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Abraham Lincoln Quotes About Laws and Lawyers (including sources)

"The leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man of every other calling, is diligence. Leave nothing for to-morrow [sic] which can be done to-day [sic]. Never let your correspondence fall behind. Whatever piece of business you have in hand, before stopping, do all the labor pertaining to it which can then be done." The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume II, "Notes for a Law Lecture" (July 1, 1850), p. 81.

"Law is nothing else but the best reason of wise men applied for ages to the transactions and business of mankind." Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln compiled and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 243.

"Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap - let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges; let it be written in Primmers, spelling books, and in Almanacs; let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice." The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume I, "Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois" (January 27, 1838), p. 112.

"When I have a particular case in hand, I have that motive and feel an interest in the case, feel an interest in ferreting out the questions to the bottom, love to dig up the question by the roots and hold it up and dry it before the fires of the mind." Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln compiled and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 242.

"If you wish to be a lawyer, attach no consequence to the place you are in, or the person you are with; but get books, sit down anywhere, and go to reading for yourself. That will make a lawyer of you quicker than any other way." The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume II, "Letter to William H. Grigsby" (August 3, 1858), p. 535.

"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; 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." The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume II, "Notes for a Law Lecture" (July 1, 1850), p. 82.

"Again, a law may be both constitutional and expedient, and yet may be administered in an unjust and unfair way." The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume VI, "Opinion on the Draft" (September 14, 1863), p. 448.

"No client ever had money enough to bribe my conscience or to stop its utterance against wrong, and oppression. My conscience is my own - my creators - not man's. I shall never sink the rights of mankind to the malice, wrong, or avarice of another's wishes, though those wishes come to me in the relation of client and attorney." Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln compiled and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 242.

"In law it is good policy to never plead what you need not, lest you oblige yourself to prove what you can not." The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume I, "Letter to Usher F. Linder" (February 20, 1848), p. 453.

"When I so pressingly urge a strict observance of all the laws, let me not be understood as saying there are no bad laws, nor that grievances may not arise, for the redress of which, no legal provisions have been made. I mean to say no such thing. But I do mean to say, that, although bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should be religiously observed." The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume I, "Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois" (January 27, 1838), p. 112.

"If you are resolutely determined to make a lawyer of yourself, the thing is more than half done already." The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume II, "Letter to Isham Reavis" (November 5, 1855), p. 327.

"I dared not trust the case on the presumption that the court knows everything. In fact, I argued it on the presumption that the court didn't know anything." Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln compiled and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 243.

"Dear Sir: Yours of the 24th. asking 'the best mode of obtaining a thorough knowledge of the law' is received. The mode is very simple, though laborious, and tedious. It is only to get the books, and read, and study them carefully. Begin with Blackstone's Commentaries, and after reading it carefully through, say twice, take up Chitty's Pleading, Greenleaf's Evidence, & Story's Equity &c. in succession. Work, work, work, is the main thing." The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume IV, "Letter to John M. Brockman" (September 25, 1860), p. 121.

"...let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character (charter?) of his own, and his children's liberty." The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume I, "Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois" (January 27, 1838), p. 112.

"I understand that it is a maxim of law, that a poor plea may be a good plea to a bad declaration." The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume III, "Third Debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Jonesboro, Illinois" (September 15, 1858), p. 123.

"Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing." The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume II, "Letter to Isham Reavis" (November 5, 1855), p. 327.

"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." The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume II, "Notes for a Law Lecture" (July 1, 1850), p. 81.

"Extemporaneous speaking should be practised [sic] 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." The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume II, "Notes for a Law Lecture" (July 1, 1850), p. 81.

"To state the question more directly, are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated? Even in such a case, would not the official oath be broken, if the government should be overthrown, when it was believed that disregarding the single law, would tend to preserve it? But it was not believed that this question was presented. It was not believed that any law was violated. The provision of the Constitution that 'The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, shall not be suspended unless when, in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it,' is equivalent to a provision---is a provision---that such privilege may be suspended when, in cases of rebellion, or invasion, the public safety does require it. It was decided that we have a case of rebellion, and that the public safety does require the qualified suspension of the privilege of the writ which was authorized to be made." Lincoln's Message to Congress in Special Session, July 4, 1861.

Once Lincoln's law partner filed a plea that was not in accord with known facts. Lincoln told him: "Hadn't we better withdraw that plea? You know it's a sham, and a sham is very often but another name for a lie. Don't let it go on record. The cursed thing may come staring us in the face long after this suit has been forgotten." Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln compiled and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1996), pp. 239-240.

Lincoln once gave the following advice before his associate gave the opening statement to the jury: "I want you to open the case, and when you are doing it, talk to the jury as though your client's fate depends on every word you utter. Forget that you have any one to fall back upon, and you will do justice to yourself and your client." Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln compiled and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 192.

In a civil case Lincoln was once asked to define the term preponderance of the evidence. He said: "Gentlemen of the jury, did you ever see a pair of steel yards or a pair of store scales? If you did I can explain, I think, to your satisfaction the meaning of the word. If the plaintiff has introduced any evidence, put that in the scales and have it weighed. Say it weighs sixteen ounces. If the defendant has introduced any evidence in the case, put that in the scales; and if that evidence weighs sixteen ounces, the scales are balanced and there is no preponderance of evidence on either side. There are four witnesses on each side of this case. If the plaintiff's evidence weighs one grain of wheat more than the defendant's, then the plaintiff has the preponderance of evidence - his side of the scales goes down, is the heaviest. If this defendant's evidence weighs one grain of wheat more than the plaintiff's, then the defendant's side of the scales goes down, is the heaviest; and that movement of the scales tells what is the preponderance of evidence. Now apply this illustration to the state of your mind on weighing the evidence for the plaintiff and defendant." Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln compiled and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 243.




NOTE: All page references to The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln refer to the 1953 edition published by the Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey.

The wonderful artwork at the top of the page is by Nathan Nash, son of Bill Nash. Be sure to visit Bill's excellent Lincoln blog here.

Several good single volume sources of Lincoln quotes are: (1) Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln compiled and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher. (2) A Treasury of Lincoln Quotations edited by Fred Kerner. (3) Of the People, By the People, For the People and other Quotations from Abraham Lincoln edited by Gabor S. Boritt. (4) Abe Lincoln Laughing: Humorous Anecdotes from Original Sources by and about Abraham Lincoln edited by P.M. Zall.


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Unproven Quotations Attributed to Abraham Lincoln

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