Daniel W. Stowell et al., eds., The Papers of Abraham Lincoln: Legal Documents and Cases, 4 vols. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008. Pp. 1,919.
The editors of this extraordinary four-volume set have chosen roughly 50 cases from the legal career of Abraham Lincoln and presented them in chronological order, with the goal of offering "a broad overview of Abraham Lincoln's law practice in both its complexity and its variety." The editorial decision to choose a relatively small sample from the several thousand cases available to them allows for an in-depth consideration of these cases, and the volumes include lengthy and helpful annotations and commentary. The editors have "searched 88 of Illinois's 102 county courthouses" and more than 60 different archives. Given the ongoing, passionate interest in all aspects of Lincoln's life, and the fact that the bulk of his life was spent as a practicing lawyer in Illinois, these volumes are diligent, thoughtful, and informative. The Papers is without a doubt a major scholarly accomplishment and is certain to become an authoritative, even indispensable, source for those writing about Lincoln. Yet the volumes do raise a series of questions, some particular to the field of Lincoln studies and others about the ultimate purpose of edited collections.
The first question is, Who are the different audiences for these books, and can or should they all be satisfied? In the first place, it must be said that these volumes do fill a gap. Roy Basler in his Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln did not include Lincoln's legal cases. In 2000 the Lincoln Legal Papers published The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition in a three-DVD set—now available on the Internet at www.papersofabrahamlincoln.org as The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln, 2nd edition. This resource makes available nearly 100,000 documents from more than 5,000 cases spanning all of Lincoln's career. But given the expert and careful work of the editors, these four hardbound volumes are now likely the best place to consult a discrete yet representative set of primary sources in order to learn deeply and broadly about Lincoln's career as a lawyer.
Reveiwed by Anthony M. Joseph, Houston Baptist University
The Papers of Abraham Lincoln: Legal Documents and Cases. Edited by Daniel W. Stowell, Susan Krause, John A. Lupton, Stacy Pratt McDermott, Christopher A. Schnell, Dennis E. Suttles, Kelley B. Clausing, and R. Dan Monroe. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008. 4-volume boxed set. 2,328 pages. Illustrations. Cloth 978-0-8139-2606-3. $300.00.
A REVIEW Anthony M. Joseph
Lincoln's long career as a lawyer has been as much the subject of winsome anecdote as comprehensive scholarly study---an unhappy balance caused in part by the lack of readily accessible documents bearing on his practice. That problem, however, was remedied in stunning fashion with the publication in 2000 of the massive digital edition of Lincoln's legal papers, The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln (LPAL). The LPAL produced more than 96,000 searchable documents spanning over 5,000 cases and nearly 500 nonlitigation activities through the course of Lincoln's legal career. The present selective letterpress edition in four volumes continues the same tradition of legal and editorial expertise found in the digital edition. Together the two editions should help bring about a great leap forward in Lincoln legal scholarship. With its extensive scholarly apparatus, the letterpress edition in particular provides a unique window onto Lincoln's daily work as a lawyer.
Here, of course, the material is necessarily whittled down. This edition presents forty-nine cases chose from the digital edition on the basis of "many attributes, including chronology, geography, jurisdiction, subject matter, legal action, the quality of the documentation, the number of Lincoln documents, Lincoln's role, judgment, and, to a lesser extent, the notoriety of the case at the time and since in Lincoln scholarship" (1:xix). A larger number of cases are given brief treatment over the course of three additional chapters, one covering Lincoln's practice in the Sangamon County Circuit Court during its Spring 1842 term and two covering Lincoln on circuit in 1842 and 1852. In addition to the cases, the editors have included chapters on Lincoln's views of lawyering, his legal work outside the courtroom, and his work as a court official. Three appendices explain the structure of the Illinois court system, its pleading and practice, and legal descriptions of land. A biographical directory, a glossary of legal terms, and an effective index round out the fourth and final volume. The legal glossary and the appendix on pleading and practice provide an extensive technical introduction to antebellum law. Properly used, these sections will make the documents vastly more intelligible to readers and researchers alike. Researchers just beginning their forays into American antebellum legal history, whether as Lincoln scholars, Illinois historians, political historians, or legal historians, will find this technical apparatus of enormous value.
Daniel W. Stowell, ed. The Papers of Abraham Lincoln: Legal Documents and Cases. 4 vols. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008. Illustrations. 2,328 pp. $300.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8139-2606-3.
Published on H-Law (July, 2009)
Commissioned by Christopher R. Waldrep
Abraham Lincoln and the Rule of Law
Historians have examined almost every nook and cranny of Abraham Lincoln’s life regaling us with stories of Lincoln as a toddler in Kentucky, his struggling youth in Indiana, his legal career, and his tenure as our president during a time when the Republic was in peril. The reason for this, of course, is that the public’s interest in Lincoln is nigh inexhaustible and people remain deeply interested in Lincoln as a human being as well as a politician and statesman. This high interest suggests that Lincoln does matter and he continues to resonate with us deep into the twenty-first century.
While Lincoln expired in 1865, he has been kept alive in the hearts of the American people. There seems to be a belief that Lincoln not only explains American national history, but also, in a broader sense, is a global figure representing the liberal democratic tradition. For those who dislike Lincoln, whether they be ardent neo-Confederates or those who see Lincoln as crafting an all-powerful nation-state, it is the very reverence held for Lincoln that they dislike as much as they oppose his policies. Thinking about Lincoln as a historical figure thus becomes difficult, for his life is bound up in the country he loved and those for whom he surrendered his life to keep it safe.
Lincoln Herald 110 (Summer 2008): 143-47.
The Papers of Abraham Lincoln: Legal Documents and Cases
Daniel W. Stowell, General Editor.
Four volumes, 1434 pages (glossary, index, biographical directory, appendices).
University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, VA, 2008
The Lincoln Legal Papers project has, like Roy P. Basler's Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, acquired a history of its own in the 25 years, since Illinois governor James Thompson first urged the creation of the project. At first, it was conceived largely as an addendum to the Basler edition, providing the legal paper-trail of Abraham Lincoln, which Basler had deliberately chosen to exclude. Over the next two-and-a-half decades, the 'Lincoln Legals' have gone through three directors (George Curtis, Roger Bridges, and Cullom Davis) and are well into the tenure of the fourth (the amiable and tenacious Daniel Stowell) and have mushroomed from a supplement into an editorial behemoth, which now overshadows the Collected Works and is slated to become the core of an even more mammoth undertaking, The Papers of Abraham Lincoln.
The beginnings of the 'Lincoln Legals' were anything but promising. The archives of the federal district and circuit courts, where Lincoln practiced in the 1850s, were consumed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871; other Lincoln documents, routinely filed by clerks in the 100 county courthouses across Lincoln's Illinois, were easy to filch and disappeared into the hands of souvenir hunters. Others had been damaged in storage or simply promised to yield little beyond the most tedious procedural details of Lincoln's life. Nor did William Herndon help matters by giving away legal documents in Lincoln's hand to numerous collectors and autograph-seekers. This left students of Lincoln's legal practice, not to say biographers, who wanted to make sense of the profession that Lincoln devoted most of his life to, hamstrung for materials. Either the materials were assumed not to have survived, or they survived in such condition or such places as to be unusable, or they could be of no real consequence anyway to readers who had no idea of what distinguished a nolle prosequi from a nolo contendere. The result was that, in the handful of books which did focus on Lincoln's legal career---Frederick Trevor Hill's Lincoln the Lawyer or John Paul Frank's Lincoln as a Lawyer---a handful of well-known cases (like the Beardstown "almanac trial") and a broad amount of lawyerly speculation had to bear the weight. If anyone outside the professional circles of lawyers read these books, their numbers were disappointingly few.
Terrific in Denunciation
Taking a new look at Lincoln the lawyer
Until recently biographers of Abraham Lincoln have known surprisingly little about the details of his law practice. Even the most basic information has been lacking, such as how many cases he had, what proportion was devoted to criminal cases, what to debt collection, or how often he represented railroads and other corporate interests. In the absence of hard and comprehensive evidence, scholars of Lincoln's law practice have, for the most part, only been able to present it anecdotally. In these circumstances, the general impression of Lincoln the lawyer has formed around random recollections of some of his more colorful and dramatic cases.
A good example is an anecdote presented by Lincoln's law partner, William H. Herndon, which concerns Lincoln's spirited defense of a poor, Revolutionary War widow who had been cheated out of $200—half her meager pension—by a grasping and unscrupulous pension agent. What Herndon and others remembered most distinctly about this case was the “skinning” Lincoln gave the defendant, Erastus Wright.