June 5, 2003 

by Joe Sobran

     As a young courtroom lawyer, Abraham Lincoln often 
worried his own clients. Unlike most lawyers, he didn't 
haggle over every point. He didn't seem combative. He 
yielded on minor questions as often as possible, 
cheerfully admitting, "Well, I reckon I was wrong." 

     Lincoln's easy good humor was disarming to juries, 
but it made his clients fear he was surrendering too much 
and giving their cases away. Still, he usually won. He 
knew just what he was doing. His friendly, folksy style 
concealed a deep cunning. 

     "His analytical powers were marvelous," his friend 
Joshua Speed recalled. "He always resolved every question 
into its primary elements, and gave up every point on his 
own side which did not seem to be invulnerable. One would 
think, to hear him present his case in court, he was 
giving his case away. He would concede point after point 
to his adversary until it would seem his case was 
conceded entirely away. But he always reserved a point 
upon which he claimed a decision in his favor, and his 
concession magnified the strength of his claim. He rarely 
failed in gaining his cases in court." 

     One colleague, Leonard Swett, described Lincoln's 
concessive courtroom manner in similar terms: "When the 
whole thing was unraveled, the adversary would begin to 
see that what [Lincoln] was so blandly giving away was 
simply what he couldn't get and keep. By giving away six 
points and carrying the seventh, and the whole case 
hanging on the seventh, he traded away everything which 
would give him the least aid in carrying that. Any man 
who took Lincoln for a simple-minded man would very soon 
wake up with his back in a ditch." Lincoln had a way of 
inducing his foes to underestimate him; and they usually 
did, to their cost. 

     Another lawyer, John Littlefield, remembered the 
same style from a slightly different perspective: "The 
client would sometimes become alarmed, thinking Lincoln 
had given away so much of the case that he would not have 
anything left. After he had shuffled off the unnecessary 
surplusage, he would get down to 'hard pan,' and state 
the case so clearly that it would soon be apparent that 
he had enough left to win the case with. In making such 
concessions he would so establish his position in 
fairness and honesty that the lawyer on the opposite side 
would scarcely have the heart to oppose what he contended 

     Swett added this observation: "The first impression 
he generally conveyed was that he had stated the case of 
his adversary better and more forcibly than his opponent 
could state it himself." This rare ability to grasp his 
foe's position made Lincoln himself a powerful foe. 

     Lincoln wasn't a great lawyer. His knowledge of the 
law and its technicalities was limited; even his admiring 
junior law partner, William Herndon, acknowledged that. 
But he knew how to bring his case home to a jury when it 

     Lincoln brought the same concessive style of 
argument to the presidency. In his first inaugural 
address, delivered when Southern states were already 
seceding from the Union, he began by seeming to concede 
everything possible. He admitted the constitutional 
rights of slaveowners; he promised that he would not 
attempt to disturb slavery or invade the Southern states. 
He repeated that he had neither the power nor the 
inclination to do these things. He promised to enforce 
the fugitive slave laws. He even offered to support a 
constitutional amendment protecting slavery forever! 

     To the more fiery Northerners it must have seemed 
that the new president was already giving the case away. 
But at the heart of the speech he came to what he saw as 
the essential point: no state had the right to secede 
from the Union, and Federal property would be held and 
defended. That was the single point he knew he couldn't 
afford to yield. 

     This meant war. Whatever concessions Lincoln seemed 
to have made, defending Federal property entailed 
fighting and, if necessary, invading the South. But he 
didn't spell this out; he left it implicit. And he closed 
with beautiful, soothing words about friendship between 
North and South, "the mystic chords of memory," and "the 
better angels of our nature." 

     It was the most fateful speech in American history. 
It bears close study for the way it illustrates the 
connection between Lincoln the lawyer and Lincoln the 
president. In both roles he seemed to yield far more than 
he actually did.      


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