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Lincoln’s reverence for the law

April 25, 2009

This is the year of Lincoln and Illinois lawyers have special reason this Law Day to celebrate our connection to one of the most revered figures in world history.


By Jack Carey
Illinois State Bar Association

Before Abraham Lincoln was president, he was a practicing lawyer in Springfield. He combined his native intelligence and common sense with skills honed on the old 8th Circuit to become one of the preeminent Illinois lawyers of his time.

His legal practice ranged from the settling of mundane disputes between neighbors to defending clients against criminal charges up to and including murder.

He represented both great corporations and ordinary people. He met the legal needs of his clients — without fear or favor.

As an advocate, he sometimes represented clients with whom he strongly disagreed.

He sometimes won. He sometimes lost. He sometimes got paid. He sometimes did not.

But throughout it all, his reverence for the law was undiminished — and his pride in his profession continues to inspire those who follow after him.

Such a varied practice was not uncommon for lawyers on the Illinois prairie in the mid-19th century, and it is not unlike the practices of many Illinois lawyers in 2009.

Lincoln approached each case with a dogged determination to use all of the skills he possessed and his respect for the law to arrive at the best possible result for his client. In this way, also, he is not unlike today’s Illinois practitioner.

In commemoration of Lincoln’s law practice, the Illinois State Bar Association commissioned a bust of Lincoln as he appeared in his last years practicing law in Springfield, before leaving for the White House. Famed Lincoln sculptor John McClarey created the bust, depicting Lincoln with chin in hand and deep in thought.

The bust, titled “Prairie Lawyer, Master of us All,” was presented to the people of Illinois from the lawyers of Illinois in a special session of the Illinois Supreme Court in January of this year. The bronze bust, mounted on a marble base, will reside in the Supreme Court building in perpetuity as recognition of the legal legacy of our most famous lawyer.

This was not the only time the Supreme Court has met in special session to pay tribute to Abraham Lincoln. On May 3, 1865, the court convened on an even more solemn occasion. The eulogy was delivered by John D. Caton, then an attorney and, later, himself a justice of the Illinois Supreme Court:

“The solemn duty has been assigned me of formally announcing to this court the death of Abraham Lincoln. …

“In any other position I might be permitted to speak of Mr. Lincoln as he is known to every inhabitant of this broad land, and as he will be known in history in all future time — as president of the United States…

“But to others we must leave the pleasing task of speaking of him as the chosen ruler of the nation. While poets sing his praises, and orators proclaim his greatness as a public man, it becomes us, his professional brethren, who knew him better than strangers could know him, to speak of him as we knew him in his profession.”

I encourage all members of the Illinois bar to visit Springfield and see the magnificent Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. And while you are there, stop at the Supreme Court and pause before the bust of the Prairie Lawyer. It is truly inspirational.

At the conclusion of the special session in January of this year, Chief Justice Thomas R. Fitzgerald made these most fitting remarks:

“Although he ceased practicing law — as a member of the bar of this court — nearly 150 years ago — as John McClarey’s magnificent work of art reminds us — Abraham Lincoln is still with us in spirit.

“Mr. Lincoln is our colleague.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. William E. Hofmann permalink
    April 27, 2009 7:42 pm

    I revere Lincoln as much as many, more than some, less than others. But I struggle with the dichotomy of his career and spoken word vs. his closing down of newspapers, suspension of habeus corpus, and interment of dissenters during the war.

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