The Abraham Lincoln Institute For The Study Of Leadership And Public Policy

Abraham Lincoln—Lawyer, Leader, President

by Daniel W. Stowell
Lincoln Memorial University Duncan School of Law Knoxville, Tennessee February 12, 2010

Abraham Lincoln developed a particular set of leadership qualities during his legal career, which he carried into the most challenging Presidency in American history. As President-elect, Abraham Lincoln assembled a cabinet of seven men, nearly all of whom were attorneys or had legal training. As President, he presided over a sort of talented but quarrelsome law firm with his Cabinet. Each man represented different geographical and ideological constituencies within the coalition that had elected Lincoln. Despite their persistent jealousies and disagreements among themselves, Lincoln’s cabinet effectively managed their various departments and gave him solid advice. Generals and politicians formed a sort of “bar association” for Lincoln the president, and, as in Illinois, Lincoln patiently worked with them all without regard to political affiliation. Lincoln’s clientele as president included the entire nation, just as his law practice drew clients from a broad cross-section of antebellum Illinois. Contentious and litigious, Lincoln’s neighbors, clients, and legal adversaries gave him an advanced education in human nature that served him well as president.

Abraham Lincoln practiced law for nearly twenty-five years in the courts of central Illinois. From his admission to the bar in 1836 to his inauguration as President in 1861, the law was Lincoln’s occupation and professional identity. Over the course of his career, Lincoln remained a general practice attorney. He neither specialized in one area of the law nor sought other legal offices, such as state's attorney or judge. He excelled as an advocate before a jury, and his extensive legal practice in central Illinois aided his political ambitions.

Lincoln may have formed an early interest in the law by attending local justice of the peace courts in Indiana as a youth or in New Salem, Illinois, where he lived from 1831 to 1837. While serving as the captain of a company of volunteers in the Black Hawk War (1832), Lincoln met John Todd Stuart, a first cousin of Lincoln’s future wife Mary Todd. When Lincoln returned from his brief military service, he campaigned for a seat in the state legislature. Although he lost, he ran again in 1834 and won the first of four successive terms in the Illinois General Assembly. Lincoln considered his education “defective,” but at Stuart’s urging, he began reading law books while living in New Salem and serving in the state legislature.

In March 1836, the clerk of the Sangamon County Circuit Court wrote in the court record that Abraham Lincoln was “a man of good moral character,” one of the first steps in being admitted to the bar. On September 9, 1836, the Illinois Supreme Court in Vandalia admitted Lincoln to the practice of law. Lincoln moved to Springfield and became Stuart’s junior partner in the spring of 1837. Aristocratic and college-educated, Stuart, who was only fifteen months older than Lincoln, had already established himself as an attorney in the growing town of Springfield. At the time, Springfield had approximately 1,900 inhabitants, rivaled Chicago in population, and was the county seat of Sangamon County. On April 15, 1837, the new firm of Stuart & Lincoln first announced in the local newspaper that they “will practice, conjointly, in the Courts of this Judicial Circuit.” The two men shared a passion for Whig politics and had served in the Illinois House of Representatives together from 1834-1836.

From the beginning of his career, Lincoln was captivated by the order that the law represented and believed that “reverence for the laws” should become the “political religion of the nation.” In the state legislature, Lincoln was instrumental in lobbying for the relocation of the state capital from Vandalia to the more centrally located Springfield, a decision with important implications for his legal career. When Springfield became the state capital in 1839, both the Illinois Supreme Court and the federal courts moved there. On December 3, 1839, the clerk of the U.S. District Court entered Abraham Lincoln’s name on the roll of attorneys qualified to practice before the federal courts in Illinois.

Many of the early settlers of Illinois came from the Upland South states of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky, and settled in the southern regions of the state. Settlers from the Middle Atlantic and Midwestern states of Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana settled in the central and northern portions of Illinois. Later, migrants from New England and New York settled in the northern third of the state. European immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and England also settled in Illinois, most around the regional economic centers of St. Louis and Chicago. These staggered and divergent waves of settlement created distinct cultural regions within the state by the 1850s. An Upland Southern culture dominated in the southern quarter of the state and northwestward through the Sangamon River area and across the Illinois River. Abraham Lincoln and his three law partners, all of whom were born in Kentucky and migrated to Illinois as children or young men, typify this pattern. In the northern third of Illinois, New England culture dominated, while the culture of the north-central region most displayed the influence of settlers from the Middle Atlantic states and the other states of the Old Northwest. While none of these regions had sharp boundaries, the settlement patterns influenced both the politics and the economy of the state.

Throughout Lincoln’s life in Illinois, Democrats had routinely controlled all branches of state government. Democrats held a majority in the state legislature from the 1830s through the 1850s. State voters elected only Democratic governors, with the exception of Democrat-turned-Whig Joseph Duncan in 1834, until former Democrat William H. Bissell united Republicans and anti-Nebraska Democrats to win the gubernatorial election in 1856. Because either the Democratic legislature or the electorate chose justices for the Illinois Supreme Court and judges for the circuit courts, most of these jurists were also Democrats. The delegation representing Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives had a majority of Democrats throughout the period, except from 1854-1856, when five Republicans and four Democrats represented Illinois. Because the Democratic majority in the state legislature selected U.S. Senators, Illinois had only Democratic senators until the election in 1855 of anti-Nebraska Democrat Lyman Trumbull, who soon became a Republican.

The shortage of coin currency led Illinoisans to use promissory notes to make purchases and pay debts. Because creditors often lacked currency as well, they sometimes transferred promissory notes owed to them to their creditors to settle debts. As these webs of credit expanded, more individual economic transactions failed and generated more litigation. The printing and circulation of bank notes that varied in value by public and private banks exacerbated the instability of economic transactions. This land-rich, cash-poor society in which Lincoln practiced law produced a particular constellation of legal actions. Breach-of-contract and debt cases for failure to pay promissory notes, foreclosures of mortgages when land secured the debt, disputes over the division of land when someone died, and conflicts over land ownership comprised a large portion of Lincoln’s legal cases. County sheriffs often sold land at auction to satisfy court judgments, when the losing party had no other assets. For clients or even opponents in dire economic straits, Lincoln counseled patience and compromise. In 1850, Lincoln wrote to his client Abraham Bale that Virgil Hickox was planning to meet Bale “to settle the difficulty about the wheat.” Lincoln urged Bale, “I sincerely hope you will settle it. I think you can if you will, for I have always found Mr. Hickox a fair man in his dealings. If you settle, I will charge nothing for what I have done, and thank you to boot. By settling, you will most likely get your money sooner; and with much less trouble & expense.”

Fluctuations in the economy also affected the particular mix of cases that Lincoln and his partners handled. The nationwide Panic of 1837 left the economy of Illinois depressed and many people in desperate straits. During the brief tenure of federal bankruptcy legislation in 1842 and 1843, Lincoln and his partner represented more than seventy applicants for bankruptcy in the federal court. Two decades later, the Panic of 1857 likewise disrupted the economy, prevented debtors from paying their creditors, and produced a flurry of lawsuits. In these periods of economic depression, courts had difficulty collecting judgments from financially ruined defendants.

Like most other attorneys in frontier Illinois, the partnership of Stuart & Lincoln represented clients in a variety of civil and criminal lawsuits. In 1838, Lincoln handled most of the firm’s business because Stuart was campaigning against Democrat Stephen A. Douglas for a seat in Congress. Stuart won, and when he left for Washington, D.C., in November 1839, Lincoln continued the practice alone. Earlier in 1839, the state legislature had shifted Sangamon County from the First to the newly created Eighth Judicial Circuit, and Lincoln began to travel to the circuit courts of the new circuit. When Stuart decided early in February 1841 to run for reelection to Congress, it became clear to Lincoln that his partner’s political ambitions prevented him from being a mentor.

In April 1841, Stuart and Lincoln dissolved their partnership, and Lincoln became the junior partner of Stephen T. Logan. Many regarded Logan, who had already served as a circuit court judge, as one of the best attorneys in the state. Nine years older than Lincoln, Logan offered him an expanded practice before the Illinois Supreme Court and in the federal courts. As President, Lincoln later remembered that Logan was “almost a father to me.”

When Logan and Lincoln amicably dissolved their partnership in December 1844, so that Logan could practice with his son, Lincoln invited William H. Herndon to become his junior partner. Almost a decade younger than Lincoln, Herndon had read law in the Logan & Lincoln law office, and the Illinois Supreme Court admitted him to the bar on December 9, 1844. When asked later why Lincoln chose him, Herndon replied, “I don’t know and no one else does.” As the junior partner, Herndon kept the records, researched authorities, brought order to the office, and represented clients in the courts in Springfield and in nearby counties. The partnership of Lincoln & Herndon continued until Lincoln’s death.

Throughout all three partnerships, Lincoln helped to resolve a wide variety of legal conflicts, including broken contracts, land titles, slander, divorce, dower, estate partitions, mortgage foreclosures, larceny, and murder. The majority of Lincoln’s cases involved the collection of debts. Lincoln and his partners frequently represented local merchants like Jacob Bunn, James Bell, and Robert Allen in lawsuits to collect unpaid debts. They also represented private individuals suing to collect debts. The legal actions of assumpsit (breach of a contract, such as a promissory note) and debt accounted for more than one-third of Lincoln’s cases. However, the essential purpose of many other types of cases was the collection of a debt; litigants employed the legal actions of foreclosure of mortgage, sale of real estate to pay debts, petition and summons, mechanic’s lien, and bankruptcy, among others, to settle debts. In other cases, former business partners accused each other of withholding assets in the settlement of the partnership.

There is even an accusation that Lincoln himself kept profits that rightfully belonged to the estate of his father-in-law Robert Todd. Although Lincoln was famously patient with those who attacked him politically or even personally, he could not disregard attacks on his integrity. In the spring of 1853, the remaining partners of a company that had included Robert Todd accused Lincoln of defrauding the company by collecting debts owed to the company in Illinois but failing to turn over the money. They brought the suit in Kentucky, so an attorney there wrote to Lincoln informing him of the case. Lincoln immediately replied, “I find it difficult to suppress my indignation towards those who have got up this claim against me.” He insisted in his answer to the bill of complaint filed against him that the court should require his accusers to file a bill of particulars that stated the names and addresses of those from whom he allegedly received payment of debts owed to the company. Lincoln insisted that “if they will name any living accessable man, as one of whom I have received their money, I will, by that man disprove the charge.”

In another letter four months later, Lincoln confessed that “this matter harrasses my feelings a good deal,” and wanted to know whether the attorney in Kentucky could get the court to command the plaintiffs to submit a bill of particulars so that Lincoln could defend himself against specific charges. After finally receiving some specific information in mid-September 1853, Lincoln quickly arranged to take depositions to disprove the allegations. After Lincoln filed his depositions as evidence, the plaintiffs dismissed their case in February 1854. It is important to note that although the surviving partners impugned Lincoln’s honor as a man and an attorney, he responded strictly within the legal system. Lincoln expected vindication from the court.

Widely known and respected for his honesty and success, Lincoln received requests from attorneys in all parts of the state to argue the appeal of their cases to the Illinois Supreme Court in Springfield. Throughout his career, Lincoln and his successive partners handled more than four hundred cases before the state’s highest court; in nearly half, they had not been involved in the case in the circuit court from which it was appealed. Because Springfield was also the location for federal courts in Illinois, Lincoln and his partners represented clients in more than 340 cases in the U.S. Circuit and District Courts. In 1842, Lincoln wrote to a fellow attorney in Brown County that he and his partner Logan would be “willing to attend to any business in the Supreme Court you may send us.” On the matter of fees, “we believe we are never accused of being very unreasonable in this particular; and we would always be easily satisfied, provided we cold see the money—but whatever fees we earn at a distance, if not paid before, we have noticed, we never hear of after the work is done. We therefore, are growing a little sensitive on that point.”

Although he was active in the federal courts and the Illinois Supreme Court, most of Lincoln’s practice consisted of thousands of cases in the county circuit courts of central Illinois, especially that of his home county of Sangamon. He and his partners handled more than 2,400 cases in the Sangamon County Circuit Court.

These county circuit courts, the primary trial courts in Illinois, were divided into a series of ever-shifting circuits, over which a supreme court justice or a circuit judge presided. In other county circuit courts beyond Sangamon, Lincoln represented clients in hundreds of additional cases. For most of his career, Lincoln practiced in the courts of the Eighth Judicial Circuit, and twice yearly, he left Springfield for a two- or three-month journey around the circuit with the judge and the state’s attorney. On the circuit, Lincoln traveled by horseback or buggy along dismal roads and over open prairies, fording swollen streams in the spring, and staying at a colorful array of private homes and crude inns. Most of the county seats on the circuit were small villages of a few hundred residents with unpaved streets.

During the 1840s, Lincoln’s career followed the seasons of courts, occasionally interrupted by intensive political activity on behalf of the Whig Party. In a typical year, Lincoln argued appeals before the Illinois Supreme Court in January, February, and early March. In mid-March, the spring term of the Sangamon County Circuit Court convened as the first court on the Eighth Judicial Circuit. In April, May, and early June, Lincoln followed the spring term of the other county circuit courts on the Eighth Circuit in eastern and central Illinois. In June, the federal courts convened in Springfield, followed by the summer term of the Sangamon County Circuit Court in July. In August, the fall terms of the county circuit courts again began with Sangamon County. Lincoln again traveled to the county seats of the Eighth Judicial Circuit from September to November. In December, the Illinois Supreme Court began its session in Springfield and the federal courts convened for a second term.

Judge Samuel H. Treat presided over the courts of the Eighth Judicial Circuit from 1839 until 1848, first as a circuit judge, then as a justice of the Illinois Supreme Court. Unlike most attorneys who practiced in their home courts and perhaps a few neighboring counties, Lincoln often accompanied Judge Treat and State’s Attorney David B. Campbell around the entire circuit. A native of New York, a Democrat, and a devout Episcopalian, Treat differed in many ways from Lincoln, who was two years his senior. Despite their differences, the two men developed mutual respect and frequently enjoyed a game of chess together at Treat’s office in Springfield. In the courts of the Eighth Judicial Circuit, in the Illinois Supreme Court, and after 1855 in the federal courts in Springfield, Treat presided over more than one thousand cases in which Lincoln was an attorney.

Lincoln served a single term in Congress from 1847 to 1849, and while he was in Washington, he argued one case before the United States Supreme Court. During the 1850s, he was an attorney of record in four other cases before the U.S. Supreme Court but did not offer oral arguments. When he returned to Springfield in 1849, Lincoln resumed his law practice with renewed ardor and for the next five years devoted less attention to politics.

Lincoln’s growing reputation as an attorney led younger men to seek his advice or ask to read law with him. He routinely refused requests to read law because he was away on the circuit too often, but he freely offered advice. He also habitually assisted younger lawyers in the courtroom by offering advice on their cases.

From March 1849 through the end of Lincoln’s legal career, Judge David Davis presided over the courts of the Eighth Judicial Circuit, and Lincoln frequently traveled the circuit in company with Davis. Born in Maryland and six years younger than Lincoln, Davis had settled in Bloomington, Illinois, in 1835. He was an active Whig and served in the state legislature and as a delegate to the 1847 Constitutional Convention. While on the circuit, the rotund judge and the tall lanky lawyer shared travel, meals, and lodging in farm houses and village taverns. “In my opinion,” Davis later recalled, “I think Mr Lincoln was happy, as happy as he could be, when on this circuit--and happy no other place. This was his place of Enjoyment.” By the mid-1850s, the expanding network of railroads in Illinois began to revolutionize circuit travel by allowing Judge Davis and attorneys like Lincoln to travel more quickly to individual courts and return home between court sessions. Although circuit-riding attorneys in the 1850s enjoyed improved transportation and accommodations, the mix of legal issues remained much the same as in earlier years.

On the circuit, Lincoln handled cases with local attorneys without regard to their political affiliation. He often served with and against the same attorney in different cases at the same term of court. In Danville, Illinois, he formed a sort of informal partnership with Ward Hill Lamon, and the two men worked together in more than 150 cases and advertised together in the local newspaper. Occasionally while on the circuit, the presiding judge asked Lincoln to serve as temporary judge for a few hours or days. Lincoln served as a temporary judge in more than three hundred cases, but in most, he merely continued the case until the next term of that court.

As Lincoln’s reputation grew and credit and trade networks expanded, clients from major commercial cities retained Lincoln to collect debts from individuals and companies in Illinois. The St. Louis wholesale firm of S. C. Davis & Company retained Lincoln & Herndon to collect debts from local merchants in Illinois. Lincoln & Herndon filed twenty-five suits for Davis and his partners in the federal courts in Illinois between 1858 and 1861. Clients from Philadelphia, Boston, and New York also hired Lincoln and his partners to represent their interests in the courts of Illinois.

It was through his participation in thousands of individual cases that Lincoln earned his living as an attorney. He typically received $5 or $10 for ordinary circuit court cases and might command several hundred dollars for important federal and Illinois Supreme Court cases. In rare instances, he received more than $1,000 for his legal services, and in the case of Illinois Central Railroad v. McLean County, Illinois and Parke, he received $5,000 from the Illinois Central Railroad, although he had to sue the railroad to obtain the balance of his fee. In his partnerships with Stuart and with Herndon, Lincoln and his partner equally divided all of the fees they received for legal work. In his partnership with Logan, Lincoln received a smaller percentage of the fees that either he or his partner earned. Because he did not hold elective office for most of his legal career or engage in other business activities as many lawyers did, Lincoln earned nearly all of his income practicing law in the courts of central Illinois. Generally, he earned small fees from many cases, rather than large fees from a few cases.

Disputes arising from the financing, construction, and operation of railroads generated nearly two hundred cases for the partnership of Lincoln & Herndon. While they frequently represented railroads, especially the Illinois Central Railroad, they nearly as often represented clients who were suing railroads. Although litigation involving railroads represented a new class of business for lawyer Lincoln, he continued to handle a wide array of cases throughout his career.

Traveling to a dozen or more county seats expanded Lincoln’s law practice and enhanced his political contacts. Throughout his career, Lincoln interacted with Illinoisans of all sorts. The lawyers and judges themselves were an interesting mix of characters, but the litigants added even more variety. On the circuit, Lincoln developed relationships with Whig and Republican leaders and voters and honed his oratorical skills in both courtroom and political speeches. The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 rekindled Lincoln’s interest in politics, and throughout the 1850s he balanced an extensive law practice with active involvement in Whig and later Republican politics.

Although he was unsuccessful in his bid to replace Stephen A. Douglas in the U.S. Senate in 1858, Lincoln gained a national reputation in the contest and went on to win the Republican nomination for President in 1860. Elected President in November 1860 in one of the most divisive elections in American history, Lincoln took office in March 1861, leaving behind him a substantial and important law practice to confront the most serious legal and constitutional crisis in the nation’s short history.

A vital part of Lincoln’s skill as a leader consisted not only in his communication skills but also in his ability to know when not to speak, when to keep silent. From his election on November 6, 1860, until his inauguration four months later, President-elect Abraham Lincoln steadfastly refused to make any public pronouncements regarding his position on the secession crisis that was removing one state after another from the Union. On December 15, 1860, he wrote a “strictly confidential” letter to John A. Gilmer, a former Whig who was a member of Congress from North Carolina. Although he was “greatly disinclined to write a letter” in response to Gilmer’s inquiry, Lincoln feared that Gilmer might “misconstrue my silence.” Lincoln refused to “shift the ground upon which I have been elected” and asked if Gilmer and other southerners had read the Republican platform or Lincoln’s speeches. “If not,” Lincoln continued, “what reason have I to expect that any additional production of mine would meet a better fate? It would make me appear as if I repented for the crime of having been elected, and was anxious to apologize and beg forgiveness. To so represent me, would be the principal use made of any letter I might now thrust upon the public. My old record cannot be so used; and that is precisely the reason that some new declaration is so much sought.” By his silence, Lincoln refused to give his critics any more statements that they could twist to misrepresent him.

His response to Congressman Gilmer echoed a lesson he had learned more than a decade earlier as a lawyer. In February 1848, Congressman Lincoln wrote from Washington to a Whig ally and fellow attorney in Illinois, “In law it is good policy to never plead what you need not, lest you oblige yourself to prove what you can not. Reflect on this well before you proceed.” Lincoln learned the dangers of saying too much as an attorney, and the lesson proved valuable in his political career.

As President, Abraham Lincoln presided over a cabinet consisting almost entirely of lawyers. Many know that Secretary of State William H. Seward and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton were lawyers, and one would expect his Attorneys General, Edward Bates and then James Speed, to be lawyers. However, all three Secretaries of the Treasury—Salmon P. Chase, William P. Fessenden, and Hugh McCullough; both Secretaries of the Interior—Caleb B. Smith and John P. Usher; and both Postmasters General—Montgomery Blair and William Dennison—were also attorneys. Although Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles was a publisher, he had studied law as a young man. Only Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s Secretary of War for ten months at the beginning of his administration, had no legal training.

The presence of so many attorneys as counselors and, more importantly, Lincoln’s own experience as a lawyer deeply influenced his Presidency. Not only was he acutely aware of, and committed to, the constitutional limitations on his power, he also was confident enough in a room, or a city, full of lawyers to stand upon his own interpretation of the Constitution to guide his actions. From his inauguration on March 4, 1861, until Congress assembled on July 4, Lincoln took many extra-constitutional actions to respond to the disintegration of the Union. On his own authority, he summoned state militias into federal service, expanded the navy, raised funds to pay and equip the army and navy, suspended the writ of habeas corpus in certain areas, and authorized a blockade of southern ports. In his address to Congress, when it assembled on July 4, Lincoln reported, “These measures, whether strictly legal or not, were ventured upon under what appeared to be a popular demand and a public necessity, trusting then, as now, that Congress would readily ratify them. It is believed that nothing has been done beyond the constitutional competency of Congress.” Lincoln concluded his address in a third person reference to himself: “In full view of his great responsibility, he has, so far, done what he has deemed his duty.” And he challenged Congress, “You will now, according to your own judgment, perform yours.” The Republican-dominated Congress quickly approved Lincoln’s emergency actions.

Likewise, in July 1862, the President notified allies in Congress that he would veto a bill if it were not modified because it caused the forfeiture of property beyond the life of the party guilty of treason. This provision conflicted with the Constitution’s prohibition against “corruption of blood,” through which a traitor’s family was prevented from inheriting the traitor’s property. “With great respect,” Lincoln wrote to a Congress filled with many attorneys, “I am constrained to say I think this feature of the act is unconstitutional.”

As the head of a sort of “Law Firm Cabinet,” Lincoln often asked written opinions from his Cabinet officers on important questions. He asked them in the form of interrogatories that a lawyer might pose to a witness. Immediately after his inauguration, Lincoln received a letter explaining that Major Robert Anderson’s small command could hold out for only a few weeks in Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina, without further supplies. Upon learning of the details, Lincoln queried his Cabinet: “Assuming it to be possible to now provision Fort-Sumpter, under all the circumstances, is it wise to attempt it? Please give me your opinion, in writing, on this question.” All of the Cabinet members except Postmaster General Montgomery Blair initially favored surrendering the fort, and Secretary of State William Seward asserted that an expedition to supply the fort would “provoke combat, and probably initiate a civil war.” Ultimately, two other Cabinet members joined Blair in recommending that the President send provisions only to Fort Sumter, but Confederates in South Carolina attacked the fort before the supplies arrived, and Major Anderson was forced to surrender.

When a flamboyant United States naval officer seized Confederate emissaries from a British vessel in November 1861, he triggered a diplomatic crisis that threatened war with Great Britain. Although Lincoln was initially delighted with this blow to Confederate diplomatic efforts, his joy soon turned to concern, when the British demanded an apology and the release of the prisoners. When Lincoln met with his Cabinet on Christmas Day, 1861, Seward had begun to prepare a response that explained how the seizure had violated international law and why the prisoners must be released. As the meeting closed, Lincoln said to Seward, “Governor Seward, you will go on, of course, preparing your answer, which . . . will state the reasons why they ought to be given up. Now, I have a mind to try my hand at stating the reasons why they ought not to be given up. We will compare the points on each side.” On the following day, Seward asked about Lincoln’s brief, and Lincoln replied, “I found I could not make an argument that would satisfy my own mind, and that proved to me your ground was the right one.” The Lincoln administration quietly released the prisoners, and the crisis passed. Lincoln often used writing as a way to clarify his thoughts on certain subjects. In other cases, he wrote an angry letter to vent his feelings and then never sent the letter.

One year later, President Lincoln and his Cabinet faced the sensitive political and constitutional question of statehood for West Virginia. In his first message to Congress, Lincoln explained that “What is now combatted is the principle that secession is consistent with the Constitution—is lawful and peaceful. It is not contended that there is any express law for it; and nothing should ever be implied as law which leads to unjust or absurd consequences.” According to the Constitution, the creation of a new state from a part of an existing state required the permission of that state. Since the majority of Virginia was effectively out of the Union, how could it approve the formation of West Virginia? The Senate passed a statehood bill for West Virginia in July 1862, and the House of Representatives passed the act on December 10 and forwarded it to the President for his signature. On December 23, 1862, Lincoln queried his Cabinet: “I respectfully ask of each of you, an opinion in writing, on the following questions, to wit:

“1st. Is the said Act constitutional?

“2nd. Is the said Act expedient?”

Lincoln received the written opinions of six of his cabinet attorneys: Seward, Chase, and Stanton favored the act, and Welles, Blair, and Bates opposed it. Lincoln broke the tie with his own written opinion. Admitting that the consent of the Legislature of Virginia was “constitutionally necessary to the bill for the admission of West Virginia becoming a law,” Lincoln then considered whether the legislature that had approved the creation of West Virginia was a legitimate body. Employing his lawyerly ability to split hairs, Lincoln insisted that a legislature was elected, not by the majority of qualified voters, but by the majority of qualified voters who chose to vote. Voters in secessionist Virginia had chosen not to vote, and therefore the body that approved the creation of West Virginia was the Legislature of Virginia, although it represented only a small portion of the voters. Lincoln then asked the incisive question: “Can this government stand, if it indulges constitutional constructions by which men in open rebellion against it, are to be accounted, man for man, the equals of those who maintain their loyalty to it?” Lincoln thought not.

Having satisfied himself that the act was constitutional, Lincoln then considered whether it was expedient. “More than on anything else,” Lincoln determined, “it depends on whether the admission or rejection of the new state would under all the circumstances tend the more strongly to the restoration of the national authority throughout the Union.” West Virginians had been true to the Union during the war, and their support needed to be recognized. Lincoln admitted that “the division of a State is dreaded as a precedent. But a measure made expedient by a war, is no precedent for times of peace. It is said that the admission of West-Virginia, is secession, and tolerated only because it is our secession. Well, if we call it by that name, there is still difference enough between secession against the constitution, and secession in favor of the constitution.” “I believe,” he concluded simply, “the admission of West-Virginia into the Union is expedient.” In this brief opinion, one can see the mind of both Lincoln the lawyer and Lincoln the politician at work. On December 31, 1862, Lincoln signed the act making West Virginia the thirty-fifth state in the Union.

On April 12, 1864, Confederate troops under Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest defeated the Union garrison at Fort Pillow, forty miles north of Memphis on the Mississippi River. The Union force at the fort consisted of approximately 600 men, including both white and African-American soldiers. After Forrest’s troops overran the fort, they shot many of the Union soldiers after they had surrendered. On May 3, Lincoln addressed his cabinet: “It is now quite certain that a large number of our colored soldiers, with their white officers, were by the rebel force, massacred after they had surrendered, at the recent capture of Fort Pillow. So much is known, though the evidence is not yet quite ready to be laid before me. Meanwhile, I will thank you to prepare, and give me in writing, your opinion as to what course the Government should take in the case.” At the Cabinet meeting that followed, each Cabinet member read his opinion to the others. Initially, Seward, Stanton, Chase, and Usher favored man-for-man retaliation by executing Confederate prisoners of war. Welles, Blair, and Bates favored declaring the Confederate officers outlaws who, if captured, would stand trial for murder. Lincoln initially considered setting Confederate prisoners of war aside for retaliation unless the Confederate government agreed to treat African-American soldiers as prisoners of war rather than insurgent slaves. He later told Frederick Douglass, however, that retaliation, “if once begun, there was no telling where it would end.”

In these examples, and other instances during his presidency, Lincoln turned to his “Cabinet law firm” for advice in the form of briefs on specific military, diplomatic, constitutional, and political questions. By weighing their opinions and sometimes writing his own, he availed himself of their best advice, yet determined his own policies.

Lincoln’s experiences as a lawyer prepared him to contend with a variety of strong personalities. Two examples from his presidency will perhaps suffice to demonstrate both his decisiveness and his deft handling of sensitive, egotistical, and arrogant personalities. Throughout the first three years of Lincoln’s Presidency, Secretary of State William H. Seward and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase were adversaries, both ideologically and temperamentally. Seward began his tenure as Secretary of State arrogantly believing that he would run the administration, while Lincoln served as a figurehead. In a remarkable memorandum that he submitted to the President in April 1861, Seward boldly asserted that the administration had neither a foreign nor a domestic policy. He also suggested that the President designate some cabinet member—read William H. Seward—to direct the foreign policy of the nation energetically. Despite the presumptuous and offensive tone of this memorandum, Lincoln responded kindly but firmly. He insisted that his administration had implemented several policies. Whatever policy was adopted, Lincoln declared, “I must do it.”

Likewise, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase considered himself superior to the President. A favorite of Radical Republicans, Chase was intensely ambitious and despised Seward. In the fall of 1862, he convinced Radical Republicans in Congress that Seward exercised undue conservative influence over Lincoln, who ignored the advice of other Cabinet members and deferred to Seward. In mid-December, Republican Senators voted to request a reorganization of the Cabinet without Seward. Like Seward’s brash memo, this demand also threatened the President’s control over his own administration. Seward quietly offered his resignation, and Lincoln met with many of the senators in the White House to listen to their grievances. He invited them back the next night to meet with him and the entire Cabinet except Seward. After several Secretaries testified that there had been full and free consultation on all important matters, Chase had to admit reluctantly that they were right. Many of the Republican senators were furious with Chase, who failed to repeat his criticisms of Seward in the presence of the President and the rest of the Cabinet.

The following day, a humiliated Chase visited the President to tender his resignation. When he mentioned that he had written out his resignation, Lincoln asked, “Where is it?” “Let me have it.” Lincoln snatched the paper from Chase, who was now reluctant to release it. Lincoln exulted, “This . . . cuts the Gordian knot. I can dispose of the matter now without difficulty.” Dismissing Chase, Lincoln wrote to both Seward and Chase that the “public interest” required that they both remain at their posts. Shortly afterward, Lincoln told a visiting senator, “I can ride on now, I’ve got a pumpkin in each end of my bag!” By obtaining the resignations of both Seward and Chase, he could reject both and reassert his control over both his Cabinet and the Executive branch in relation to Congress.

Lincoln’s long-suffering relationship with Major General George B. McClellan as Commander of the Army of the Potomac is well-known, but Lincoln had difficult relationships with several other generals as well. In the first years of the war, General Joseph Hooker developed a reputation as an aggressive fighter, in marked contrast to the overly cautious McClellan. However, Hooker also developed a reputation as an insubordinate grouser who once told a newspaper reporter that the nation needed a dictator. After the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg ruined General Ambrose Burnside’s reputation for leadership, Lincoln turned to Hooker to command the Army of the Potomac. In a masterful letter of appointment, Lincoln both praised and warned Hooker:

I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons. And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and a skilful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. . . . I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.

Although it is a masterful letter, Hooker seemed to miss the point. “That is just such a letter as a father might write to his son,” Hooker proudly told a reporter. “It is a beautiful letter, and, although I think he was harder on me than I deserved, I will say that I love the man who wrote it.” Hooker managed to restore order and morale to the Army of the Potomac, but he soon proved as inept against Confederate General Robert E. Lee as others had before him.

Abraham Lincoln learned many valuable leadership lessons from his quarter-century legal career. First and foremost, he learned much about human nature. His law practice introduced him to thousands of people in central Illinois and beyond—litigants, juries, witnesses, attorneys, judges, and spectators. They came from a variety of backgrounds and conditions, and Lincoln studied them all. Many of the burdensome politicians, military officers, clergymen, inventors, office-seekers, and supplicants whom he met as president reminded him of people he had known in Illinois, and they often elicited one of his famous stories. Second, the law allowed him to hone his oratorical abilities and encouraged precision in written communication. As President, Lincoln wrote carefully for both the eye and the ear. He recognized that the men and women before him on any given occasion were only a small portion of his real audience; the majority read his words in a newspaper or heard someone else read them. Third, Lincoln’s law practice developed his incisive powers of analysis, permitting him to focus on the central aspect of a case, or a political issue, or a military strategy. Finally, twenty-five years in the courtrooms of central Illinois committed Lincoln firmly to the concept of ordered liberty in a democratic republic. It was this tenacious commitment to both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that allowed Abraham Lincoln to wield broad powers without becoming dictatorial and to persevere in the struggle to maintain the Constitutional order of the Union in the face of civil war.

About Daniel Stowell

Daniel W. Stowell is the director and editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln. He joined the Lincoln Legal Papers in 1996 as an Assistant Editor. In 2000, he became the director of the project, and managed its expansion into the Papers of Abraham Lincoln. He is the author or editor of five books, including Rebuilding Zion: The Religious Reconstruction of the South, 1863-1877 (1998); In Tender Consideration: Women, Families, and the Law in Abraham Lincoln’s Illinois (2002); and The Papers of Abraham Lincoln: Legal Documents and Cases (2008). Dr. Stowell received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Georgia, and his doctorate in American History from the University of Florida.