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finished, the judge and all the lawyers mounted their horses or their gigs and pushed on to the next county-seat, and so repeated the process until the whole circuit was compassed; and this is what is known in the western states as “riding the circuit.”
Mr. Lincoln rode the circuit; and it was upon these long and tedious trips that he established his reputation as one of the best lawyers in Illinois, and, in some respects, the superior of any lawyer in the state. It is doubtful whether he was ever regarded by his professional brethren as a well-read lawyer. Toward the latter part of his life, he had, by his own powers of generalization and deduction, become versed in the principles of law, and was coming to be recognized by the best lawyers as their peer; but his education was too defective at the first to make him anything better than what is called
a case lawyer.” He studied his cases with great thoroughness, and was so uniformly successful in them that the people regarded him as having no equal. He had been engaged in practice but a short time when he was found habitually on one side or the other of every important case in the circuit. The writer remembers an instance in which many years ago, before he had risen to political eminence, he was pointed out to a stranger, by a citizen of Springfield, as "Abe Lincoln, the first lawyer of Illinois.” He certainly enjoyed great reputation among the people.
Mr. Lincoln was a very weak lawyer when engaged by the weak side. This side he never took, if, by careful investigation of the case, he could avoid it. If a man went to him with the proposal to institute a suit, he examined carefully the man's grounds for the action. If these were good, he entered upon the case, and prosecuted it faithfully to the end. If the grounds were not good he would have nothing to do with the case. He invariably advised the applicant to dismiss the matter, telling him frankly that he had no case, and ought not to prosecute. Sometimes he was deceived. Sometimes he discovered, in the middle of a trial, by the revelation of a witness, that his client had lied to him. After the moment
that he was convinced that justice was opposed to him and his client, he lost all his enthusiasm and all his courage. Indeed, he lost all interest in the case. His efforts for his client after that moment were simply mechanical, for he would not lie for any man, or strive to make the worse appear the better reason for any man. He had a genuine interest in the establishment of justice between man and man. As a citizen, as a lover of good order, as a man who believed in truth and justice, he was, by every instinct of his nature, opposed to the success of villainy and the triumph of wrong, and he would not sell himself to purposes of injustice and immorality. He repeatedly refused to take fees on the wrong side of a case. When his clients had practiced gross deception upon him, he forsook their cases in mid-passage; and he always refused to accept fees of those whom he advised not to prosecute. On one occasion, while engaged upon an important case, he discovered that he was on the wrong side. His associate in the case was immediately informed that he (Lincoln) would not make the plea. The associate made it, and the case, much to the surprise of Lincoln, was decided for his client. Perfectly convinced that his client was wrong, he would not receive one cent of the fee of nine hundred dollars which he paid. It is not wonderful that one who knew him well spoke of him as “perversely honest."
This “riding the circuit” was, in those early days, a peculiar business, and tended to develop peculiar traits of character. The long passages from court-house to court-house, the stopping at cabins by the way to eat, or sleep, or feed the horse, the evenings at the country taverns, the expedients resorted to to secure amusement, the petty, mean and shameful cases that abounded, must have tended to make it a strange business, and not altogether a pleasant one. These long pas
, sages while riding the circuit were seasons of reflection with Mr. Lincoln. An amusing incident occurred in connection with one of these journeys, which gives a pleasant glimpse into the good lawyer's heart. He was riding by a deep slough, in which, to his exceeding pain, he saw a pig strug
gling, and with such faint efforts that it was evident that he could not extricate himself from the mud. Mr. Lincoln looked at the pig and the mud which enveloped him, and then looked at some new clothes with which he had but a short time before enveloped himself. Deciding against the claims of the pig, he rode on, but he could not get rid of the vision of the poor brute, and, at last, after riding two miles, he turned back, determined to rescue the animal at the
of his new clothes. Arrived at the spot, he tied his horse, and coolly went to work to build of old rails a passage to the bottom of the hole. Descending on these rails, he seized the pig and dragged him out, but not without serious damage to the clothes he wore. Washing his hands in the nearest brook, and wiping them on the grass, he mounted his gig and rode along. He then fell to examining the motive that sent him back to the release of the pig. At the first thought, it seemed to be pure benevolence, but, at length, he came to the conclusion that it was selfishness, for he certainly went to the pig's relief in order (as he said to the friend to whom he related the incident,) to “take a pain out of his own mind.” This is certainly a new view of the nature of sympathy, and one which it will be well for the casuist to examine.
While Mr. Lincoln was not regarded by his professional associates as profoundly versed in the principles of law, he was looked upon by them as a very remarkable advocate. No man in Illinois had such power before a jury as he. This was a fact universally admitted. The elements of his power as an advocate were perfect lucidity of statement, great fairness in the treatment of both sides of a case, and the skill to conduct a common mind along the chain of his logic to his own conclusion. In presenting a case to a jury, he invariably presented both sides of it. After he had done this, there was really little more to be said, for he could state the points of his opponent better generally than his opponent could state them for himself. The man who followed him usually found himself handling that which Mr. Lincoln had already reduced to chaff. There was really no trick about this. In the first
place he would not take a case in which he did not believe he was on the side of justice. Believing that the right was with him, he felt that he could afford to give to the opposing counsel everything that he could claim, and still have material enough left for carrying his verdicts. His fairness was not only apparent but real, and the juries he addressed knew it to
He would stand before a jury and yield point after point that nearly every other lawyer would dispute under the same circumstances, so that, sometimes, his clients trembled with apprehension; and then, after he had given his opponent all he had claimed, and more than he had dared to claim, he would state his own side of the case with such power and clearness that that which had seemed strong against him was reduced to weakness, that which had seemed to be sound was proved to be specious, and that which had the appearance of being conclusive against him was plainly seen to be corroborative of his own positions on the question to be decided. Every juror was made to feel that Mr. Lincoln was an absolute aid to him in arriving at an intelligent and impartial verdict. The cunning lawyers thought that Mr. Lincoln was very cunning in all this—thought that his fairness was only apparent and assumed for a purpose—but it has already been stated that cunning was not an element of his nature. He had no interest in the establishment of anything but justice, and injustice, even if it favored him, could give him no satisfaction. The testimony of the lawyers who were obliged to try cases with him is that he was “a hard man to meet."
Coming from the people, and being perfectly familiar with the modes of thought and mental capacity of the men who generally composed his juries, he knew all their difficulties, knew just what language to address to them, what illustrations to use, and how to bring his arguments to bear upon their minds. This point is well illustrated by the details of a case in the Coles Circuit Court.
The controversy was about a colt, in which thirty-four witnesses swore that they had known the colt from its falling, and that it was the property of the plaintiff, while thirty swore
that they had known the colt from its falling, and that it was the property of the defendant. It may be stated, at starting, that these witnesses were all honest, and that the mistake grew out of the exact resemblances whích two colts bore to each other. One circumstance was proven by all the witnesses, or nearly all of them, viz: that the two claimants of the colt agreed to meet on a certain day with the two mares which were respectively claimed to be the dams of the colt, and permit the colt to decide which of the two he belonged to. The meeting occurred according to agreement, and, as it was a singular case and excited a good deal of popular interest, there were probably a hundred men assembled on their horses and mares, from far and near. Now the colt really belonged to the defendant in the case.
It had strayed away and fallen into company with the plaintiff's horses. The plaintiff's colt had, at the same time, strayed away, and had not returned, and was not to be found. The moment the two mares were brought upon the ground, the defendant's mare and the colt gave signs of recognition. The colt went to its dam, and would not leave her. They fondled each other; and, although the plaintiff brought his mare between them, and tried in various ways to divert the colt's attention, the colt would not be separated from its dam. It then followed her home, a distance of eight or ten miles, and, when within a mile or two of the stables, took a short cut to them in advance of its dam. The plaintiff had sued to recover the colt thus gone
back to its owner. In the presentation of this case to the jury, there were thirty-four witnesses on the side of the plaintiff, while the defendant had, on his side, only thirty witnesses; but he had on his side the colt itself and its dam-thirty-four men against thirty men and two brutes. Here was a case that was to be decided by the preponderance of evidence. All the witnesses were equally positive, and equally credible. Mr. Lincoln was on the side of the defendant, and contended that the voice of nature in the mare and colt ought to outweigh the testimony of a hundred men. The jury were all farmers, and all illiter