July 3, 2012 § 1 Comment

Tomorrow is the 236th birthday of freedom on this continent. We salute July 4, 1776, as the birthday of our nation, although the actual birth of the United States came some several years later. Nonetheless, the Declaration of Independence in 1776 was our forefathers’ definitive refusal to accept further subjugation by any foreign power.

Lawyers have always been in the vanguard of fighters for liberty in this country. Lawyers figured prominently among the leaders of the revolution and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, the establishment of a new nation, the federalist debates, and the negotiations toward and drafting of the Constitution.

Through the decades members of the legal profession have continued to serve in leadership roles. More than half of our presidents were lawyers: Adams (both John and John Quincy), Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Van Buren, Tyler, Polk, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Hayes, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison, McKinley, Taft, Wilson, Coolidge, F. Roosevelt, Nixon, Ford, Clinton, and Obama. Some of them are among the pantheon of the greatest Americans who ever lived. Some were mediocre. Some were shameful scoundrels and failures.

Of this number, I believe that Mr. Lincoln of Illinois was the star.

Lincoln was a prairie lawyer who rode circuit around Illinois, following the courts, just like many lawyers do in this part of Mississippi. Just like I did when I practiced. I can imagine him walking into a country courtroom and crossing inside the bar, meeting and visiting with his colleagues from across the state, swapping tales and greetings, and then tending to his motions or trying his cases. Just like lawyers do here.

He served a term as a Congressman, and then he was elected President of the United States. At his election, the southern states jumped off the precipice into the civil war, and Lincoln devoted his entire presidency to keeping them from leaving the union. How he did it, and the single-minded focus with which he went about his task against formidable obstacles, is an engrossing story. Back in the 1980’s and 90’s, for ten years in a row, I made it a point to read a book a year about him. I found from my reading that he is remarkable in so many ways. I encourage you to get to know him better.  

Lincoln, to me, epitomizes the kind of person who appears in every respect to be unsuited for the almost super-human job he is called upon to do, but grows into it and overcomes enormous odds to succeed. That’s an American story if there ever were one.

Most of all, though, I revere Mr. Lincoln as a colleague in the law who stepped forward into a leadership role and literally sacrificed his life for what he believed was best for this nation, and has proven to be right in the 147 years since his death. To me, he is a model of what every lawyer should be: a person who is willing to employ his talents, legal training and experience and good sense not only for his or her own advancement, but also for the common good.

There were other presidents who may have had superior intellects, or who were better educated or suaver, or who could have out-connived the rough-hewn prairie president, but there are none in my opinion who could have equalled Lincoln’s single-minded pursuit of his goal, against not only his enemies, but also against those who called themselves his friends but worked against him. I only wish he could have lived for its aftermath. I believe we would have been spared the disastrous reconstruction that contributed to nearly 100 years of racial strife.

Politicians have bashed lawyers for their own political gain for the past 40 years, so much so that lawyers are less prominent in leadership roles and politics. That’s a shame, because lawyers have a lot of learning, experience and understanding of people to offer for leadership.  

It’s time for lawyers to pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and step back up to the fore. Critics be damned. Ours is a noble profession, and we have nothing to be ashamed of for what we do. When the politicians use our profession as a whipping-boy, we need to fire back, using facts and reason.

Lawyers have played a leadership role in our nation from its conception. Lawyers crafted the immortal words of our Constitution. Lawyers pushed for the Bill of Rights. It has been lawyers through the decades who have fought for and defended the Constitution and our system of laws. The republic needs us as guardians of what is right.

In this, the 236th year of our republic, I hope we members of the legal profession, lawyers and judiciary alike, keep in mind the need for leadership and vigilence to preserve, protect and defend our Constitution, like our colleague, Mr. Lincoln.


  • Gerald Jones says:

    Thoughtful essay. I have felt for a while that Mr. Lincoln was probably our greatest leader.

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