John George Nicolay.

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or on the legal questions involved.

Mr. Lincoln was the fairest and most accommodating of practitioners,
granting all favors which were consistent with his duty to his client,
and rarely availing himself of an unwary oversight of his adversary.

He hated wrong and oppression everywhere, and many a man whose
fraudulent conduct was undergoing review in a court of justice has
writhed under his terrific indignation and rebukes. He was the most
simple and unostentatious of men in his habits, having few wants, and
those easily supplied. To his honor be it said that he never took from
a client, even when his cause was gained, more than he thought the
services were worth and the client could reasonably afford to pay. The
people where he practiced law were not rich, and his charges were
always small. When he was elected President, I question whether there
was a lawyer in the circuit, who had been at the bar so long a time,
whose means were not larger. It did not seem to be one of the purposes
of his life to accumulate a fortune. In fact, outside of his
profession, he had no knowledge of the way to make money, and he never
even attempted it.

Mr. Lincoln was loved by his brethren of the bar, and no body of men
will grieve more at his death, or pay more sincere tributes to his
memory. His presence on the circuit was watched for with interest and
never failed to produce joy or hilarity. When casually absent, the
spirits of both bar and people were depressed. He was not fond of
litigation, and would compromise a lawsuit whenever practicable.

No clearer or more authoritative statement of Lincoln's rank as a
lawyer can ever be made than is found in these brief sentences, in
which the warmth of personal affection is not permitted to disturb the
measured appreciation, the habitual reserve of the eminent jurist.
But, as it may be objected that the friendship which united Davis and
Lincoln rendered the one incapable of a just judgment upon the merits
of the other, we will also give an extract from the address delivered
in Chicago by one of the ablest and most impartial lawyers who have
ever honored the bar and the bench in the West. Judge Drummond says:

With a probity of character known to all, with an intuitive insight
into the human heart, with a clearness of statement which was in
itself an argument, with uncommon power and felicity of illustration,
- often, it is true, of a plain and homely kind, - and with that
sincerity and earnestness of manner which carried conviction, he was
perhaps one of the most successful jury lawyers we ever had in the
State. He always tried a case fairly and honestly. He never
intentionally misrepresented the evidence of a witness nor the
argument of an opponent. He met both squarely, and if he could not
explain the one or answer the other, substantially admitted it. He
never misstated the law, according to his own intelligent view of it.
Such was the transparent candor and integrity of his nature, that he
could not well or strongly argue a side or a cause that he thought
wrong. Of course he felt it his duty to say what could be said, and to
leave the decision to others; but there could be seen in such cases
the inward struggle of his own mind. In trying a case he might
occasionally dwell too long upon, or give too much importance to, an
inconsiderable point; but this was the exception, and generally he
went straight to the citadel of the cause or question, and struck home
there, knowing if that were won the outworks would necessarily fall.
He could hardly be called very learned in his profession, and yet he
rarely tried a cause without fully understanding the law applicable to
it; and I have no hesitation in saying he was one of the ablest
lawyers I have ever known. If he was forcible before a jury, he was
equally so with the Court. He detected with unerring sagacity the weak
points of an opponent's argument, and pressed his own views with
overwhelming strength. His efforts were quite unequal, and it might
happen that he would not, on some occasions, strike one as at all
remarkable. But let him be thoroughly roused, let him feel that he was
right, and some principle was involved in his cause, and he would come
out with an earnestness of conviction, a power of argument, a wealth
of illustration, that I have never seen surpassed.

[Illustration: DAVID DAVIS.]

[Sidenote: Lamon, p. 317.]

This is nothing less than the portrait of a great lawyer, drawn by
competent hands, with the lifelong habit of conscientious accuracy. If
we chose to continue we could fill this volume with the tributes of
his professional associates, ranging all the way from the commonplaces
of condolence to the most extravagant eulogy. But enough has been
quoted to justify the tradition which Lincoln left behind him at the
bar of Illinois. His weak as well as his strong qualities have been
indicated. He never learned the technicalities, what some would call
the tricks, of the profession. The sleight of plea and demurrer, the
legerdemain by which justice is balked and a weak case is made to gain
an unfair advantage, was too subtle and shifty for his strong and
straightforward intelligence. He met these manoeuvres sufficiently
well, when practiced by others, but he never could get in the way of
handling them for himself. On the wrong side he was always weak. He
knew this himself, and avoided such cases when he could consistently
with the rules of his profession. He would often persuade a fair-
minded litigant of the injustice of his case and induce him to give it
up. His partner, Mr. Herndon, relates a speech in point which Lincoln
once made to a man who offered him an objectionable case: "Yes, there
is no reasonable doubt but that I can gain your case for you. I can
set a whole neighborhood at loggerheads; I can distress a widowed
mother and her six fatherless children, and thereby get for you six
hundred dollars, which rightfully belongs, it appears to me, as much
to them as it does to you. I shall not take your case, but I will give
a little advice for nothing. You seem a sprightly, energetic man. I
would advise you to try your hand at making six hundred dollars in
some other way." Sometimes, after he had entered upon a criminal case,
the conviction that his client was guilty would affect him with a sort
of panic. On one occasion he turned suddenly to his associate and
said: "Swett, the man is guilty; you defend him, I can't," and so gave
up his share of a large fee. The same thing happened at another time
when he was engaged with Judge S. C. Parks in defending a man accused
of larceny. He said: "If you can say anything for the man, do it, I
can't; if I attempt it, the jury will see I think he is guilty, and
convict him." Once he was prosecuting a civil suit, in the course of
which evidence was introduced showing that his client was attempting a
fraud. Lincoln rose and went to his hotel in deep disgust. The judge
sent for him; he refused to come. "Tell the judge," he said, "my hands
are dirty; I came over to wash them." We are aware that these stories
detract something from the character of the lawyer; but this
inflexible, inconvenient, and fastidious morality was to be of vast
service afterwards to his country and the world.

The Nemesis which waits upon men of extraordinary wit or humor has not
neglected Mr. Lincoln, and the young lawyers of Illinois, who never
knew him, have an endless store of jokes and pleasantries in his name;
some of them as old as Howleglass or Rabelais. [Footnote: As a
specimen of these stories we give the following, well vouched for, as
apocrypha generally are: Lincoln met one day on the courthouse steps a
young lawyer who had lost a case - his only one - and looked very
disconsolate. "What has become of your case?" Lincoln asked. "Gone to
h - -," was the gloomy response. "Well, don't give it up," Lincoln
rejoined cheerfully; "you can try it again there" - a quip which has
been attributed to many wits in many ages, and will doubtless make the
reputation of jesters yet to be.] But the fact is that with all his
stories and jests, his frank companionable humor, his gift of easy
accessibility and welcome, he was, even while he traveled the Eighth
Circuit, a man of grave and serious temper and of an unusual innate
dignity and reserve. He had few or no special intimates, and there was
a line beyond which no one ever thought of passing. Besides, he was
too strong a man in the court-room to be regarded with anything but
respect in a community in which legal ability was the only especial
mark of distinction.

Few of his forensic speeches have been preserved, but his
contemporaries all agree as to their singular ability and power. He
seemed absolutely at home in a court-room; his great stature did not
encumber him there; it seemed like a natural symbol of superiority.
His bearing and gesticulation had no awkwardness about them; they were
simply striking and original. He assumed at the start a frank and
friendly relation with the jury which was extremely effective. He
usually began, as the phrase ran, by "giving away his case"; by
allowing to the opposite side every possible advantage that they could
honestly and justly claim. Then he would present his own side of the
case, with a clearness, a candor, an adroitness of statement which at
once flattered and convinced the jury, and made even the bystanders
his partisans. Sometimes he disturbed the court with laughter by his
humorous or apt illustrations; sometimes he excited the audience by
that florid and exuberant rhetoric which he knew well enough how and
when to indulge in; but his more usual and more successful manner was
to rely upon a clear, strong, lucid statement, keeping details in
proper subordination and bringing forward, in a way which fastened the
attention of court and jury alike, the essential point on which he
claimed a decision. "Indeed," says one of his colleagues, "his
statement often rendered argument unnecessary, and often the court
would stop him and say, 'If that is the case, we will hear the other

[Sidenote: Raymond "Life of Lincoln." p. 32.]

[Sidenote: I.N. Arnold, speech before the State Bar Association, Jan.
7, 1881.]

Whatever doubts might be entertained as to whether he was the ablest
lawyer on the circuit, there was never any dissent from the opinion
that he was the one most cordially and universally liked. If he did
not himself enjoy his full share of the happiness of life, he
certainly diffused more of it among his fellows than is in the power
of most men. His arrival was a little festival in the county-seats
where his pursuits led him to pass so much of his time. Several eye-
witnesses have described these scenes in terms which would seem
exaggerated if they were not so fully confirmed. The bench and bar
would gather at the tavern where he was expected, to give him a
cordial welcome; says one writer, "He brought light with him." This is
not hard to understand. Whatever his cares, he never inflicted them
upon others. He talked singularly well, but never about himself. He
was full of wit which never wounded, of humor which mellowed the
harshness of that new and raw life of the prairies. He never asked for
help, but was always ready to give it. He received everybody's
confidence, and rarely gave his own in return. He took no mean
advantages in court or in conversation, and, satisfied with the
respect and kindliness which he everywhere met, he sought no quarrels
and seldom had to decline them. He did not accumulate wealth; as Judge
Davis said, "He seemed never to care for it." He had a good income
from his profession, though the fees he received would bring a smile
to the well-paid lips of the great attorneys of to-day. The largest
fee he ever got was one of five thousand dollars from the Illinois
Central Railway, and he had to bring suit to compel them to pay it. He
spent what he received in the education of his children, in the care
of his family, and in a plain and generous way of living. One who
often visited him writes, referring to "the old-fashioned hospitality
of Springfield," "Among others I recall with a sad pleasure, the
dinners and evening parties given by Mrs. Lincoln. In her modest and
simple home, where everything was so orderly and refined, there was
always on the part of both host and hostess a cordial and hearty
Western welcome which put every guest perfectly at ease. Their table
was famed for the excellence of many rare Kentucky dishes, and for the
venison, wild turkeys, and other game, then so abundant. Yet it was
her genial manner and ever-kind welcome, and Mr. Lincoln's wit and
humor, anecdote and unrivaled conversation, which formed the chief

Here we leave him for a while, in this peaceful and laborious period
of his life; engaged in useful and congenial toil; surrounded by the
love and respect of the entire community; in the fullness of his years
and strength; the struggles of his youth, which were so easy to his
active brain and his mighty muscles, all behind him, and the titanic
labors of his manhood yet to come. We shall now try to sketch the
beginnings of that tremendous controversy which he was in a few years
to take up, to guide and direct to its wonderful and tragical close.



We shall see in the course of the present work how the life of Abraham
Lincoln divides itself into three principal periods, with
corresponding stages of intellectual development: the first, of about
forty years, ending with his term in Congress; the second, of about
ten years, concluding with his final campaign of political speech-
making in New York and in New England, shortly before the Presidential
nominations of 1860; and the last, of about five years, terminating at
his death. We have thus far traced his career through the first period
of forty years. In the several stages of frontier experience through
which he had passed, and which in the main but repeated the trials and
vicissitudes of thousands of other boys and youths in the West, only
so much individuality had been developed in him as brought him into
the leading class of his contemporaries. He had risen from laborer to
student, from clerk to lawyer, from politician to legislator. That he
had lifted himself by healthy ambition and unaided industry out of the
station of a farm-hand, whose routine life begins and ends in a
backwoods log-cabin, to that representative character and authority
which seated him in the national Capitol to aid in framing laws for
his country, was already an achievement that may well be held to crown
honorably a career of forty years.

Such achievement and such distinction, however, were not so uncommon
as to appear phenomenal. Hundreds of other boys born in log-cabins had
won similar elevation in the manly, practical school of Western public
life. Even in ordinary times there still remained within the reach of
average intellects several higher grades of public service. It is
quite probable that the talents of Lincoln would have made him
Governor of Illinois or given him a place in the United States Senate.
But the story of his life would not have commanded, as it now does,
the unflagging attention of the world, had there not fallen upon his
generation the unusual conditions and opportunities brought about by a
series of remarkable convulsions in national politics. If we would
correctly understand how Lincoln became, first a conspicuous actor,
and then a chosen leader, in a great strife of national parties for
supremacy and power, we must briefly study the origin and development
of the great slavery controversy in American legislation which found
its highest activity and decisive culmination in the single decade
from 1850 to 1860. But we should greatly err if we attributed the new
events in Lincoln's career to the caprice of fortune. The conditions
and opportunities of which we speak were broadly national, and open to
all without restriction of rank or locality. Many of his
contemporaries had seemingly overshadowing advantages, by prominence
and training, to seize and appropriate them to their own advancement.
It is precisely this careful study of the times which shows us by what
inevitable process of selection honors and labors of which he did not
dream fell upon him; how, indeed, it was not the individual who gained
the prize, but the paramount duty which claimed the man.

It is now universally understood, if not conceded, that the Rebellion
of 1861 was begun for the sole purpose of defending and preserving to
the seceding States the institution of African slavery and making them
the nucleus of a great slave empire, which in their ambitious dreams
they hoped would include Mexico, Central America, and the West India
Islands, and perhaps even the tropical States of South America. Both a
real and a pretended fear that slavery was in danger lay at the bottom
of this design. The real fear arose from the palpable fact, impossible
to conceal, that the slave system was a reactionary obstacle in the
pathway of modern civilization, and its political, material,
philosophical, and religious development. The pretended danger was the
permanent loss of political power by the slave States of the Union, as
shown in the election of Lincoln to the presidency, which they averred
would necessarily throw all the forces of the national life against
the "peculiar institution," and crush it under forms of law. It was by
magnifying this danger from remote into immediate consequence that
they excited the population of the cotton States to resistance and
rebellion. Seizing this opportunity, it was their present purpose to
establish a slave Confederacy, consisting of the cotton States, which
should in due time draw to itself, by an irresistible gravitation of
sympathy and interest, first, the border slave States, and, in the
further progress of events, the tropical countries towards the

The popular agitation, or war of words between the North and the South
on the subject of slavery, which led to the armed insurrection was
threefold: First, the economic efforts to prevent the destruction of
the monetary value of four millions of human beings held in bondage,
who were bought and sold as chattels, and whose aggregate valuation,
under circumstances existing at the outbreak of the civil war, was
variously computed at $400,000,000 to $1,600,000,000; [Footnote: The
Convention of Mississippi, which passed the secession ordinance, in
its Declaration of Causes placed the total value of their property in
slaves at "four billions of money," This was at the rate of a thousand
dollars for each slave, an average absurdly excessive, and showing
their exaggerated estimate of the monetary value of the institution of
slavery.] second, a moral debate as to the abstract righteousness or
iniquity of the system; and, third, a political struggle for the
balance of power in government and public policy, by which the
security and perpetuity of the institution might be guaranteed.

This sectional controversy over the institution of slavery in its
threefold aspect had begun with the very birth of the nation, had
continued with its growth, and become intensified with its strength.
The year before the _Mayflower_ brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth Bock,
a Dutch ship landed a cargo of African slaves at Jamestown, in
Virginia. During the long colonial period the English Government
fostered and forced the importation of slaves to America equally with
English goods. In the original draft of the Declaration of
Independence, Thomas Jefferson invoked the reprobation of mankind upon
the British King for his share in this inhuman traffic. On reflection,
however, this was discovered to be but another case of Satan rebuking
sin. The blood money which reddened the hands of English royalty
stained equally those of many an American rebel. The public opinion of
the colonies was already too much debauched to sit in unanimous moral
judgment on this crime against humanity. The objections of South
Carolina and Georgia sufficed to cause the erasure and suppression of
the obnoxious paragraph. Nor were the Northern States guiltless:
Newport was yet a great slave-mart, and the commerce of New England
drew more advantage from the traffic than did the agriculture of the

[Sidenote: J. C. Hurd, "Law of Freedom and Bondage," Vol. I. pp. 228-

All the elements of the later controversy already existed. Slave codes
and fugitive-slave laws, abolition societies and emancipation bills,
are older than our Constitution; and negro troops fought in the
Revolutionary war for American independence. Liberal men could be
found in South Carolina who hated slavery, and narrow men in
Massachusetts who defended it. But these individual instances of
prejudice or liberality were submerged and lost in the current of
popular opinion springing from prevailing interests in the respective
localities, and institutions molded principles, until in turn
principles should become strong enough to reform institutions. In
short, slavery was one of the many "relics of barbarism" - like the
divine right of kings, religious persecution, torture of the accused,
imprisonment and enslavement for debt, witch-burning, and kindred
"institutions" - which were transmitted to that generation from former
ages as so many burdens of humanity, for help in the removal of which
the new nation was in the providence of God perhaps called into
existence. The whole matter in its broader aspects is part of that
persistent struggle of the centuries between despotism and individual
freedom; between arbitrary wrong, consecrated by tradition and law,
and the unfolding recognition of private rights; between the thraldom
of public opinion and liberty of conscience; between the greed of gain
and the Golden Rule of Christ. Whoever, therefore, chooses to trace
the remote origin of the American Rebellion will find the germ of the
Union armies of 1861-5 in the cabin of the _Mayflower_, and the
inception of the Secession forces between the decks of that Dutch
slaver which planted the fruits of her avarice and piracy in the James
River colonies in 1619.

So elaborate and searching a study, however, is not necessary to the
purposes of this work. A very brief mention of the principal landmarks
of the long contest will serve to show the historical relation, and
explain the phraseology, of its final issues.

The first of these great landmarks was the Ordinance of 1787. All the
States tolerated slavery and permitted the slave-trade during the
Revolution. But in most of them the morality of the system was
strongly drawn in question, especially by the abolition societies,
which embraced many of the most prominent patriots. A public opinion,
not indeed unanimous, but largely in the majority, demanded that the
"necessary evil" should cease. When the Continental Congress came to
the practical work of providing a government for the "Western lands,"
which the financial pressure and the absolute need of union compelled
New York and Virginia to cede to the general Government, Thomas
Jefferson proposed, among other features in his plan and draft of
1784, to add a clause prohibiting slavery in all the North-west
territory after the year 1800. A North Carolina member moved to strike
out this clause. The form of the question put by the chairman was,
"Shall the clause stand?" Sixteen members voted aye and seven members
voted no; but under the clumsy legislative machinery of the
Confederation these seven noes carried the question, since a majority
of States had failed to vote in the affirmative.

Three years later, July 13, 1787, this first ordinance was repealed by
a second, establishing our more modern form of territorial government.
It is justly famed for many of its provisions; but its chief value is
conceded to have been its sixth article, ordaining the immediate and
perpetual prohibition of slavery. Upon this all the States present in
Congress - three Northern and five Southern - voted in the affirmative;
five States were absent, four Northern and one Southern. This piece of
legislation is remarkable in that it was an entirely new bill,
substituted for a former and altogether different scheme containing no
prohibition whatever, and that it was passed through all the forms and
stages of enactment in the short space of four days. History sheds
little light on the official transaction, but contemporary evidence
points to the influence of a powerful lobby.

Several plausible reasons are assigned why the three slave States of
Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina voted for this prohibition.

Online LibraryJohn George NicolayAbraham Lincoln: a History — Volume 01 → online text (page 21 of 31)