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Abraham Lincoln’s Notes for a Law Lecture

This document fragment was dated July 1, 1850 by Abraham Lincoln’s White House secretaries, John Nicolay and John Hay, who collected many of his manuscripts after his death. The note in the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln indicates that Lincoln could have written these observations several years later than 1850. It is not known, however, if Lincoln ever delivered this lecture.

In these notes Lincoln provides a glimpse of how he worked and the high standards of diligence and honesty he set. He has sharp words for the dishonest and unscrupulous members of the bar, calling them “fiends” and “knaves.” He warns prospective lawyers, “if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer.”

Several months after the president’s death, his law partner, William Herndon, stated that “Mr. Lincoln was an honest lawyer. He carried his personal and individual honor to the bar.” Herndon, who worked with Lincoln for 17 years, said “He kept his integrity and individuality through his professional career.”

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