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Chapter 4.

  • Law practice
  • -- rules for a lawyer -- law and politics: twin Occupations -- the Springfield coterie -- friendly help -- Anne Rutledge -- Mary Owens
    Lincoln's removal from New Salem to Springfield and his entrance into a law partnership with Major John T. Stuart begin a distinctively new period in his career. From this point we need not trace in detail his progress in his new and this time deliberately chosen vocation. The lawyer who works his way up in professional merit from a five-dollar fee in a suit before a justice of the peace to a five-thousand-dollar fee before the Supreme Court of his State has a long and difficult path to climb. Mr. Lincoln climbed this path for twenty-five years with industry, perseverance, patience --above all, with that sense of moral responsibility that always clearly traced the dividing line between his duty to his client and his duty to society and truth. His unqualified frankness of statement assured him the confidence of judge and jury in every argument. His habit of fully admitting the weak points in his case gained their close attention to its strong ones, and when clients brought him bad cases, his uniform advice was not to begin the suit. Among his miscellaneous writings there exist some fragments of autograph notes, evidently intended for a little lecture or talk to law students, which set forth with brevity and force his opinion of what a lawyer ought to be and do. I-e earnestly commends diligence in study, and, next to diligence, promptness in keeping up his work. [50]

    “As a general rule, never take your whole fee in advance,” he says, “nor any more than a small retainer. When fully paid beforehand, you are more than a common mortal if you can feel the same interest in the case as if something was still in prospect for you as well as for your client.” “Extemporaneous speaking should be practised and cultivated. It is the lawyer's avenue to the public. However able and faithful he may be in other respects, people are slow to bring him business if he cannot make a speech. And yet, there is not a more fatal error to young lawyers than relying too much on speech-making. If any one, upon his rare powers of speaking, shall claim an exemption from the drudgery of the law, his case is a failure in advance. Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser — in fees, expenses, and waste of time. As a peacemaker, the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough. Never stir up litigation. A worse man can scarcely be found than one who does this. Who can be more nearly a fiend than he who habitually overhauls the register of deeds in search of defects in titles, whereon to stir up strife and put money in his pocket? A moral tone ought to be infused into the profession which should drive such men out of it.” “There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest. I say vague because when we consider to what extent confidence and honors are reposed in and conferred upon lawyers by the people, it appears improbable that their impression of dishonesty is very distinct and vivid. Yet the impression is common-almost universal. Let no young man choosing the law for a calling for a moment yield to the popular belief. Resolve to be honest at all events; [51] and if, in your own judgment, you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.”

    While Lincoln thus became a lawyer, he did not cease to remain a politician. In the early West, law and politics were parallel roads to usefulness as well as distinction. Newspapers had not then reached any considerable circulation. There existed neither fast presses to print them, mail routes to carry them, nor subscribers to read them. Since even the laws had to be newly framed for those new communities, the lawyer became the inevitable political instructor and guide as far as ability and fame extended. His reputation as a lawyer was a twin of his influence as an orator, whether through logic or eloquence. Local conditions fostered, almost necessitated, this double pursuit. Westward emigration was in its full tide, and population was pouring into the great State of Illinois with ever accelerating rapidity. Settlements were spreading, roads were being opened, towns laid out, the larger counties divided and new ones organized, and the enthusiastic visions of coming prosperity threw the State into that fever of speculation which culminated in wholesale internal improvements on borrowed capital and brought collapse, stagnation, and bankruptcy in its inevitable train. As already said, these swift changes required a plentiful supply of new laws, to frame which lawyers were in a large proportion sent to the legislature every two years. These same lawyers also filled the bar and recruited the bench of the new State, and, as they followed the itinerant circuit courts from county to county in their various sections, were called upon in these summer wanderings to explain in public speeches [52] their legislative work of the winter. By a natural connection, this also involved a discussion of national and party issues. It was also during this period that party activity was stimulated by the general adoption of the new system of party caucuses and party conventions to which President Jackson had given the impulse.

    In the American system of representative government, elections not only occur with the regularity of clockwork, but pervade the whole organism in every degree of its structure from top to bottom-Federal, State, county, township, and school district. In Illinois, even the State judiciary has at different times been chosen by popular ballot. The function of the politician, therefore, is one of continuous watchfulness and activity, and he must have intimate knowledge of details if he would work out grand results. Activity in politics also produces eager competition and sharp rivalry. In 1839 the seat of government was definitely transferred from Vandalia to Springfield, and there soon gathered at the new State capital a group of young men whose varied ability and future success in public service has rarely been excelled-Douglas, Shields, Calhoun, Stuart, Logan, Baker, Treat, Hardin, Trumbull, McClernand, Browning, McDougall, and others.

    His new surroundings greatly stimulated and reinforced Mr. Lincoln's growing experience and spreading acquaintance, giving him a larger share and wider influence in local and State politics. He became a valued and sagacious adviser in party caucuses, and a power in party conventions. Gradually, also, his gifts as an attractive and persuasive campaign speaker were making themselves felt and appreciated.

    His removal, in April, 1837, from a village of twenty houses to a “city” of about two thousand inhabitants placed him in striking new relations and necessities as [53] to dress, manners, and society, as well as politics; yet here again, as in the case of his removal from his father's cabin to New Salem six years before, peculiar conditions rendered the transition less abrupt than would at first appear. Springfield, notwithstanding its greater population and prospective dignity as the capital, was in many respects no great improvement on New Salem. It had no public buildings, its streets and sidewalks were unpaved, its stores, in spite of all their flourish of advertisements, were staggering under the hard times of 1837-39, and stagnation of business imposed a rigid economy on all classes. If we may credit tradition, this was one of the most serious crises of Lincoln's life. His intimate friend, William Butler, related to the writer that, having attended a session of the legislature at Vandalia, he and Lincoln returned together at its close to Springfield by the usual mode of horseback travel. At one of their stopping-places over night Lincoln, in one of his gloomy moods, told Butler the story of the almost hopeless prospects which lay immediately before him — that the session was over, his salary all drawn, and his money all spent; that he had no resources and no work; that he did not know where to turn to earn even a week's board. Butler bade him be of good cheer, and, without any formal proposition or agreement, took him and his belongings to his own house and domesticated him there as a permanent guest, with Lincoln's tacit compliance rather than any definite consent. Later Lincoln shared a room and genial companionship, which ripened into closest intimacy, in the store of his friend Joshua F. Speed, all without charge or expense; and these brotherly offerings helped. the young lawyer over present necessities which might otherwise have driven him to muscular handiwork at weekly or monthly wages. [54]

    From this time onward, in daily conversation, in argument at the bar, in political consultation and discussion, Lincoln's life gradually broadened into contact with the leading professional minds of the growing State of Illinois. The man who could not pay a week's board bill was twice more elected to the legislature, was invited to public banquets and toasted by name, became a popular speaker, moved in the best society of the new capital, and made what was considered a brilliant marriage.

    Lincoln's stature and strength, his intelligence and ambition — in short, all the elements which gave him popularity among men in New Salem, rendered him equally attractive to the fair sex of that village. On the other hand, his youth, his frank sincerity, his longing for sympathy and encouragement, made him peculiarly sensitive to the society and influence of women. Soon after coming to New Salem he chanced much in the society of Miss Anne Rutledge, a slender, blue-eyed blonde, nineteen years old, moderately educated, beautiful according to local standards — an altogether lovely, tender-hearted, universally admired, and generally fascinating girl. From the personal descriptions of her which tradition has preserved, the inference is naturally drawn that her temperament and disposition were very much akin to those of Mr. Lincoln himself. It is little wonder, therefore, that he fell in love with her. But two years before she had become engaged to a Mr. McNamar, who had gone to the East to settle certain family affairs, and whose absence became so unaccountably prolonged that Anne finally despaired of his return, and in time betrothed herself to Lincoln. A year or so after this event Anne Rutledge was taken sick and died — the neighbors said of a broken heart, but the doctor called it brain fever, and his science [55] was more likely to be correct than their psychology. Whatever may have been the truth upon this point, the incident threw Lincoln into profound grief, and a period of melancholy so absorbing as to cause his friends apprehension for his own health. Gradually, however, their studied and devoted companionship won him back to cheerfulness, and his second affair of the heart assumed altogether different characteristics, most of which may be gathered from his own letters.

    Two years before the death of Anne Rutledge, Mr. Lincoln had seen and made the acquaintance of Miss Mary Owens, who had come to visit her sister Mrs. Able, and had passed about four weeks in New Salem, after which she returned to Kentucky. Three years later, and perhaps a year after Miss Rutledge's death, Mrs. Able, before starting for Kentucky, told Mr. Lincoln, probably more in jest than earnest, that she would bring her sister back with her on condition that he would become her-Mrs. Able's-brother-in-law. Lincoln, also probably more in jest than earnest, promptly agreed to the proposition; for he remembered Mary Owens as a tall, handsome, dark-haired girl, with fair skin and large blue eyes, who in conversation could be intellectual and serious as well as jovial and witty, who had a liberal education, and was considered wealthy-one of those well-poised, steady characters who look upon matrimony and life with practical views and social matronly instincts.

    The bantering offer was made and accepted in the autumn of 1836, and in the following April Mr. Lincoln removed to Springfield. Before this occurred, however, he was surprised to learn that Mary Owens had actually returned with her sister from Kentucky, and felt that the romantic jest had become a serious and practical question. Their first interview dissipated [56] some of the illusions in which each had indulged. The three years elapsed since they first met had greatly changed her personal appearance. She had become stout; her twenty-eight years (one year more than his) had somewhat hardened the lines of her face. Both in figure and feature she presented a disappointing contrast to the slim and not yet totally forgotten Anne Rutledge.

    On her part, it was more than likely that she did not find in him all the attractions her sister had pictured. The speech and manners of the Illinois frontier lacked much of the chivalric attentions and flattering compliments to which the Kentucky beaux were addicted. He was yet a diamond in the rough, and she would not immediately decide till she could better understand his character and prospects, so no formal engagement resulted.

    In December, Lincoln went to his legislative duties at Vandalia, and in the following April took up his permanent abode in Springfield. Such a separation was not favorable to rapid courtship, yet they had occasional interviews and exchanged occasional letters. None of hers to him have been preserved, and only three of his to her. From these it appears that they sometimes discussed their affair in a cold, hypothetical way, even down to problems of housekeeping, in the light of mere worldly prudence, much as if they were guardians arranging a marriage de convenance, rather than impulsive and ardent lovers wandering in Arcady. Without Miss Owens's letters it is impossible to know what she may have said to him, but in May, 1837, Lincoln wrote to her:

    I am often thinking of what we said about your coming to live at Springfield. I am afraid you would not be satisfied. There is a great deal of flourishing [57] about in carriages here, which it would be your doom to see without sharing it. You would have to be poor, without the means of hiding your poverty. Do you believe you could bear that patiently? Whatever woman may cast her lot with mine, should any ever do so, it is my intention to do all in my power to make her happy and contented; and there is nothing I can imagine that would make me more unhappy than to fail in the effort. I know I should be much happier with you than the way I am, provided I saw no signs of discontent in you. What you have said to me may have been in the way of jest, or I may have misunderstood it. If so, then let it be forgotten; if otherwise, I much wish you would think seriously before you decide. What I have said I will most positively abide by, provided you wish it. My opinion is that you had better not do it. You have not been accustomed to hardship, and it may be more severe than you now imagine. I know you are capable of thinking correctly on any subject, and if you deliberate maturely upon this before you decide, then I am willing to abide your decision.

    Whether, after receiving this, she wrote him the “good long letter” he asked for in the same epistle is not known. Apparently they did not meet again until August, and the interview must have been marked by reserve and coolness on both sides, which left each more uncertain than before; for on the same day Lincoln again wrote her, and, after saying that she might perhaps be mistaken in regard to his real feelings toward her, continued thus:

    I want in all cases to do right, and most particularly so in all cases with women. I want at this particular time, more than anything else, to do right with you; and if I knew it would be doing right, as I rather suspect it would, to let you alone, I would do it. And [58] for the purpose of making the matter as plain as possible, I now say that you can now drop the subject, dismiss your thoughts (if you ever had any) from me forever, and leave this letter unanswered, without calling forth one accusing murmur from me. And I will even go further, and say that if it will add anything to your comfort or peace of mind to do so, it is my sincere wish that you should. Do not understand by this that I wish to cut your acquaintance. I mean no such thing. What I do wish is that our further acquaintance shall depend upon yourself. If such further acquaintance would contribute nothing to your happiness, I am sure it would not to mine. If you feel yourself in any degree bound to me, I am now willing to release you, provided you wish it; while, on the other hand, I am willing and even anxious to bind you faster, if I can be convinced that it will in any considerable degree add to your happiness.. This, indeed, is the whole question with me.

    All that we know of the sequel is contained in a letter which Lincoln wrote to his friend Mrs. Browning nearly a year later, after Miss Owens had finally returned to Kentucky, in which, without mentioning the lady's name, he gave a seriocomic description of what might be called a courtship to escape matrimony. He dwells on his disappointment at her changed appearance, and continues:

    But what could I do? I had told her sister that I would take her for better or for worse, and I made a point of honor and conscience in all things to stick to my word, especially if others had been induced to act on it, which in this case I had no doubt they had; for I was now fairly convinced that no other man on earth would have her, and hence the conclusion that they were bent on holding me to my bargain. ‘Well,’ [59] thought I, ‘I have said it, and, be the consequences what they may, it shall not be my fault if I fail to do it.’ . . . All this while, although I was fixed ‘firm as the surge-repelling rock’ in my resolution, I found I was continually repenting the rashness which had led me to make it. Through life I have been in no bondage, either real or imaginary, from the thraldom of which I so much desired to be free. . . . After I had delayed the matter as long as I thought I could in honor do (which, by the way, had brought me round into last fall), I concluded I might as well bring it to a consummation without further delay, and so I mustered my resolution and made the proposal to her direct; but, shocking to relate, she answered, No. At first I supposed she did it through an affectation of modesty, which I thought but ill became her under the peculiar circumstances of her case, but on my renewal of the charge I found she repelled it with greater firmness than before. I tried it again and again, but with the same success, or rather with the same want of success. I finally was forced to give it up, at which I very unexpectedly found myself mortified almost beyond endurance. I was mortified, it seemed to me, in a hundred different ways. My vanity was deeply wounded by the reflection that I had so long been too stupid to discover her intentions, and at the same time never doubting that I understood them perfectly; and also that she, whom I had taught myself to believe nobody else would have, had actually rejected me with all my fancied greatness. And, to cap the whole, I then for the first time began to suspect that I was really a little in love with her.

    The serious side of this letter is undoubtedly genuine and candid, while the somewhat over-exaggeration of the comic side points as clearly that he had not fully [60] recovered from the mental suffering he had undergone in the long conflict between doubt and duty. From the beginning, the match-making zeal of the sister had placed the parties in a false position, produced embarrassment, and created distrust. A different beginning might have resulted in a very different outcome, for Lincoln, while objecting to her corpulency, acknowledges that in both feature and intellect she was as attractive as any woman he had ever met; and Miss Owens's letters, written after his death, state that her principal objection lay in the fact that his training had been different from hers, and that “Mr. Lincoln was deficient in those little links which make up the chain of a woman's happiness.” She adds: “The last message I ever received from him was about a year after we parted in Illinois. Mrs. Able visited Kentucky, and he said to her in Springfield, ‘Tell your sister that I think she was a great fool because she did not stay here and marry me.’ ” She was even then not quite clear in her own mind but that his words were true.

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