Eighth of 45 excerpts from Lincoln by David Herbert Donald:
In handling hundreds of cases in the circuit courts, Lincoln firmly reestablished his reputation as a lawyer [after returning to Springfield from Washington in 1848]. It was a reputation that rested, first, on the universal belief in his absolute honesty. He became known as "Honest Abe" -- the lawyer who was never known to lie. He held himself to the highest standards of truthfulness. In notes for a lecture on the law, written about 1850, he referred to the "vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest" and warned: "Let no young man, choosing the law for a calling, for a moment yield to this popular belief. 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. Choose some other occupation."
. . . Lincoln was also noted for his fairness to his opponents. Like any other lawyer, he resorted to technicalities in order to save his clients, but in these circuit court cases he preferred to base his arguments on justice rather than on legal precedents. His one standard move in the more serious of these cases was to apply for a change of venue, in the belief that the delay in hearing and the transfer of a case to another county would give his clients a fairer trial.
In court he rarely raised objections when opposing counsel introduced evidence. According to Leonard Swett, the young Bloomington lawyer who traveled the circuit with Lincoln, "he would say he 'reckoned' it would be fair to let this in, or that; and sometimes, when his adversary could not quite prove what Lincoln knew to be the truth, he 'reckoned' it would be fair to admit the truth be so-and-so." But this, Swett noted, did not mean that he yielded essentials: "What he was so blandly giving away was simply what he couldn't get and keep." Many a rival lawyer was lulled into complacency as Lincoln conceded, say, six out of seven points in argument, only to discover that the whole case turned on the seventh point. "Any man who took Lincoln for a simple-minded man," Swett concluded, "would very soon wake up with his back in a ditch."