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How A. Lincoln became Abraham Lincoln – Part I


R. Michael Wells//July 18, 2010

How A. Lincoln became Abraham Lincoln – Part I


R. Michael Wells//July 18, 2010


Special to Lawyers Weekly

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One-hundred-fifty years ago, on May 18, 1860, history itself took a sweet and stunning swing to the good.

On that day, on the third ballot at the National Convention of America’s new Republican Party, overcoming all odds and the candidacies of three nationally known leaders, Abraham Lincoln was nominated for president of the United States.

Interestingly, each of the much better-known candidates had crossed paths with Lincoln years before. They never saw then in Lincoln the skill set that would propel him to the nomination.

But then the skill set that contributed so significantly to it all, that missing piece in Lincoln’s persona, had not yet developed. That highly accelerated development began five years before, not in a great success, as one might imagine, but in a spectacular and humiliating defeat for Lincoln.

There is a great lesson in this defeat. And in that lesson we learn part of the answer to one of history’s enduring questions: how in the world did A. Lincoln (how Lincoln signed his pleadings filed in court), backwoods frontier lawyer, born in poverty and so dogged by disappointments and tragedy all of his life, become Abraham Lincoln, our greatest president?

The answer will surprise you.

Lincoln was associated as co-counsel in a major case in 1855, which was to be heard in Springfield, Ill., where Lincoln practiced. It concerned the patent of the McCormick Reaper, a machine that was transforming the entire country. For a lawyer, it was “The Big Case.” Lincoln believed this case could propel him to the national stage.

Lincoln was hired as co-counsel because he had a good relationship with the presiding federal judge, and for his knowledge of local court rules and customs, so critical to cases, and personalities, in the courtroom.

But then the case was moved to another judge in Cincinnati, and Lincoln’s involvement was marginalized.

Lincoln, because of his ungainly and unkempt manner, came to be treated with contempt by the other lawyers, all of whom were college-educated and had received formal training in the law, unlike Lincoln.

When co-counsel, the brilliant lawyer, Edwin M. Stanton, met Lincoln for the first time, he said, “I will not be associated with such a gawky ape as that! If I can’t have a man who is a gentleman in appearance with me in the case I will abandon it.”

Lincoln was not even allowed to sit at the counsel table, even though he had been fully retained to help try the case. He was relegated to watch the weeklong trial from the public gallery.

This treatment denigrated and degraded Lincoln as a lawyer and as a person. And the level of excellence of the lawyers and their advocacy stunned Lincoln. He said, “Stanton’s argument was a revelation to me. … I can’t hold a candle to any of them. I can’t talk like them, or look like them. I’m going home to study law all over again.”

After the trial, Lincoln returned to Springfield, and he went into a mild depression. When he received the check for his substantial fee, the largest single fee of his career, he sent it back. He said he had not earned it. Only upon the client’s insistence did Lincoln cash the check.

After several months, Lincoln worked past the humiliation, and he focused instead on the exceptional lawyers, and exceptional arguments, he observed in court. Despite his success and the security of his excellent reputation in Illinois, Lincoln knew he was no match for the college-educated lawyers.

He was never going to make the final step to becoming a leader of national stature without some significant growth in his delivery, in the depth of his thought, his physical presentation and in the clarity of his argument and advocacy.

As Richard Cavett later said, “It is a rare person who wants to hear what he doesn’t want to hear.” And in this, one of life’s most solemn lessons: how you fall short, and how you chart the long journey to make up that ground – Lincoln was his own most able teacher. He told himself what he did not want to hear.

The sharp and brilliant clarity of Lincoln’s advocacy for the abolition of slavery, seen by the nation in the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates, and in the Cooper Union Speech in the winter of 1860, would never have occurred if Lincoln had not been sent back to the proverbial drawing board of his fundamental skill set, brought to bear in the comeuppance and his utter humiliation of the Reaper trial of 1855.

In the process, A. Lincoln, frontier lawyer, became Abraham Lincoln, the clearest thinker and advocate for the abolition of slavery. And, in time, our most beloved president.

Which brings me, surprising as it may seem, to you.

Do you think there is a trial in your present or past which you can turn to your advantage, rather than your disadvantage? Can you look past the pain, anger, disappointment, and even humiliation, and see the good?

When George Bernard Shaw, one of the greatest literary figures of the 19th and 20th centuries, was knighted by the queen, he was asked: if you could be any man in history, who would you be?

Sir George Bernard Shaw said, after long and thoughtful reflection: “I would be that man I could have been, but I chose not to be.”

Abraham Lincoln chose to be that man he could have been by unlocking the door to character’s most important insight: in hardship and defeat comes life’s greatest growth.

Let’s be realistic: no one reading this piece is going to be a great figure like Abraham Lincoln.

But that’s not the test. Is it?

The test is: what are you going to do with your trials? Will you find the potential for growth embedded in the pain, as Abraham Lincoln did? Or not?

What I’ve learned about life on the way to the courthouse is this: you really have no idea of all the good that is in you. When you face your hard times, and you are willing to ask the hard question: do you want to hear what you do not want to hear? – the most essential piece of your character is about to make up a lot of ground.

But it’s even more than that.

Editor’s note: This is Part I of a two-part series.

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