Lawyers and the integrity of Lincoln

A statue of Abraham Lincoln in Urbana, Ill.

A statue of Abraham Lincoln in Urbana, Ill.

I am currently reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln by Henry Ketcham, titled The Life of Abraham Lincoln. This book (fortunately part of the public domain) goes into some detail to illustrate the integrity and honesty of the 16th president of the United States, even as a practicing lawyer.

Lincoln put his conscience into his legal practice to a greater degree than is common with lawyers. He held … that law is for the purpose of securing justice, and he would never make use of thwarting justice. When other maneuvered, he met them by a straightforward dealing. He never did or could take an unfair advantage. On the wrong side of a case, he was worse than useless to his client, and he knew it. He would never take such a case if it could be avoided. … Sometimes, after having entered on a case, he discovered that his clients had imposed on him. In his indignation he has even left the court room. Once when the Judge sent for him he refused to return. “Tell the judge my hands are dirty; I came over to wash them” (page 80).

Ponder that. A lawyer whose integrity would not allow him to “take an unfair advantage,” and who was known for leaving the courtroom mid-case if he found out his clients had misled him as to the justice of their cause. Is it any wonder that such a man was able to lead his country through the turmoil and tragedy of the American Civil War into unification, while simultaneously bringing freedom to African-Americans?

Some of the lawyers fighting to redefine marriage in Utah could stand to learn from the integrity of “Honest Abe.” Up to this point, they have practiced the Giddianhi school of letter writing: craft arguments that twist and manipulate words to serve your needs, are designed to create baseless accusations that demean (and hopefully silence) those you disagree with, and generally inspire hopelessness in your opponents. In this strategy, honesty and integrity are demoted from principles to guide life and shape character to rhetorical and political tactics to be used with discretion, as they advance your argument and political position.

Abraham Lincoln used his honesty and integrity to expand freedom, preserve his country, and fight for greater equality for his fellow Americans. Those who claim to take up any part of this mantle would do well to learn from his example.

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