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Honorable Henry S. Cohn
Law Day Ceremony Remarks
New Britain Judicial District Courthouse
May 1, 2009

 

Hon. Henry S. CohnGood morning, everyone. Thank you for letting me talk to you today about one aspect of Abraham Lincoln. There’s been 16,000 books written about Abraham Lincoln, almost as many books as about the Bible, so I’m only going to focus on one thing: Lincoln the lawyer.

What I’m passing around here is a photograph - I hope you get to see it - a picture I took. This is the Sangamon River, in what used to be New Salem, Illinois. In 1831, a cold, April day in 1831, the townspeople of New Salem didn’t have too many diversions, as you can imagine. They gathered on the banks of this Sangamon River and watched as a thin, gaunt fellow got out of a raft and brought his goods to shore, wading through the water. His raft was stuck on a dam. As you can see, this is a pretty weedy looking river here, and he had to free his goods from the boat. He went back to the boat and drilled a hole in it and freed the raft from the dam. Well, people were so impressed, they were all lining along the bank watching this happen, that the Fathers of New Salem asked this man – you guessed it – Abraham Lincoln, who was only about 21 at the time - "would you like to come back and live in the town?" Once he delivered his goods, he did that.

Unfortunately, he first failed as a grocer. He tried to be a postman, a surveyor; things weren’t going too well. So someone suggested to him, "Why don’t you become a lawyer?" So he took a book - Blackstone is one of the books that he was most interested in - and sat under an apple tree and read the law. Now, that’s unusual even for his day because though most lawyers didn’t go to law school, they at least served as an intern in an office 'till they got legal skills. But he read the law on his own and went before a body of lawyers who interviewed him and certified him to be a member of the bar. When New Salem failed as a town, he removed himself to Springfield, Illinois, which had just become the capital. He showed up rough, uncouth and unattractive, but he did start his law practice.

The first thing we know about his law practice is that he had a very filthy office. He had a huge spot on the wall where two of his interns had been fighting with inkstands. There was so much dust in the corner that somebody said that some beans that had been lying around there had started to sprout.

And of course he had a huge black hat and he carried his papers around in that big, black hat and an occasional wind would come and blow it away and he’d be running around the streets of Springfield picking up his papers from the ground. He’d come into his office and he’d take two chairs, one he would sit in and the other he would stretch his long – he was our tallest president, by the way. He was 6’4. He would spread his legs out.

One of the things he liked to do was read aloud and he drove his partner crazy. He always read aloud while he was trying to think; that’s some of what we know about Lincoln’s law office.

But what do we know about Lincoln’s law practice? We have to be very careful when we ask that question because he died a martyr and legends grew up about him - all sorts of legends about the famous Lincoln lawyer. His partner, Herndon, started a lot of them.

Even into the late 1900s, the 20th Century, people would say Lincoln was one of our top lawyers, our top scholars, as well. We know now that that probably isn’t true. He was an average lawyer, and the type of law that he practiced was what we call “collection law.” There were a lot of debts out there. People owed people money. This was frontier Illinois. As a well-regarded book that was just published, Lincoln the Lawyer, states: “He practiced law in a veritable shower of promissory notes. They rained down on him year in and year out for his entire 25-year practice.” This was his specialty, the collection business.

Of course he had other cases. He got involved in “dower” which is the right of a wife to inherit from her husband. He drew up wills, sought child support, defended minor criminal cases, mostly fights at bars. Those were typical Abraham Lincoln cases. He always represented the railroads, but initially most of these cases were against people who failed to pay pledges in order to buy stock in the railroad, or defending claimed property damage by a railroad.

Here’s an example of an Abraham Lincoln case. It was the time of the gold rush and a fellow, a poor soul, decided he would go to California to find his fortune. He needed money to get started to get out to California and his neighbors in Springfield backed him. They figured they’d get a percentage of the gold that he found. He got out to – he traveled, this gentleman, out to, say, Oregon, and it just got to be too much, and he came back to Springfield a failure. But his neighbors wanted their $250 back. Lincoln, representing this fellow, worked out a settlement with the backers.

In another case that I was attracted to in reading about Abraham Lincoln, a man got into a fight in a bar and fatally stabbed another man. Lincoln was able to get a verdict of manslaughter, which was very common for those days because, in fights like this, the juries were more interested in having a manslaughter result than murder. He received eight years in jail. After four years, Lincoln, the jurors, the whole town asked the governor to pardon this gentleman, Mr. Loe, because the town had to support him in prison and support members of his family too. The governor granted the pardon. So after four years, Mr. Loe, then about 25 returned to the Springfield area, and married someone 16 years old. He started farming and he had two children. He then went off to fight in the Civil War and died on the battlefield in 1864. So it’s ironic that Lincoln was his savior and was able to spare him from a murder charge in 1852, but by 1864 when Lincoln was president, he died in the Civil War.

Now, I don’t want to give you the impression that Lincoln never had a famous case because he did, especially after 1848 when he had finished his one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He argued a case to the United States Supreme Court. And I only know of one other, I think Nixon is the only other president that ever argued a case in the United States Supreme Court.

Lincoln made headlines with the “Effie Alton case” which went on for several weeks in Chicago and was publicized day after day in the news. It involved a bridge that was going over the Mississippi River at St. Louis, and Lincoln represented the railroad companies. The owner of a barge, which had struck the bridge, claimed that the railroad had built the bridge in the wrong place. It actually never was resolved with Lincoln because it ended in a hung jury, and Lincoln became President; another lawyer was involved when it resolved in the 1860s.

Another case that you have probably all heard about is a Lincoln legend which became a movie - Young Mr. Lincoln, starring Henry Fonda. Somebody at a fairground was hit over the head with what we call brass knuckles today. Lincoln defended the accused and there was a prosecution witness that said he saw it happen by the light of the moon. Lincoln came in with an almanac that showed that the witness couldn’t have seen by the light of the moon because the moon hadn’t risen at that time. The only thing we have a question about today is whether he used the almanac from the day of the event or whether he used the almanac of the year before and the witness was just confused by it. The client was found not guilty. Another point of interest about this case, which doesn’t come out in Young Mr. Lincoln was that his client’s mother was at New Salem when Lincoln when he was a youth. Lincoln cried in front of the jury, and said that when he was a poor starving boy, the client’s mother took him in and so forth and so on. We think this also influenced the jury. So if you ever hear about the Armstrong case or the Almanac case you’ll know a little more about it.

Now, there are two other things that we have to say about Lincoln. Firstly, he loved to travel on the circuit and 90 percent of his cases, over 25 years, were on the old judicial circuit which went around Springfield. One of the towns was Mt. Pulaski. That was not an easy travel. This is what Lincoln’s friend, Judge David Davis, said about traveling to Mt. Pulaski. They had to eat, of course. He recalls, “The tavern at Mt. Pulaski, population 350, is perhaps the hardest place you ever saw. A new landlord by the name of Cass, just married – everything dirty and the eating, horrible. Judge Robbins, Lincoln, Stuart and everybody from Springfield were there. The old woman looked as we would suppose the witch of Endor looked. She had a grown daughter, who waited on the table – table greasy, tablecloth greasy, floor greasy and everything else ditto… Waiting among greasy things. Think of it. I wonder if she ever washed herself. I guess the dirt must be a half-inch thick all over her.” So that was how it was – and of course they had bad roads, broken bridges, horses that swam across rivers, "constant wettings," all that kind of thing that they endured and apparently Lincoln did enjoy it.

The other thing you want to know about Lincoln is he loved to tell little stories. He learned this trait from his father. He never really got along with his father very well, but one thing he absolutely learned from his father was “let me tell you a little joke or a little story.” Visitors to the White House recalled Lincoln's responses to inquiries being couched in these stories. But years before the presidency, Lincoln brought his stories to the courtroom, and he knew just how to tell them for the best effect.

Well, here’s an example of a "little story" that Lincoln told. His client was being sued for assault and battery. The plaintiff in this civil case claimed that he had merely had taken a swing at the defendant and the defendant really pummeled him, and that is why he was suing because he claimed it was an overreaction.

Well, Lincoln said to the jury, my man was in a kind of fix, just like the fellow who was walking down the road with a pitchfork on his shoulder, and out of the barnyard came a vicious, snarling dog. And the walker defended himself with that pitchfork. Unfortunately, one of the tongs of the pitchfork struck the dog and the dog died. And the farmer came running out of the barnyard and said, “How could you kill my dog.” And the walker said, “Well, he was attacking me.” And the farmer said, “Why didn’t you use the other end of the pitchfork?” At this point, Lincoln stretched his arms around and he turned the back of an imaginary dog to the jury. And the walker said, “Did your dog use his other end?” Lincoln had made his point about self-defense and he won his case. This was Lincoln's entertaining style that he displayed on the circuit.

Now, what did Lincoln learn? He learned many things in his twenty-five years of legal practice. One thing is, did you ever see Lincoln’s penmanship? He had beautiful penmanship. Here’s a man that never went to college, never went to high school, had less than a year of education somewhere in rural Indiana. His penmanship was perfect; and his organization was perfect. He learned how to take facts and put them in order in legal pleadings. Nothing was typed in those days. You had to assemble things; you had to put things together in a readable fashion. This carried over, this ability to assemble things and to put things in common order and so forth, carried over to the Civil War. And he, as we know, he had terrible trouble with his generals, with McClellan and with Hooker, and he became a general himself in a lot of ways, as he learned the military techniques. All this would stem from his ability to regiment facts and data that he learned when he was a lawyer.

He was also a member of what we call the “Whig" political party. Even when some of the Whigs including Lincoln became Republicans, Lincoln stayed a Whig in philosophy. He was a disciple of the Whig, Henry Clay. Somebody once wrote a book called A Whig in the White House about Lincoln. The Whigs, from the legal point of view, valued order, resolving cases, and independence so that one never had to rely on just one client.

The final most important thing, though, about Lincoln is that he learned from the lawyer's perspective, what a Lincoln scholar called “grease.” He learned how to smooth his way, make friends with all different types of people under all circumstances. And we know that the book Team of Rivals demonstrates Lincoln's skills in "cabinet making."

Now, what can we learn? What are the lessons that we can learn from this career of Lincoln as a lawyer? First, to tell the students here today, he received many letters from people, asking “How do I become a lawyer?” A farmer once wrote him and he answered back. He gave the farmer a list of books that he had studied. And then his last line was “work, work, work” that’s the main thing. So that’s lesson one. Lesson two, he believed very strongly, as I said, in compromise. Even when he won a case - he won several slander cases where people said bad things about other people and he got damages for them - he still sat down with the lawyer who was on the other side and tried to work out a compromise, brother to brother-in-law, that kind of thing.

And, finally, he respected honesty. There’s no doubt why he was called Honest Abe. Was he called Honest Abe just because it sounds funny? No. It’s because that was his tradition. He was an honest lawyer. In fact, in one of his addresses he said: “If, in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other profession rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to become a knave.” So honesty was his trademark.

And, finally, just to conclude, today at the Connecticut Supreme Court, a fellow is being honored by the name of Michael Burlingame, a retired Connecticut College professor. He wrote a two-volume book that just came out - Lincoln, A Life. I want to conclude what I have to say by quoting Burlingame: "Lincoln speaks to us not only as a champion of freedom, democracy and national unity, but also as a source of inspiration. Few will achieve his world historical importance, but many can profit from his personal example, encouraged by the knowledge that despite a childhood of emotional malnutrition and grinding poverty, despite a lack of formal education, despite a series of career failures, despite a troubled marriage, despite a tendency to depression, despite a painful midlife crisis, despite the early death of his mother and his siblings as well as of his sweetheart and two of his four children, he became a model of psychological maturity, moral clarity and unimpeachable integrity. His presence and his leadership inspired his contemporaries; his life story can do the same for generations to come.”

Thank you.

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