In addition to his part-time service in the Illinois legislature and his service in the U.S. Congress, Lincoln was a full-time lawyer for twenty-three years. He taught himself the law and was admitted to the Illinois Bar in 1837. He moved to Springfield, Illinois, and became a general practice attorney who represented clients in a variety of civil and criminal actions. By the mid-1850s, Lincoln had become one of the most highly respected and successful trial lawyers in the state.
Illinois Central Railroad v. McLean County
When the state of Illinois licensed the Illinois Central Railroad, it exempted the company from any additional taxation. Disputing the provision, McLean County won approval in court to tax the companys real estate holdings within its boundaries. At first Lincoln seemed indifferent to the issue, offering his services first to one side and then the other. However, the significance of the case attracted his attention and when the opportunity presented itself, he joined the team for the defense. This Assignment of Errors, which Lincoln drafted, was argued in the state Supreme Court in the spring of 1854 and again in December 1855. A favorable decision handed down in January 1856 made it the most profitable case of his legal career. Ironically, the lawyers representing McLean County were two of his former partners, Stephen T. Logan and John T. Stuart.
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Illinois Central Railroad v. McLean County, January 1856. Herndon-Weik Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (009) Digital ID # al0009
View of the east side of Springfield Square [glimpse of County Courthouse, on left behind trees], Springfield, Illinois, ca. 1868. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (038) Digital ID # cph 3a14782
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Lincoln's Philosophy of Law
Although one of the most successful trial lawyers in the state of Illinois, Lincoln began these notes, probably for a lecture to be delivered to a group of young lawyers, by humbly stating: “I am not an accomplished lawyer—I find quite as much material for a lecture, in those points wherein I have failed, as in those wherein I have been moderately successful.” Throughout the document Lincoln issues practical advice and focuses on the status of the profession and the need for higher ethical standards. He writes: “Resolve to be honest at all events; and if, in your own judgment, you can not be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer.”
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