Miscellany — From the February 2018 issue

Notes to Self

Lincoln’s private thoughts on fate, failure, slavery, and belief

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In 1850, during his temporary exile from politics, Lincoln was practicing law throughout Illinois’s Eighth Judicial Circuit, which then encompassed an area more than twice the size of Connecticut. Sometime during that year, he made a series of notes for a lecture about the legal profession. There is no record of Lincoln ever delivering such a lecture. Yet the notes reveal his thinking about the law, as well as his reflexive modesty and grasp of human nature:

I am not an accomplished lawyer. I find quite as much material for a lecture in those points where I have failed, as in those wherein I have been moderately successful. . . .

Extemporaneous speaking should be practiced and cultivated. It is the lawyer’s avenue to the public. However able and faithful he may be in other respects, people are slow to bring him business if he cannot make a speech. . . .

Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often the real loser — in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a surprising opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.

The first sentence is remarkable. By this time, Lincoln was in fact a renowned lawyer: he seems to have tried more cases over the following decade than any other attorney on the circuit, and his clientele included the Illinois Central Railroad. Imagine a modern-day leader in any field beginning a lecture with such self-deprecation.

Given the importance of oratory in Lincoln’s rise as a lawyer and politician, the stress on “extemporaneous speaking” makes sense — and points ahead to his role as the most eloquent of American presidents. So does his vision of the lawyer as peacemaker. Like their contemporary counterparts, people in frontier states were prepared to “go to law” over the least aggravation. Lincoln might well have encouraged such knee-jerk litigation: Was it not the very source of a lawyer’s business? Instead he pointed out that the winner was hardly distinguishable from the loser. And then, as if anticipating a question from his imagined audience of law students, he offered some vocational reassurance: “There will still be business enough.”

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