Abraham Lincoln’s First Step to Passing the Bar:
Certifying that He was “a Man of Good Moral Character”
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A day-to-day accounting of the cases before the Sangamon County Circuit Court, this manuscript minute book offers insight into Abraham Lincoln’s legal world. He is mentioned by name in two entries, and although not named, many of his other cases can be cross-referenced. The most important entry came on March 24, 1836, when he took the first step in formal legal certification:
“Ordered that it be certified as to all whom it may concern that Abraham Lincoln is a man of good moral character.” [ABRAHAM LINCOLN].
Book. Minute book of the Sangamon County Circuit Court. Springfield, Ill., July 6, 1835 to July 7, 1838. 315 manuscript pages in the hand of Court Clerk William Butler, 7½ x 12¼ in.
In early 1836, Abraham Lincoln was a 27-year-old bachelor in New Salem, Illinois, receiving a small stipend as a first-term state legislator which he supplemented with surveying work and an appointment as New Salem postmaster. In his spare time, he had been “reading law” in an effort to improve his career prospects. An Illinois law enacted three years earlier required prospective lawyers to “obtain a certificate procured from the court of an Illinois county certifying to the applicant’s good moral character.” A March 24, 1836 entry records this step, attesting to Lincoln’s “good moral character.”
On September 9, 1836, Lincoln was granted a license to practice law in Illinois, and in a formal ceremony on March 1, 1837, he appeared before the clerk of the Illinois Supreme Court and took an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and of Illinois. Lincoln swore he would “in all things faithfully execute the duties of Attorney and Counselor at Law.”
As this minute book documents, he began quickly. By cross-referencing dates with the indispensable reference book, Lincoln Day by Day by Earl S. Miers, the author notes that Lincoln filed his first lawsuit plea on October 5, 1836. The minute book does not mention Lincoln by name, but does note the case: “Wooldridge vs. Hawthorn, deff ruled to give security by calling of cause.” The case is mentioned again on March 14, 1837, where Miers tells us that Lincoln represented the plaintiff: “Dismissed at the defendant’s cost.” Numerous other Lincoln cases can be traced in this manner. Lincoln is later mentioned twice regarding the October 10, 1837 case of White vs. Harris, where “A Lincoln appointed guardian ad litem to William Nelson, minor.”
Sotheby Parke Bernet’s Roy P. Crocker sale, 11/28/1979, lot 229, to Forbes Collection. Swann 11/25/2014 lot 153.
Very good. Clean and tight. Original ½ calf, rebacked and recornered; minor dampstaining, wear and foxing, Lincoln page worn with several minor tears not affecting text.
Earl S. Miers, Lincoln Day by Day, (Washington: 1960) pp. I:56, 60, 70.