Lawyer and President
June 5, 2003
As a young courtroom lawyer, Abraham Lincoln
often worried his own clients. Unlike most lawyers, he didnt
haggle over every point. He didnt seem combative. He yielded on
minor questions as often as possible, cheerfully admitting, Well, I
reckon I was wrong.
Lincolns 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
One colleague, Leonard Swett,
described Lincolns 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
couldnt 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.
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 for.
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 foes position
made Lincoln himself a powerful foe.
Lincoln wasnt 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 counted.
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 couldnt 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 didnt
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.