Review of “An Honest Calling: The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln” by Mark E. Steiner

The premise of this book is quite interesting. Steiner posits that Lincoln’s legal career has been largely ignored by historians for three reasons. One is that it is difficult for non-lawyers to navigate through the esoteric language characterizing legal practice. More importantly, Steiner suggests that because of “the positive cultural image of Lincoln and the negative cultural image of lawyers in American society,” most writers prefer to ignore or minimize the importance of Lincoln’s law career. Third, “the image of Lincoln the lawyer clashes with the images of Lincoln as frontier hero” – the homespun “rail splitter” whose simplicity metamorphosed into brilliance after he took office.

Biographers who mention Lincoln’s law career have treated it anecdotally, referring only to those cases that might “build Lincoln’s image or inflate his reputation.” There have been documentary problems as well; it has only been since 2000 that a state-of-the-art electronic collection of Lincoln’s legal writings has been available. Thus, “the quality and quantity of literature on Lincoln’s law practice suffers in comparison to the writing on other aspects of his life.”

Steiner attempts to remedy this gap by providing a detailed review of Lincoln’s legal practice including an overview of what law practice was like for an antebellum lawyer, how Whigs in particular approached the practice of law, a review of sources Lincoln used to learn and interpret the law, and a representative sampling of cases from Lincoln’s practice.

Steiner finds from the evidence that Lincoln was quite a competent lawyer; so much so, that when he began to do appellate work, he often found himself fighting (and even losing!) the battle against the precedents he himself had set in the lower court.

Macon County Courthouse in Illinois, where LIncoln often served

Lincoln did not pick and choose his cases according to any moral standard whatsoever; “Lincoln was willing to represent any side in a dispute, regardless of the argument that he would have to present.” (Steiner argues that (a) antebellum Whig lawyers valued law and order more than any particular value; and (b) they were paid so badly they could not afford to be choosy in any event.) That included representing slaveholders attempting to establish property rights to African-Americans. The only sort of work Lincoln didn’t like was representing out-of-state clients. These clients didn’t know Lincoln, didn’t defer to his judgment, and operated on a quickened pace and impersonal style that was not compatible with Lincoln’s way of doing things.

To me, the discussion of antebellum law on slavery is the most interesting section of the book. Free states refused to recognize slavery; if you brought a slave into the state for domicile (rather than for purposes of transit), the free state considered the slave to have been manumitted. A free state was under no obligation to uphold laws it deemed repugnant from other states. (Fugitive slaves were a separate matter, because the issue of runaways was governed by a federal statute applicable to all the states. The Dred Scott case concerned yet a third issue, dealing with the right of slaves to sue in federal court.) Lincoln defended a man who claimed his slave was “in transit” even though they had been in a free state for two years. Lincoln lost, and the slave Jane was declared free.

Other chapters deal in depth with cases of Lincoln’s relating to debt, railroad entitlements, slander, estates, and taxation. Whenever possible, Lincoln preferred to settle. When he had to try a case, he had a good record for winning. He was respected for honesty and integrity, but would not refrain from using a technicality to win a case. He was dedicated to apply the rule of law wherever and whenever he could, and that is what he determined to do, both as a lawyer and later as the president.

This book makes some interesting points about chronicling of Lincoln’s life, and about the decisions of historians to include or omit certain aspects of Lincoln’s identity from the record. It describes his law practice very well; in fact it includes many more legal details than I suspect most readers would care to know. On the other hand, its explanation of legal positions taken by the various states on slaves is important enough to merit inclusion in other histories.

Does this book help to answer the question “who was Lincoln and what was he really like?” Yes, a bit, in the way that knowing what a person does “at work” helps to provide clues to who he or she is. At the very least, it covers aspects of Lincoln’s character and personality that deserve to be summarized in more general treatments of Lincoln’s life. It doesn’t make for the fascinating reading that most books on Lincoln do, but it does represent a lot of solid research, and information that will be very appealing to a specialized audience.

Published by Northern Illinois University Press, 2006

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