The Life of Abraham Lincoln
By Henry Ketcham
Public Domain Books
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
16th President of the United States
Chapter VIII. Entering the Law
In treating of this topic, it will be necessary to recall certain things already mentioned. One characteristic which distinguished Lincoln all through his life was thoroughness. When he was President a man called on him for a certain favor, and, when asked to state his case, made a great mess of it, for he had not sufficiently prepared himself. Then the President gave him some free advice. “What you need is to be thorough,” and he brought his hand down on the table with the crash of a maul,–"to be thorough.” It was his own method. After a successful practise of twenty years he advised a young law student: “Work, work, work is the main thing.” He spoke out of his own experience.
There is one remarkable passage in his life which is worth repeating here, since it gives an insight into the thoroughness of this man. The following is quoted from the Rev. J. P. Gulliver, then pastor of the Congregational church in Norwich, Conn. It was a part of a conversation which took place shortly after the Cooper Institute speech in 1860, and was printed in The Independent for September 1, 1864.
“Oh, yes! ’I read law,’ as the phrase is; that is, I became a lawyer’s clerk in Springfield, and copied tedious documents, and picked up what I could of law in the intervals of other work. But your question reminds me of a bit of education I had, which I am bound in honesty to mention.”
“In the course of my law reading I constantly came upon the word demonstrate. I thought, at first, that I understood its meaning, but soon became satisfied that I did not. I said to myself, What do I do when I demonstrate more than when I reason or prove? How does demonstration differ from any other proof? I consulted Webster’s Dictionary. They told of ’certain proof,’ ’proof beyond the possibility of doubt’; but I could form no idea of what sort of proof that was. I thought a great many things were proved beyond the possibility of doubt, without recourse to any such extraordinary process of reasoning as I understood demonstration to be. I consulted all the dictionaries and books of reference I could find, but with no better results. You might as well have defined blue to a blind man. At last I said,–Lincoln, you never can make a lawyer if you do not understand what demonstrate means; and I left my situation in Springfield, went home to my father’s house, and stayed there till I could give any proposition in the six books of Euclid at sight. I then found out what demonstrate means, and went back to my law studies.”
Was there ever a more thorough student?
He, like every one else, had his library within the library. Though he read everything he could lay his hands on, yet there are five books to be mentioned specifically, because from childhood they furnished his intellectual nutriment. These were the Bible, Aesop’s Fables and Pilgrim’s Progress, Burns, and Shakespeare. These were his mental food. They entered into the very substance of his thought and imagination. “Fear the man of one book.” Lincoln had five books, and so thoroughly were they his that he was truly formidable. These did not exclude other reading and study; they made it a thousand times more fruitful. And yet people ask, where did Lincoln get the majesty, the classic simplicity and elegance of his Gettysburg address? The answer is here.
While Lincoln was postmaster, he was a diligent reader of the newspapers, of which the chief was the Louisville Journal. It was edited by George D. Prentice, who was, and is, second to no other editor in the entire history of American journalism. The ability of this man to express his thoughts with such power was a mystery to this reader. The editor’s mastery of language aroused in Lincoln a burning desire to obtain command of the English tongue. He applied for counsel to a friend, a schoolmaster by the name of Mentor Graham. Graham recommended him to study English grammar, and told him that a copy of one was owned by a man who lived six miles away. Lincoln walked to the house, borrowed the book–"collared” it, as he expressed it–and at the end of six days had mastered it with his own thoroughness.
The first law book he read was “The Statutes of Indiana.” This was when he was a lad living in that state, and he read the book, not for any special desire to know the subject but, because he was in the habit of reading all that came into his hands.
His next book was Blackstone’s “Commentaries.” The accidental way in which he gained possession of, and read, this book is of sufficient interest to narrate in his own words. It was shortly after he got into the grocery business:
“One day a man who was migrating to the West drove up in front of my store with a wagon which contained his family and household plunder. He asked me if I would buy an old barrel for which he had no room in his wagon, and which he said contained nothing of special value. I did not want it, but to oblige him I bought it, and paid him, I think, half a dollar for it. Without further examination I put it away in the store and forgot all about it. Some time after, in overhauling things, I came upon the barrel, and emptying it upon the floor to see what it contained, I found at the bottom of the rubbish a complete edition of Blackstone’s “Commentaries.” I began to read those famous works, and I had plenty of time; for during the long summer days, when the farmers were busy with their crops, my customers were few and far between. The more I read, the more intensely interested I became. Never in my whole life was my mind so thoroughly absorbed. I read until I devoured them.”
All this may have been fatal to the prosperity of the leading store in that hamlet of fifteen log cabins, but it led to something better than the success of the most magnificent store in New York.
It was in 1834 that Lincoln was first elected to the legislature. During the canvass he was brought into the company of Major John T. Stuart, whom he had met in the Black Hawk war. Stuart advised him to enter definitely on the study of the law. He decided to do this. This proved to be quite the most important thing that occurred to him that year.
Stuart further offered to lend him the necessary books. This offer was gladly accepted, and having no means of travel, he walked to and from Springfield, a distance of twenty miles, to get the books and return them. During this tramp he was able to read forty pages of the volume. Thus he read, and we may venture to say mastered, Chitty, Greenleaf, and Story, in addition to Blackstone before mentioned. It was the best foundation that could have been laid for a great lawyer.
During this reading he was getting his bread and butter by the other employments–store-keeping, postmaster, and surveyor. These may not have interfered greatly with the study of the law, but the study of the law certainly interfered with the first of these. He read much out of doors. He would lie on his back in the shade of some tree, with his feet resting part way up the tree, then follow the shadow around from west to east, grinding around with the progress of the sun. When in the house his attitude was to cock his feet high in a chair, thus “sitting on his shoulder blades,” to use a common expression. When in his office he would throw himself on the lounge with his feet high on a chair. These attitudes, bringing his feet up to, and sometimes above, the level with his head, have been characteristic of American students time out of mind. He never outgrew the tendency. Even when President and sitting with his Cabinet, his feet always found some lofty perch.
While he was not reading, he was pondering or memorizing. Thus he took long walks, talking to himself incessantly, until some of his neighbors thought he was going crazy.
He was admitted to the bar in 1837. At that date there was no lawyer nearer to New Salem than those in Springfield, which was twenty miles off. Consequently he had a little amateur practise from his neighbors. He was sometimes appealed to for the purpose of drawing up agreements and other papers. He had no office, and if he chanced to be out of doors would call for writing-materials, a slab of wood for a desk, draw up the paper, and then resume his study.
This same year he became a partner of Stuart, in Springfield. The latter wanted to get into politics, and it was essential that he should, have a trustworthy partner. So the firm of Stuart and Lincoln was established in 1837 and lived for four years. In 1841 he entered into partnership with Logan, and this also lasted about four years. In the year 1845 was established the firm of Lincoln and Herndon, which continued until the assassination of the president in 1865.
After a brief period Lincoln himself got deeper into politics, this period culminating with the term in congress. In this he necessarily neglected the law more or less. But late in 1848, or early in 1849, he returned to the law with renewed vigor and zeal, giving it his undivided attention for six years. It was the repeal of the Missouri Compromise that called him back into the arena of politics. This will be narrated later.
His partnership with Stuart of course necessitated his removal to Springfield. This event, small in itself, gives such a pathetic picture of his poverty, and his cheerful endurance, that it is well worth narrating. It is preserved by Joshua F. Speed, who became, and through life continued, Lincoln’s fast friend. The story is given in Speed’s words:
“He had ridden into town on a borrowed horse, with no earthly property save a pair of saddlebags containing a few clothes. I was a merchant at Springfield, and kept a large country store, embracing dry-goods, groceries, hardware, books, medicines, bed-clothes, mattresses–in fact, everything that the country needed. Lincoln said he wanted to buy the furniture for a single bed. The mattress, blankets, sheets, coverlet, and pillow, according to the figures made by me, would cost seventeen dollars. He said that perhaps was cheap enough; but small as the price was, he was unable to pay it. [Note that at this time he was carrying the debts of the merchants of New Salem. THE AUTHOR.] But if I would credit him until Christmas, and his experiment as a lawyer was a success, he would pay then; saying in the saddest tone, ’If I fail in this, I do not know that I ever can pay you.’ As I looked up at him I thought then, and I think now, that I never saw a sadder face.
I said to him: ’You seem to be so much pained at contracting so small a debt, I think I can suggest a plan by which you can avoid the debt, and at the same time attain your end. I have a large room with a double bed up-stairs, which you are very welcome to share with me.’
’Where is your room?’ said he.
’Up-stairs,’ said I, pointing to a pair of winding-stairs, which led from the store to my room.
He took his saddle-bags on his arm, went upstairs, set them on the floor, and came down with the most changed expression of countenance. Beaming with pleasure, he exclaimed:
’Well, Speed, I am moved!’”
Thus he became established in the profession of the law and a resident of Springfield. It was not a large city, but it was a very active one, though small, and was the capital of the state. Lincoln was there favorably known, because he had been chiefly instrumental in getting the capital moved to that place from Vandalia. His first law partner was very helpful to him, and he had abundant reason all his life to be thankful also for the friendship of Joshua F. Speed.