Northern Illinois University Press

An Honest Calling

The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln

Mark E. Steiner

Award of Superior Achievement, Illinois State Historical Society, 2007

“Best of the Best of the University Presses”, American Library Association, 2006

“Remarkable ... this study provides the groundwork for understanding Abraham Lincoln's transformational role in the presidency.”—North & South

“The best work so far on Lincoln as a lawyer ... an intriguing tale.”—Journal of Illinois History

“More so than other books about Lincoln as a lawyer, Steiner places Lincoln's law practice in the broader context of antebellum law practice, with an engaging and thoroughly researched examination of the minutiae of Lincoln's life as a lawyer. One of the best.”—Law and History Review

Abraham Lincoln practiced law for nearly 25 years, five times longer than he served as president. Nonetheless, this aspect of his life was known only in the broadest outlines until the Lincoln Legal Papers project set to work gathering the surviving documentation of more than 5,600 of his cases. One of the first scholars to work in this vast collection, Mark E. Steiner goes beyond the hasty sketches of previous biographers to paint a detailed portrait of Lincoln the lawyer.

This portrait not only depicts Lincoln’s work for the railroads and the infamous case in which he defended the claims of a slaveholder; it also illustrates his more typical cases involving debt and neighborly disputes. Steiner describes Lincoln’s legal education, the economics of the law office, and the changes in legal practice that Lincoln himself experienced as the nation became an industrial, capitalist society. Most important, Steiner highlights Lincoln’s guiding principles as a lawyer.

In contrast to the popular caricature of the lawyer as a scoundrel, Lincoln followed his personal resolve to be “honest at all events,” thus earning the nickname “Honest Abe.” For him, honesty meant representing clients to the best of his ability, regardless of his own beliefs about the justice of their cause. Lincoln also embraced a professional ideal that cast the lawyer as a guardian of order. He was as willing to mediate a dispute outside the courtroom in the interest of maintaining peace as he was eager to win cases before a jury.

Over the course of his legal career, however, Lincoln’s dedication to the community and his clients’ personal interests became outmoded. As a result of the rise of powerful, faceless corporate clients and the national debate over slavery, Lincoln the lawyer found himself in an increasingly impersonal, morally ambiguous world.

(2006) 282 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-87580-626-6
Paper $24.00

Mark E. Steiner is Professor of Law at South Texas College of Law. He received both his J.D. and his Ph.D. in History from the University of Houston.

Table of Contents

1—Lawyer Lincoln in American Memory
2—The Education of a Whig Lawyer
3—A Whig in the Courthouse
4—Law on the Prairie
5—In the Matter of Jane, A Woman of Color
6—Working for the Railroad
7—A Changing Legal Landscape
Select Bibliography
Index of Cases
General Index

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ISBN: 978-0-87580-626-6
paper $24.00