Reviews of "The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition"

Journal of Illinois History 4 (Summer 2001)

Reviewed by Timothy Walch, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library

Journal of Illinois History 4 (Summer 2001): 168-69.

The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition
Edited by Martha L. Benner and Cullom Davis.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.  3 DVDs.  $2,000.

The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln is extraordinary in every sense of that much overused word.  It is difficult to find any other word that accurately captures the contours of this publication.  Tens of thousands of books have appeared on all aspects of the life of Abraham Lincoln, and tens of thousands more will appear in years to come.  I am certain, however, that no publication—past, present, or future—will rival this one in terms of its breadth and depth of detail.

The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln brings together nearly 100,000 documents from more than 120 repositories and private collections.  These documents are the extant record of the thousands of court cases and legal matters that made up Lincoln's law practice from 1836, when he was admitted to the Illinois bar, until his departure for Washington in 1861.  All of the documents are available in an easily searchable text format, and the editors also provide more than 250,000 images of actual court documents related to Lincoln's legal work.

Yet, for all of the information provided, this documentary edition occupies only a small amount of shelf space.  It appears on three digital versatile disks (DVDs) and uses the latest computer technology.  The value of The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln is not only to be found in the text of documents but also in the database that provides access to 1.5 million facts about the documents.

Key features include a comprehensive database of all the relevant details about each of the 5,160 cases and 467 other legal matters that engaged Lincoln during those years.  It also includes a subject index and a search engine that provide multiple points of access to each legal case.  Facsimile images of more than ninety thousand multiple-page documents can be enlarged, reduced, rotated, paged through, enhanced, printed, or saved to another disk.

The editors carefully define what they mean by a "Lincoln legal document" and a "Lincoln case."  The former is "any record, letter, document, contemporary printed account, or after-the-fact recollection that directly relates to Abraham Lincoln's law practice during the years 1836 to 1861."  The latter is defined as "any case or non-litigation activity involving Lincoln, one of Lincoln's three partners during the period of their partnership, or both Lincoln and his partner."  The editors include all of the so-called "partnership cases" because there is no way to isolate many of the cases that Lincoln handled alone.

The directors of this project deserve praise and admiration.  Cullom Davis was critical to the success of this project.  Now retired from the University of Illinois at Springfield, Davis was the driving force behind both the project and the publication.  He found the sponsors, hired the staff, and served as the senior editor for fourteen years.  His is an enormous scholarly and managerial achievement.

But Davis would be the first to say that this publication is not his alone.  Indeed, Martha L. Benner served as assistant director and editor of the project for a dozen years, and most important, she conceived the format and designed the database for this unprecedented publication.

In addition to Davis and Benner, it is important to acknowledge the work and contributions of a half dozen associate editors as well as the five sponsoring agencies.  The editorial team included Daniel Stowell, Susan Krause, John A. Lupton, Stacy Pratt McDermott, Christopher A. Schnell, and Dennis E. Suttles.  The sponsors include the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, the Abraham Lincoln Association, the University of Illinois at Springfield, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Shelby Cullom Davis Foundation.  Each individual and organization did their part to insure the success of the project.

The editors set a benchmark for scholarly diligence.  In their quest for relevant documents, they published notices in more than three hundred publications announcing the project and requesting information on any known Lincoln law documents.  They contacted fourteen thousand libraries and manuscript repositories across the country in order to determine if those institutions held any relevant materials, and they chose to visit sixty-one of the institutions, where they located and copied hundreds of pertinent documents.  The editors also visited eighty-eight Illinois county courthouses and records repositories to scour their documentary holdings.  Beyond that, the editors searched through major Illinois newspapers prior to 1861, consulted manuscript catalogs, and tracked down private collectors.  I am confident that this collection is as complete as is humanly possible.

Given the enormous number of documents, it is surprising to learn that Lincoln and his partners had a fairly typical practice compared to other attorneys in Illinois at that time.  "Like most attorneys," the editors write, "[Lincoln and his partners] were general practitioners; they did not specialize in ay one area of the law, and they represented all walks of society throughout all court jurisdictions."  But the editors are quick to caution scholars not to draw too many conclusions from the extant documents.  Noting that frequent fires and floods destroyed many federal court records, the editors argue that "Lincoln and his partners undoubtedly had a larger federal court practice than what is presented in this edition and it was probably more evenly spread over the years, but the documentation to support this view no longer exists."

In their Introduction, the editors note that this publication "represents a milestone in documentary editing because it is one of the first editions to be presented in electronic form."  They are too modest in their claim because The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln is much more than that.  This documentary edition is a prototype for the future of both documentary editing and scholarly research.  It would be well if such sponsoring agencies as the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the National Endowment for the Humanities use this publication as a benchmark for funding all future documentary editions.

© Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, 2001.

Used by permission, Journal of Illinois History