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Professional Work and Ways—Home and Family-Eulogy
on Henry Clay — Law Cases.
Late in the forties Chicago was a small but hopeful city, claiming fifteen thousand inhabitants, and assuring the world that it was “rapidly growing.” On returning from Congress Lincoln was offered a promising partnership there, which he declined, and contentedly resumed the practice which his young associate had kept alive. With this he was to be chiefly concerned for the next five years. He sensitively watched, in silence and distance, the great political turmoil at Washington; the inaugurated movements for secession in the Cotton States; the increasing intensity of antislavery feeling in the North; the new compromise struggling into life; and the lull which came at length, as if everybody had wearied of this sad business and wanted solid repose. He made a few campaign speeches for Winfield Scott in 1852, but the ill-starred party was in a mortal decline.
His winter attendance on the Federal courts at Springfield began in December, before Justice John McLean, of the Supreme, and Judge Nathaniel Pope, of the District Court. McLean was a courtly gentleman, whose home was in a hill suburb (now part) of Cincinnati. When still a very young man he was Postmaster-General under President Monroe, and with William Wirt, Attorney-General, remained in office through the term of President Adams. Unwilling to aid President Jackson in his methods of civil service reform, McLean was honorably relieved by promotion to the Supreme Bench, and only lacked the Presidency to fill the full measure of his ambition. Judge Pope was a son of Senator John Pope, of Kentucky, and as the Territorial delegate when Illinois was admitted as a State had secured a large extension of its area — all that part north of a line running due west from the southern point of Lake Michigan. Before these two Judges Lincoln met many distinguished lawyers, and was employed in cases that taxed his best powers. The county courts of the Eighth District — presided over, after 1848, by Judge David Davis, an intimate friend of Lincoln, and afterward so well known to the nation — sat at Springfield in March, July and November, and in its other counties there were only two tours, one beginning in April and the other in September. Excepting special calls that occasionally took him to other counties, it will thus appear that the time of his absence from home was less than some have alleged.
His superiority as a jury advocate was early recognized. Without broad and thorough learning in the law, he had a mind quick to grasp and firm to hold the combined facts and principles of a case, an aptness and lucidity of statement, and a rare power of close and exhaustive analysis. He had a candid and comprehensive way of viewing both sides of a question, and thereby reaching honest conclusions. This was one of his pecu
liar qualities on the stump as well as at the bar. He had so strong a bias for the right for its own sake as to be embarrassed in any attempt to make the worse appear the better cause. More than once he was so scrupulous, not to say singular, in this respect as to astonish some of his professional associates. The trait, however, must not be so exaggerated or misconstrued as to imply that he assumed infallibility in determining the right side; or that he was less conscious than others of the uncertainties of fact as well as of law; or that he had an undue sense of accountability for an unjust result of a trial in which he took part. Nor can it be true that he would decline to aid in saving a known offender from the infliction of an excessive penalty, or in protecting a litigant, who was really in the wrong, from an oppressive verdict.
Believing in the supremacy of law over mere individual will, wish or interest, he was not disposed to regard his own conceptions of a higher than human law as a valid substitute for legislative authority. Yet the first-hand conclusions of reason, moral judginent and common sense in administering the law — and what better origin has precedent itself? — were undoubtedly sometimes sufficient to his mind without further support. When he found a bewildering contradiction of precedents, he did not care to juggle with citations. He had little patience with sophisms. He thought his own process of reaching an honest conclusion, presented clearly, was his best method for convincing the mind of another. In this spirit he was wont to speak, whether addressing judge, jury, or people.
After his admission to the bar he never dabbled in
farming, trading, or speculating. Besides his city homestead, he owned no real estate except a lot presented to him in the town of Lincoln (Illinois) — named in his honor – and a quarter section of bounty land granted him for service in the Black Hawk War. The latter property he neither sold nor improved. He was moderate in his professional charges, and indulgent as to any return from a client who was poor. He did not, consequently, accumulate money rapidly, although he came to have practice enough to make him affluent had he dealt a little more rigidly. He had, in fact, no craving for great wealth, even as an aid to political ambition. The golden lever was not in his day the power most relied upon in politics, nor was it one he would have ever cared to use.
He was regarded by District Judge Drummond, of Chicago, a political opponent, as one of the most successful lawyers that Illinois ever had, and as not more powerful before a jury than with the court. Judge David Davis, holding the same opinion, pronounced Lincoln “the fairest and most accommodating of practitioners”; while, hating as he did oppression and knavery, “ many a man whose fraudulent conduct was undergoing a review in a court of justice has writhed
under his terrific indignation and rebuke.” A witness : believed unscrupulous would be dealt with in the same unsparing manner. Few of his professional contemporaries during his more active practice had as large a number of cases before the Supreme Court of Illinois as Lincoln.
During the sessions of the Legislature and the courts, Mrs. Lincoln in these years was wont to give occasional dinners and evening parties. As a hostess she was gracious and affable as well as liberal; perhaps no one in the city who entertained was more generally popular than she. While her father lived (his death occurred in 1849) there were visits with her husband to Lexington, Kentucky,* where she had a number of brothers and sisters of the half-blood. When there Lincoln would naturally call on Henry Clay if he was at the time at Ashland. One such visit, perhaps it was the only one, has been mentioned as chilling the hero-worshiper's devotion, if not effecting a complete disillusion. But this is clearly an extravagant over-statement, if it has any basis at all. There may have been an unexpected distance in Clay's manner, and not as many stories were told, we may be sure, as at the meeting with Van Buren on the prairies in 1843; yet Lincoln was to the last an admirer of the great orator and conciliator who was his earliest political master.
At the time of his election to Congress, Robert and Edward were his only children — the former born August 1, 1843, the latter March 10, 1846. His family were with him during part of his term at Washington. “Eddie ” died February 1, 1850, and William was born the 21st of December following. The youngest child, born April 4, 1853, was given the name of his deceased grandfather, Thomas, though in childhood more commonly called “ Tad.” Of their domestic life, according to Mr. W. H. Herndon, † Mrs. Lincoln said (in 1865): “Mr. Lincoln was the kindest man and most
*See“ Complete Works" (N. & H.), I, 577.