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What the Judge Thought
Chapter I: Concerning Abraham Lincoln
F the log-cabin life of Abraham Lincoln, from
his birth in 1809 to his election for Legislature
in 1834, every schoolboy knows something. The stories of the heroism of his early life are parables in cottage homes on both sides of the Atlantic. In the same way every one is familiar with the great drama of his career as President, with its terrible scenes of war and final tragedy of murder. Told and retold in memoirs, histories, poetry, and fiction, there is already a halo of literature around Lincoln that only shines on the great figures of the world.
It is somewhat surprising that–in this country, at all events—so little is known about his career as an advocate, which from 1836 to 1860 occupied the best years of his life. Joseph Choate, speaking at Edinburgh, told us : “I lay great stress on Lincoln's career as a lawyer-much more than his biographers do; I am sure his training and experience in the Courts had much to do with the developments of those forces of intellect and character which he soon displayed in a wider area.” Our good ambassador was right, but he did not trouble us with the reason of this neglect, though no doubt his critical insight had diagnosed it. The fact is that it is distasteful to the average man to find that his hero is a lawyer, and Lincoln's biographers and historians, who with true literary instinct please to write and write to please, have allowed his twenty-four years of professional life to become a colourless background to the stirring story of his political career that they may please the groundlings who have a high-souled hatred of the lawyer politician. Although we may not go all the way with an American writer who says, “ if Abraham Lincoln had not commenced lawyer he would not have concluded President,” yet the story of his professional life must contribute to our power of appreciating the character of the man and to a better understanding of the circumstances in which his genius was able to take root and flourish.
To a writer on the disadvantages of education, Abraham Lincoln is a human text. His schooling was of the scantiest. At some time or another every man must become his own schoolmaster if he seeks education. Abraham Lincoln began at once, and continued directing his own studies all the days of his life. At the age of fourteen fortune had endowed him with the Bible,
Æsop's Fables,” “Robinson Crusoe,” and “Pilgrim's Progress.” There was also a “History of the United States ” and “ Life of Washington.” He not only read his library, but he learnt it by heart. You can trace in his writings the directness and simplicity of Defoe and Bunyan, his love of apt parable may have been derived from Æsop, and the Bible confirmed his natural instinct
for right action and strengthened his passionate love of honesty.
From the earliest he was an ardent student. He collected every scrap of paper he could find to make a commonplace book of extracts from volumes lent to him to read. He studied in the fields, under the trees, and by the waning firelight when all were asleep. His notebook was the boarded wall of the cabin, his stylograph a lump of chalk. An old farmer recalls him sitting barefoot on a wood pile reading a book. This being such an extraordinary proceeding for a farm hand, he asked him what he was reading. “ I'm not reading,” replied Lincoln, “ I'm studying."
Studying what ?” asked the farmer.
Law, sir," was the dignified reply. “Great God Almighty !” ejaculated the farmer in an outburst of stupefied piety, and went his way in amazement.
But years afterwards he was the honoured possessor of a true story of a great hero, and biographers made pilgrimages to hear the old man tell it.
In 1833 a disastrous partnership in a small store came to an untimely end, leaving Lincoln with a legacy of debt which he honourably paid off in succeeding years. He was now four-and-twenty, and the only asset of the business he retained was a copy of “ Blackstone's Commentaries,” which he had found at the bottom of a barrel of household débris which the firm had purchased at a sale. He borrowed other law books, and is said at this time to have possessed an old volume of Indiana statutes which he learned by heart and used to quote effectively
in later years. He acted as a sort of “next friend” to parties before the local justices of the peace, and drew
, mortgages and contracts for his neighbours, though he does not seem to have received pay for these services. It was the only apprenticeship to the Law that he could afford, and he became an articled clerk to himself, so to speak. By turns he was a store clerk, surveyor,
postmaster at New Salem until 1834, when he was elected to the Legislature, and had to borrow two hundred dollars to buy clothing to be fit for his new dignity. On March 24th, 1836, he became legally qualified to practise the law, and left New Salem to settle in the county town of Springfield, and entered into partnership with a lawyer from Kentucky, J. T. Stuart, who had already shown him much kindness.
The story of his coming to Springfield is told by his friend Joshua Speed, a prosperous young merchant of the town, to whom he went on his first arrival. “He had ridden into the town," writes Speed, on a borrowed horse and engaged from the only cabinet-maker in the village a single bedstead. He came on to my store, set his saddle-bags on the counter, and inquired what the furniture of a single bedstead would cost. I took slate and pencil, made a calculation, and found the sum for furniture complete would amount to seventeen dollars in all.
“ Said he, ' It is probably cheap enough ; but I want to say that cheap as it is I have not the money to pay, but if you will credit me until Christmas and my experiment here as a lawyer is a success, I will pay
you then. If I fail in that, I will probably never pay
you at all.'»
The good Speed was so touched by the melancholy tones in which he spoke of possible failure that he offered him a share of his own room, which contained a large double bed. “Where is your room ? ” asked Lincoln.
Upstairs,” said his friend, pointing to a stairway that led out of the store.
Lincoln hitched up his saddle-bags, ran upstairs, and took possession of his room, returning in a few moments,
a smiling contentedly, and announced: “Well, Speed, I'm moved.”
One of Speed's store clerks was William H. Herndon, for whom Lincoln had a great affection. He also slept in the big room over the store, and the three young friends were all earnest in politics, study, and debate. On leaving Stuart, Lincoln became partner with Stephen T. Logan for a few years, until both were running for Congress, when they parted in a friendly spirit, and Lincoln was on his own. It was then, in 1845, that he proposed to his young friend Herndon that he should come into partnership with him. The young man hung back on the ground of want of practice and inexperience, but Lincoln clinched the matter in his kindly, masterful way, saying: “Billy, I can trust you, if
will trust me.” Billy and Abraham were Jonathan and David through sixteen years of practice in the law, and it is through his junior partner's reminiscences that we gain the most intimate picture of Lincoln the advocate. To appreciate fully the power of Lincoln among the