Today in 1839: Abe Lincoln admitted to practice in circuit court

December 3, 2010

Today in Legal HistoryAbraham Lincoln is best known as a politician and president, but he led a parallel life as a distinguished attorney. In fact, the courtroom is where the future president honed the skills that would make him one of the greatest orators in American history.

On December 3, 1839, Lincoln – then a 30-year-old state representative in Springfield, Illinois – reached an important milestone in his legal career when he gained admittance to the bar of the U.S. Circuit Court.

Here are a few highlights of Lincoln’s career as a lawyer.

1836 – While clerking for a practicing attorney and studying law on his own (on top of his duties as a state legislator), Lincoln crosses the first threshold toward becoming an attorney when the State of Illinois certifies him as “a person of good moral character.”

1837 – Lincoln is admitted to the Illinois bar and moves to Springfield to begin practice with his wife’s cousin, John Stuart.

Abraham Lincoln as a young man1838 – In one of his first criminal cases, Lincoln delivers the closing argument in a murder trial, helping to convince the jury that the defendant, Jacob Early, had acted in self-defense. Over the next several years, Lincoln will earn a solid reputation as a courtroom litigator who is particularly adept at cross-examinations and closing arguments.

1847 – Lincoln returns from his single term as a U.S. representative in Washington and begins riding the Circuit of the Eighth Judicial District. He spends 10 weeks of each spring and fall traveling, along with the state’s attorney and the judge, to 14 county courthouses in central Illinois. In each town, he would team up with local attorneys on some cases and represent litigants on his own in others. Lincoln will continue this practice for more than a decade.

1849 – Lincoln appears before the U.S. Supreme Court to argue a case involving a river barge that sank after hitting a railroad bridge. Lincoln worked on riverboats as a young man, and many of the cases he handled involved clashes between riverboat companies and the new railroads.

1849 – Lincoln receives a patent for a “device to buoy vessels over shoals.” His invention is never actually built, but Lincoln remains the only U.S. president ever to hold a patent.

1858 – In his most celebrated criminal trial, Lincoln defends William “Duff” Armstrong, a young man accused of playing a role in the midnight murder of James Preston Metzger. During the cross, Lincoln destroys the credibility of the state’s star witness by using a Farmer’s Almanac to prove that, contrary to the witness’s testimony, the moon was at a low angle at the time of the murder, drastically reducing visibility. As a result of Lincoln’s dramatic courtroom performance, Armstrong – the son of one of Lincoln’s oldest friends – was acquitted.

1860 – At the time of his election to the presidency, Lincoln was the most respected attorney in Illinois. Before leaving for Washington, he told his partner, William Herndon, that upon his return to Springfield he wanted to resume his legal practice “as if nothing ever happened.”

To learn more about the legal career of Abraham Lincoln, start with this fantastic collection of links and resources compiled by the non-profit group Abraham Lincoln Online.