As a young courtroom lawyer, Abraham Lincoln often worried his own
clients. Unlike most lawyers, he didn’t haggle over every point.
He didn’t seem combative. He yielded on minor questions as often
as possible, cheerfully admitting, “Well, I reckon I was wrong.”
Lincoln’s easy good humor was disarming to juries, but it made
his clients fear he was surrendering too much and giving their cases
away. Still, he usually won. He knew just what he was doing. His friendly,
folksy style concealed a deep cunning.
“His analytical powers were marvelous,” his friend Joshua
Speed recalled. “He always resolved every question into its primary
elements, and gave up every point on his own side which did not seem
to be invulnerable. One would think, to hear him present his case in
court, he was giving his case away. He would concede point after point
to his adversary until it would seem his case was conceded entirely
away. But he always reserved a point upon which he claimed a decision
in his favor, and his concession magnified the strength of his claim.
He rarely failed in gaining his cases in court.”
One colleague, Leonard Swett, described Lincoln’s concessive
courtroom manner in similar terms: “When the whole thing was
unraveled, the adversary would begin to see that what [Lincoln] was
so blandly giving away was simply what he couldn’t get and keep.
By giving away six points and carrying the seventh, and the whole case
hanging on the seventh, he traded away everything which would give
him the least aid in carrying that. Any man who took Lincoln for a
simple-minded man would very soon wake up with his back in a ditch.” Lincoln
had a way of inducing his foes to underestimate him; and they usually
did, to their cost.
Another lawyer, John Littlefield, remembered the same style from
a slightly different perspective: “The client would sometimes
become alarmed, thinking Lincoln had given away so much of the case
that he would not have anything left. After he had shuffled off the
unnecessary surplusage, he would get down to ‘hard pan,’ and
state the case so clearly that it would soon be apparent that he had
enough left to win the case with. In making such concessions he would
so establish his position in fairness and honesty that the lawyer on
the opposite side would scarcely have the heart to oppose what he contended
Swett added this observation: “The first impression he generally
conveyed was that he had stated the case of his adversary better and
more forcibly than his opponent could state it himself.” This
rare ability to grasp his foe’s position made Lincoln himself
a powerful foe.
Lincoln wasn’t a great lawyer. His knowledge of the law and
its technicalities was limited; even his admiring junior law partner,
William Herndon, acknowledged that. But he knew how to bring his case
home to a jury when it counted.
Lincoln brought the same concessive style of argument to the presidency.
In his first inaugural address, delivered when Southern states were
already seceding from the Union, he began by seeming to concede everything
possible. He admitted the constitutional rights of slaveowners; he
promised that he would not attempt to disturb slavery or invade the
Southern states. He repeated that he had neither the power nor the
inclination to do these things. He promised to enforce the fugitive
slave laws. He even offered to support a constitutional amendment protecting
To the more fiery Northerners it must have seemed that the new president
was already giving the case away. But at the heart of the speech he
came to what he saw as the essential point: no state had the right
to secede from the Union, and Federal property would be held and defended.
That was the single point he knew he couldn’t afford to yield.
This meant war. Whatever concessions Lincoln seemed to have made,
defending Federal property entailed fighting and, if necessary, invading
the South. But he didn’t spell this out; he left it implicit.
And he closed with beautiful, soothing words about friendship between
North and South, “the mystic chords of memory,” and “the
better angels of our nature.”
It was the most fateful speech in American history. It bears close
study for the way it illustrates the connection between Lincoln the
lawyer and Lincoln the president. In both roles he seemed to yield
far more than he actually did.
Copyright © 2012 by the Fitzgerald
Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally
by Griffin Internet Syndicate on June 5, 2003.
Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio
and archives of some of his columns.
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