear and defaulted. As defendant attorney for debtors, he lost the majority of cases because the legal system favored creditors over debtors. He also handled cases relating to land titles, inheritance, patents, and railroads. (See Legal Actions and Common Subjects in the Statistical Portrait for more information.)

In the 1850s, the Illinois legislature chartered railroads, and many of them began construction. These events increased litigation over issues of right of way, stock subscriptions, fencing, and damages to real property. Lincoln generally supported the development of railroads all over the state, but that did not prevent him from opposing the railroad companies in the courtroom. He became involved in railroad litigation and represented individuals nearly as often as railroad corporations. The Illinois Central Railroad secured his legal services more often than any other railroad, and Lincoln opposed them in only a few cases. (See a discussion of Lincoln and the railroads in Peers and Clients in the Statistical Portrait for more information.)

Lincoln's legal career did not consist solely of litigation. He maintained an office practice that included writing deeds, registering land, paying taxes, receiving money, and giving legal advice. Herndon had served in various capacities during his partnership with Lincoln as a deputy clerk for the Illinois Supreme Court and also as city attorney for Springfield. Lincoln and Herndon also maintained a law library in their office, and in one Illinois Supreme Court case, Lincoln loaned one of the law books from his office to the court for use in its opinion.

Lincoln personally did not aspire to any judicial or legal offices. He often wrote letters of endorsement for friends who sought judgeships. When Judge David Davis of the Eighth Judicial Circuit had to leave court during a session, he appointed an attorney to sit as judge for a few cases or even for a few days. Davis asked Lincoln to act as judge several times in the 1850s. However, Lincoln was not the only person whom Davis appointed. Clifton Moore of De Witt County and Oliver L. Davis of Vermilion County substituted for Davis several times as well. Judge Charles Emerson of the neighboring Seventeenth Judicial Circuit often filled in for Davis. Lincoln never sought the position of state's attorney either, though he did assist David Campbell and Ward Hill Lamon, when these men served as state's attorneys on the Eighth Circuit. Lincoln wrote indictments, served as co-counsel to the state's attorney, or acted as state's attorney pro tem in several criminal cases.

On average, Lincoln and Herndon charged a typical client $5 to $20. However, there were several occasions when Lincoln either charged his clients nothing or charged them a substantial amount. There are only a few years in which Lincoln and his partners documented legal fees. Lincoln was sometimes careless in obtaining payment, but in a few instances, Lincoln sued clients who had failed to pay him or sued estates of clients to recover legal fees. Lincoln's federal practice probably supplied him with much of his income. A case could not be heard in the U. S. Circuit Court unless it involved a dispute exceeding $500. As a result, Lincoln charged his federal clients higher fees. He probably charged clients less while practicing in the state circuit courts because disputes involved lesser amounts.

During various times in his legal career, Lincoln suspended the practice of law in favor of his political career. During election years in the 1840s, Lincoln stumped for the Whig Party in various regions of the state. However, in a few instances, Lincoln combined his political and legal careers. For example, while campaigning for the Whigs in southern Illinois in 1840, he gave a political speech in Jefferson County and while court was in session argued a case in the Jefferson County Circuit Court. During his term in Congress, Lincoln did not handle any cases in Illinois but argued one case and became involved in two others before the United States Supreme Court. After losing the 1854 Senate election, Lincoln wrote to some clients in March 1855, that he had dabbled in politics and neglected business, and that since he had lost, he had to go back to work. During his 1858 Senatorial campaign against Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln did not practice law for much of the summer and fall. After his loss, he returned to law but maintained active political correspondence, which eventually helped him garner support for the presidential election in 1860.

The Republican National Convention nominated Lincoln for president in May 1860. He continued to handle several cases during the summer term of the federal court in Springfield. It is unlikely that he represented any more clients after the summer. In November 1860, Lincoln won the election for the presidency over his political rival Stephen A. Douglas and two other candidates. During the winter, Lincoln wrapped up his legal business with Herndon, and left for Washington in February 1861. According to Herndon's biography of his famous law partner, Lincoln wanted the partnership sign to hang undisturbed and "give our clients to understand that the election of a President makes no change in the firm of Lincoln and Herndon." He told Herndon that if he returned he wanted to resume their practice of law "as if nothing had ever happened."