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 Lawyer and President 

June 5, 2003

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.

[Breaker quote: Lincoln's yielding style]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 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 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 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 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.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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