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Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

February 1954

Abe Lincoln, Country Lawyer

BENJAMIN THOMAS, the author of the best single-volume biography of Lincoln, reminds us that following the election of President Zachary Taylor in 1848, Abraham Lincoln thought that his political career was at an end. He had served one term in Congress, where his record had not found favor with his Illinois constituents; now the door of patronage had been slammed in his face, so Lincoln settled back into the routine of a country lawyer riding circuit spring and fall, pleading cases at court sessions in seven county towns. What he learned from this experience and what it was that sprung him from this rut constitute a turning point in his life.

by Benjamin P. Thomas

The Illinois prairies were thrusting forth new life in early April, 1854, as Abraham Lincoln hitched "Old Buck" to his buggy and prepared to set forth on his customary round of the Eighth Judicial circuit. Bidding good-by to his wife and their three boys--Robert, aged ten; Willie, three; and "Tad," the baby, born just a year before --Lincoln tossed a threadbare carpetbag containing shirts, underwear, a homemade yellow flannel nightgown, and other necessities into the buggy, swung his long body after it, "cluck-clucked" to his horse, and turned northward through Springfield's more prosperous residential section toward the open country. Ahead of him lay a journey of some four hundred miles that would keep him away from home almost ten weeks, with stops for court sessions at seven county towns.

Lincoln loved the life of the circuit--the excitement of court week in the small country towns, the camaraderie of judge and lawyers, the speechmaking and sociability in the evenings, and the esteem in which the simple country people held the members of the bar. He had not expected to follow the circuit this long, however; and if his thoughts turned inward on this first leg of his journey, he could look back on a quick rise in life followed by a disillusionment that held him to circuit practice. For Lincoln, pulling himself loose from the poverty and aimlessness that marked his background, had learned to use his brain instead of brawn as a means of livelihood; then, employing the law as a springboard, he had rapidly advanced in politics. After serving four terms in the state legislature, he had aspired to go to Congress. Whig party rivalries stood in his way at first; but after he had waited for two other zealous young Whigs to satisfy a similar ambition, his turn had come at last. In December, 1847, he had stepped forth on the national stage.

Thus, in Lincoln's early manhood, while the law provided bread and butter, politics became his life. For fifteen years he had spent hour after hour attending caucuses, conventions, and legislative sessions, writing party circulars and delivering party speeches, formulating party policy and directing party strategy. Then, during his term in Congress, had come discomfiture: he lost step with the people of his district by opposing the Mexican War.

When war with Mexico began, during Lincoln's campaign for Congress, a fervid martial spirit swept the prairies; and if he harbored any feelings that his country might be wrong he had kept them to himself. By the time he reached Washington, the fighting had stopped. But peace terms were yet to be agreed on, and he found that his fellow Whigs in Congress, looking to the election of 1848, were intent upon making political capital by accusing President Polk of bringing on an unjust war against a feeble neighbor.

Lincoln fell in with this policy and joined the clamor against Polk. He introduced a series of resolutions designed to convict Polk of falsehood in his claim that Mexico had started hostilities by "invading our territory and shedding American blood on American soil." This was not so, Lincoln asserted; Mexico, not the United States, exercised jurisdiction over the "spot" where the first blood had been shed. Three weeks later Lincoln took the floor to amplify his charges and challenge Polk to answer them. Throughout the session he voted consistently with the Whig minority on all matters designed to put the President in the wrong. And when the Democrats introduced a resolution of thanks to General Zachary Taylor for his victory at Buena Vista, Lincoln joined with other Whigs in amending it to read, "in a war unconstitutionally and unjustly begun by the President."

The letters in which Lincoln tried to justify his actions to his law partner, William H. Herndon, are forthright with conviction, notwithstanding Lincoln's silence on the subject before he left for Washington. But Lincoln, the young Whig politician, had been reared to party discipline; and thrown among the national stalwarts of his party as a freshman congressman, he may have been convinced with undue ease.

In any event the outcome proved ruinous for Lincoln. Back home, where people's patriotism and land hunger overrode any moral qualms they may have felt about the war, he was blasted throughout his district as a disgrace to his state. Democratic newspapers dubbed him "Spotty" Lincoln, and one even labeled him "a modern Benedict Arnold."

Heretofore Lincoln's district had been accounted such a Whig stronghold that the Whig nomination was tantamount to election. By reason of an understanding among certain Whig leaders of the district that they would take a "turn about" in Congress, he did not stand for re-election. But his course had so discredited the party that Stephen T. Logan, the Whig candidate to succeed him, lost to Thomas L. Harris, Democrat. The powerful Whig organization managed to keep the vote extremely close--7201 for Harris to 7095 for Logan; and Lincoln tried to explain the defeat on the ground of Logan's unpopularity and Harris's excellent war record. But the Illinois State Register came nearer to the truth when it complained: "This will not do, gentlemen, you must put the saddle on the right horse....Besides his own dead weight, Logan had to carry the votes of the Whig party, including Lincoln, that the war was unconstitutional and unnecessary."

This congressional election took place in August, 1848, and by the time of the presidential election, in November, the Whigs, with General Zachary Taylor, a military hero as their candidate, succeeded in bringing the district right-side-up again. Lincoln, intent on proving that his course had caused no change of sentiment in the district, worked harder in this contest than he had ever worked before, and claimed the chief credit for this local victory. He had also labored zealously for Taylor's nomination, even at the cost of abandoning his political idol, Henry Clay. Now, with the Whigs in control of the federal government, Lincoln, jobless and reluctant to return to the less eventful life of Springfield, sought the politician's reward.

He asked for the commissionership of the General Land Office in Washington, but it went to a Chicagoan, an indication of the increasing political importance of the booming city on the lake; and the most that the administration Would offer him was the governorship or secretaryship of far-off Oregon Territory. Lincoln had also thought that he and Edward D. Baker, who would be the sole Illinois Whig in the next Congress, should control the federal patronage in Illinois. But their recommendations for office were consistently ignored. It was as though the door to a political future had been slammed shut in Lincoln's face. By the summer of 1849 he had no choice but to return to Springfield and settle once again into the routine of a country lawyer.

So every spring and fall for the past four years, he had started out on the circuit, as he was doing now, leaving home and family for nine or ten weeks at a time, driving over muddy or dusty roads, now under a hot sun and again through pelting showers or all-day rain, putting up with the scanty comforts and monotonous fare of cheap hotels and boarding houses, where the lawyers slept two in a bed and six or eight in a room, and spending long hours in court for the ten, twenty, or fifty dollar fees, occasionally supplemented by larger ones, which, along with the more substantial fees he earned in the State Supreme Court and the Federal Courts in Springfield and the interest he received from a few notes and mortgages, added up to an annual income of some $2500.

2.

Many lawyers settled down into contented mediocrity in such a way of life, but Lincoln, with the avenue of political advancement seemingly closed to him, resolved to make himself a better lawyer and more enlightened man. So, as "Old Luck" plodded on from one town to another along the familiar prairie roads, Lincoln often lolled back in his buggy, his long legs over the dashboard, with an open book in hand: Robert Burns or Shakespeare, those favorites of his young manhood, or perhaps some scientific textbook having learned the value of mathematics as a mental discipline, he mastered the first six books of Euclid; and he also studied astronomy.

Thus Lincoln's ambition, which Herndon, without fully comprehending, compared to a little engine that knew no rest, and which Lincoln, in his first campaign for public office, described as a desire "of being truly esteemed of my fellow men by rendering myself worthy of their esteem," carried over into these years of political retirement and induced him to continue that process of self-teaching that had distinguished his earlier years.

Though Lincoln appreciated the knowledge to be gained from books, observation and experience remained his chief instructors, as they had always been. A fellow lawyer remembered how, when Lincoln encountered a new piece of farm machinery on his circuit travels, he should examine it in all its parts, first closely, then at a distance, and finally, coming back to it, he would shake it, lift it, push it, "sight" it to see whether it was straight or warped, and stoop, or even lie down if necessary, to look under it in order to ascertain its every quality and utility. In the lawyers' evening discussions, which "ranged through the universe of thought and experience," he learned to apply the same careful process to propositions and ideas.

A man of deep emotions, Lincoln craved the power to put his feelings into words. Of a commonplace poem he had once declared: "I would give all I am worth and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is"; and, unsatisfied with the clarity and fluency that are the lawyer's tools, he had attempted to write poems of his own.

Some notes for a law lecture, which Lincoln drew up at this season of his life but never used, reveal not only his attitude toward his profession but also something of the man himself. "I am not an accomplished lawyer," he wrote. "I find quite as much material for a lecture in those points wherein I have failed, as in those wherein I have been moderately successful. The leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man in every other calling, is diligence. Leaving nothing for tomorrow which can be done today. Never let your correspondence fall behind. Whatever piece of business you have in hand, before stopping, do all the labor pertaining to it which can then be done....Extemporaneous speaking should be practiced and cultivated. It is the lawyer's avenue to the public....

"There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest....Let no young man choosing the law for a calling for a moment yield to the popular belief--resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave."

Honesty became Lincoln's best-known attribute around the circuit, and next to that his gift of storytelling. "Lord, wasn't he funny," one friend later wrote; while another with the free-wheeling exaggeration of the frontiersman recalled: "In the role of story teller I never knew his equal. His power of mimicry was very great. He could perfectly mimic a Dutchman, Irishman or Negro....I have heard men say that they had laughed at his stories until they had almost shaken their ribs loose." Lincoln's humor often served a useful purpose. Abstruse points became clear to the slowest minds on a jury when Lincoln explained them with a story; and his quick perception of the ludicrous and the ridiculous enabled him to unmask pretense and vanity and hold things in true perspective.

Notwithstanding Lincoln's geniality he was a lonely man; for there was a remoteness and innate dignity about him that kept acquaintances at arm's length. Most people addressed him as "Mr. Lincoln" or ''Lincoln.'' Not even stout, jovial Judge David Davis or any of his other intimates felt sufficiently free and easy with him to call him "Abe."

He neither smoked nor drank, and seldom swore; yet he never moralized of those who did, and he had jokingly applied to himself the saying that a man with no vices is likely also to lack virtues.

3.

Something of Lincoln's life struggle might be discerned in his face. The early death of his mother in the Indiana wilderness, a rude upbringing verging on the uncouth, the batterings of rough-and-tumble frontier politics, a mental breakdown resulting from uncertainty about love, the hurts of a not altogether happy marriage, the loss of an infant son--all these had added their tracings to the toil marks that seamed his features. Yet his face was kindly for all that: for the buffetings of life had sensitized instead of hardening him, and patience, tolerance, forbearance, and forgiveness were becoming the very texture of his heart.

Also a part of Lincoln's very being was a faith in the worth and fundamental goodness of plain people, like those whom he grew up with, those at the little village of New Salem who helped him get a start in life, and those he knew now on the circuit. Still vivid in his memory was a time when, as a boy in backwoods Indiana, he had lain at full length on the cabin floor before the open fire, reading Parson Weems's life of George Washington. But what moved him, even more than the deeds and character of Washington, was the heroism of the Revolutionary soldiers, and he could remember thinking, "boy even though I was, that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for."

And as he overcame the obstacles of poverty and grew in mind and character, the story of America took on rich meaning for him. In no other country of the world, he thought, were ordinary people so much the masters of their destiny. Nowhere else were they offered such a chance to rise through their own efforts. As he carved out his own career in law and politics, all about him, at home and on the circuit, he saw men who, starting life as laborers, mechanics, mill hands, and flatboatmen, or in other lowly walks of life, had become lawyers, merchants, doctors, farmers, editors, successful politicians. And he saw these people come together in equality and mutual respect, not only in the state legislature and in Congress, but also at the grass-roots level, in private homes and crossroads meetinghouses, to make their own decisions and work out their own problems under a political system "conducing more essentially to civil and religious liberty," he thought, "than any of which the history of former times tells us." As the years passed, he had arrived at the conviction that the Founding Fathers of the new republic had embodied its true meaning in the document that gave it birth, and that in the assertion of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal and are alike entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was a promise "not only to the people of this country, but hope for the world to all future time."

Religion and the Bible had been important in Lincoln's upbringing but he had known skepticism too. During his campaign for Congress, when pressed to define his faith, he had declared: "That I am not a member of any Christian church is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures." This is not the same as saying that he accepted the Scriptures fully; and, having trained his mind to demand proof, he had not yet gained that broader understanding of how the incomprehensible may still be true. Yet his very goodness bespoke a latent spirituality, which, if awakened and motivated, might widen his horizon and make his life more purposeful. Those who failed to penetrate his surface qualities saw only the old melancholy that could change so quickly to boisterous laughter, the rustic mannerisms that had clung to him since boyhood, and the shambling gait of the man whose feet have been accustomed to plowed ground. The tall hat with the well-rubbed nap, the long coat bulging at the elbows, the ill-fitting trousers and unblacked boots might have passed for the same toggery he first wore around the circuit.

Though Lincoln's complex and sometimes contradictory personality made him difficult to understand, his warm human qualities drew people to him, and he could count a host of friends. In fact, his first stop on this trip around the circuit would be at Lincoln, the newly founded county seat of Logan County, a town named in his honor.

These friends could muster an impressive tally if he cared to have another try at politics; and his experience, his enlarged humanitarianism, and his maturing wisdom all qualified him for a larger field of usefulness in public service. But his once compelling political ambition seemed to have simmered out. Two years before, When friends tried to induce him to run again for the state legislature, he had declared that his profession demanded all his time. A move to make him governor died from his own lack of interest. During the presidential campaign of 1854, when the Whigs again nominated a military hero, General Winfield Scott, he had served as a national committeeman and delivered a few speeches. But they flashed little of the old fire. Looking back later on this period of his life, he stated that "by 1854 his profession had almost superseded the thought of politics in his mind."

4.

Lincoln might have lost interest entirely except for what was taking place in Washington. But the news from the nation's capital carried portentous overtones as Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln's rival of bygone political contests, now a United States Senator and chairman of the powerful committee on territories, fostered a policy which, as Lincoln saw it, threatened the very ideals the nation stood for.

Early in January, Douglas had reported out of his committee a bill to organize the territory of Nebraska with the stipulation that the people living there might admit or exclude slavery as they chose--a provision contrary to that clause of the Missouri Compromise which prohibited slavery in all the area of the Louisiana Purchase north of Missouri and the western extension of its southern boundary. Political maneuvering sent the bill back to committee; but Douglas speedily reported it out again, this time in a form which divided the affected area into two territories, Kansas and Nebraska, and expressly repealed the slavery interdiction of the Missouri Compromise. The storm of protest that broke in Congress spread rapidly through the North. Douglas was able to make his principle of "popular sovereignty" the new Democratic faith, however, and on March 3, after weeks of heated argument, he had jammed the measure through the Senate.

With that the battle shifted to the House of Representatives, and now, as Lincoln made his way from one county town to another, he conned the newspapers with more than his usual thoroughness. By the time he reached the town of Lincoln he could read of protest meetings all over northern Illinois. At Bloomington he learned that Richard Yates, Whig congressman from his district, had spoken out against "the opening of this dangerous agitation, fraught with such imminent peril to the existence of the Union itself." His home town Whig paper, the Illinois State Journal, which came to Bloomington by train, was condemning "the violation of the plighted faith and compacts of the nation."

Newspapers available to Lincoln at Metamora predicted that Douglas's policy would "lead to interminable broils." At Pekin, papers from near-by Peoria told of Illinois congressmen Jesse Norton and Elihu Washburne joining Yates in denouncing "this great wrong," of Chicago and New England clergymen petitioning Congress to defeat the measure, and of veteran Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, now a member of the House, lashing out at popular sovereignty as "a bone given to the people to quarrel and fight over at every election and at every meeting of the legislature until they become a state government." The Missouri Compromise was intended to be perpetual, Benton had declared; it was as sacred and inviolable as a human instrument can be. He recalled Douglas's own assertion of less than four years before, that the Missouri Compromise had "become canonized in the hearts of the American people as a sacred thing, which no ruthless hand would ever be reckless enough to disturb."

By the time Lincoln reached Clinton, the administration organs, rallying behind Douglas's bill, were pursuing Benton in full cry. Fist swinging had been narrowly averted in the House of Representatives. Papers throughout central Illinois were condemning Douglas as a more dangerous fomenter of national strife and hatred than the detested abolitionists. As feeling mounted to this frenzied pitch, Lincoln's fellow lawyers noticed that he kept more and more to himself. Often he was still awake when all the others went to bed. Rising early in the morning, they sometimes found him sitting hunched in thought, staring at the dead embers in the bedroom fireplace.

For as long as Lincoln could remember he had reasoned, "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong." Yet, recognizing the virulence of slavery as a political issue, he had been loath to touch it, believing, as he had declared in the state legislature, that the promulgation of abolition doctrine tended to increase rather than abate the evil of it. In this issue, as in so many others, he had looked for wisdom to the Founding Fathers, and if he correctly understood their attitude toward slavery, they had sought to restrict it to the area where it had become engrafted, in the belief that, if so restricted, it would die for lack of growth. So their policy became Lincoln's policy, too, even though toleration of human bondage did violence to that concept of America as the land of freedom and equality that he had cherished since boyhood. But Douglas would risk opening new areas where slavery might feed anew, and thus prolong its life. To Lincoln's mind this constituted a rejection of the policy of ridding the nation of a hypocrisy at the earliest practicable time.

It is not our concern here that Douglas looked at the matter from a drastically different point of view, and regarded his policy as an application of the principle of self-government which, by reason of climatic and economic factors, would restrict slavery no less effectively than would a geographical line. The important fact for us, and for history, is the energizing impact on Lincoln of what seemed to him a repudiation of a national ideal. As he drove into Urbana, far over toward the eastern border of Illinois, he felt oppressed and troubled; for the struggle in the House of Representatives had reached the crisis stage. May 23, the second day of the court term, became a fateful day for him. For sometime during that day the telegraph chattered out the news he had hoped would never come: the House had passed the Kansas-Nebraska Bill by a majority of thirteen votes. Where and when Lincoln received the news we do not know, but we have his own assertion that "it aroused him as he had never been before."

Three months later he was back in politics, campaigning for the state legislature as a spokesman for the anti-Nebraska forces in Illinois, and his real career had begun. Unknowingly, he had set his feet in the path to the presidency. For Lincoln will emerge now as a man of vision, who speaks with a new authority and a new eloquence born of moral earnestness. That little engine of ambition will throb more urgently than ever, but hereafter its energy will be directed to the advancement of a cause. And Lincoln's desire "of being truly esteemed of my fellow men" will find fulfillment in the revitalization of the ideals of human freedom and equality in the hearts of his countrymen.

No less compelling than the sunburst which appeared to Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road was the seeming renunciation of the national aspiration to genuine democracy in bringing Abraham Lincoln back into political life, and in transforming an honest, capable, but essentially self-centered small-town politician of self-developed but largely unsuspected talents into democracy's foremost spokesman.

In Lincoln's first major speech after re-entering politics, he pleaded: "Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it....If we do this we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it as to make it, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving. We shall have so saved it, that the succeeding millions of free happy people, the world over, shall rise up, and call us blessed, to the latest generations."

This was the theme that Lincoln stressed in his great debates with Douglas four years later, and in his speech at Cooper Union early in 1860. And when war came and he found himself in the very vortex of it, he explained in his first message to Congress: "This is essentially a people's contest. On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men--to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance in the race of life."

Throughout the war, in state papers, in conversations, in private letters, in informal talks to soldiers, he restated this idea in variant words. Identifying the fate of the Union with the fate of world democracy, he defined the cause of the nation in terms of human betterment throughout the world.

When Lincoln was asked to make "a few appropriate remarks" at the dedication of the soldiers' cemetery on the battlefield at Gettysburg, it was inevitable that his thoughts should go back to the Founding Fathers, then forward, into the far reach of time, and that he should plead for increased devotion to the ideals the nation's sons were dying for, so that government of the people, by the people, for the people might not perish from the earth.

A nearer realization of the American dream became the aim of Lincoln's life. Yet he was no mere dreamer. He realized that the struggle for human freedom is eternal; he had no illusions of its ending in his lifetime or in ours. He understood that the antagonisms between man's better nature and his selfishness endure, and that it would be the fate of every generation of Americans to defend democracy from its enemies of greed, intolerance, and despotism.


Copyright © 1954 by Benjamin P. Thomas. All rights reserved.
"Abe Lincoln, Country Lawyer," from
The Atlantic Monthly, February, 1954, issue. Vol. 193, No. 2 (p.57-61).

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