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Lincoln the Lawyer by Brian R. Dirck

Lincoln the Lawyer

by Brian R. Dirck

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A non-legal historian who sets out to write legal history must bring something of his own to the project, e.g. knowledge of history, economics, social life, or some more narrow specialism. The author of this work brings none of these. He has trawled the new Lincoln Legal Papers, attempted a summary of the cases, and speculated about Lincoln's feelings. It is therefore an unserious work. This is a subject which requires either knowledge of the law or recourse to secondary sources about the law. The non-legal historian must then marry the law to some other discipline to make a thesis. The reader particularly misses comparisons with other law practices; facts on the Illinois economy; demography. This is a high-school level text, and does not belong in a law library. Nor is it for Lincoln specialists.
  messpots | Mar 17, 2013 |
I just finished reviewing Brian Dirck’s Lincoln the Lawyer for the Indiana State Library's (ISL) Talking Book and Braille Library.

When I first opened the packet from the ISL, I must admit that I was looking forward to the project because Lincoln is an historical figure I have always respected and admired.

While the first chapter of the book provided a few interesting insights into the life of the man who would become the 16th president of the United States, it quickly became apparent that Dirck’s book was going to be as much, if not more, about antebellum lawyers as it was about Lincoln. In short, the book contains an ample amount of speculation throughout. The “Conclusion,” for example, describes in great detail what Lincoln’s professional career would have been like if he had not been assassinated in 1865 and returned to Illinois to resume practicing law.

While this is somewhat understandable, because much of what is known of Lincoln the lawyer comes from surviving court documents, in this case it is also for the best. I state this because when Dirck describes some of Lincoln’s actual cases, they are rather dull accounts concerning promissory notes, contract disputes, partnership dissolutions, patent cases and corporate cases involving railroads.

However, in all fairness, there were some “gems” to be found along the way; my favorite was the next to the last chapter, aptly titled, “Grease.” In this chapter Dirck analyzes the affects Lincoln’s actual law career had on forming the great man:

[Lincoln’s law career] taught him about the value of grease—that unglamorous, often overlooked but vital substance that lubricates and reduces friction to acceptable levels…This, at bottom, is the lesson Lincoln took away from his twenty-five years at the bar, a lesson he would not likely have learned from tiling soil or piloting riverboats or pursuing any of the other occupations available to him on the Illinois frontier (155 and 160).

In the end Dirck concludes that:

His magnanimity—if that is what it was—his generosity, and his humility were not manifestations of saintliness or an inordinately pure character. Rather, they were the products of a quarter-century spent in a law practice that taught Lincoln some difficult but exceedingly valuable lessons about limitations, boundaries, and the tremendous societal value of grease (172).

If you are looking for an exciting, insightful and interesting book concerning the life of Honest Abe, then this book is probably not for you. However, if you are interested in the history of United States law, are a Lincoln scholar, or a student preparing a research paper on the Great Emancipator, then this book is certainly worth your consideration. That is why my recommendation is for:

Law Libraries and Academic Libraries

All other types of libraries could spend their money more wisely. ( )
  mrellis64 | Nov 14, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0252031814, Hardcover)

What the law did to and for Abraham Lincoln, and its important impact on his future presidency

Despite historians' focus on the man as president and politician, Abraham Lincoln lived most of his adult life as a practicing lawyer. It was as a lawyer that he fed his family, made his reputation, bonded with Illinois, and began his political career. Lawyering was also how Lincoln learned to become an expert mediator between angry antagonists, as he applied his knowledge of the law and of human nature to settle one dispute after another. Frontier lawyers worked hard to establish respect for the law and encourage people to resolve their differences without intimidation or violence. These were the very skills Lincoln used so deftly to hold a crumbling nation together during his presidency.

The growth of Lincoln's practice attests to the trust he was able to inspire, and his travels from court to court taught him much about the people and land of Illinois. Lincoln the Lawyer explores the origins of Lincoln's desire to practice law, his legal education, his partnerships with John Stuart, Stephen Logan, and William Herndon, and the maturation of his far-flung practice in the 1840s and 1850s. Brian Dirck provides a context for law as it was practiced in mid-century Illinois and evaluates Lincoln's merits as an attorney by comparison with his peers. He examines Lincoln's clientele, his circuit practice, his views on legal ethics, and the supposition that he never defended a client he knew to be guilty. This approach allows readers not only to consider Lincoln as he lived his life--it also shows them how the law was used and developed in Lincoln's lifetime, how Lincoln charged his clients, how he was paid, and how he addressed judge and jury.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:38 -0400)

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University of Illinois Press

2 editions of this book were published by University of Illinois Press.

Editions: 0252031814, 0252076141

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