Unnecessary Lawsuits, Laws, Legislation – A Lincoln Viewpoint

Abraham Lincoln did not like to waste time – especially the court’s or the legislature’s.

Lincoln’s thinking and approach to the law and politics centered around two guiding procedural principles: Prevent unnecessary legal disputes, and don’t clutter up legislative time with unnecessary resolutions for laws or actions.

There’s even an infusion of moral reasoning for doing so.

Regarding legal disputes, Lincoln’s notes (circa 1850) for a law lecture make the point very clearly.

As legal advisors, he told lawyers to:

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.[1]

In his 1912 work, Anthony Gross tells a story about a man on Lincoln’s circuit travels who asked Lincoln to bring a lawsuit against another local resident for $2.50. The debtor, as the story goes, didn’t have a cent to his name, and Lincoln could not dissuade the creditor from pressing the lawsuit. Lincoln

therefore gravely demanded ten dollars as a retainer. Half of this he gave to the poor defendant, who thereupon confessed judgment and paid the $2.50. Thus the suit was ended, to the entire satisfaction of the angry creditor.[2]

Lincoln lived what he preached. Not all creditors are so easily mollified, of course, or slow on the uptake for that matter.

As an interesting segue, Lincoln also admonished practicing attorneys:

Never stir up litigation. A worse man can scarcely be found than one who does this. Who can be more nearly a fiend…to stir up strife, and put money in his pocket? A moral tone ought to be infused into the profession which should drive such men out of it.[1]

As with legal disputes, Lincoln was not a fan of frivolous laws and acts by law-making bodies. This humorous article from early in his career serves as an example.

The Sangamo Journal, January 17, 1835, reported:

January 6, 1835, legislator, Jacob Vandeventer of Schuyler County, Illinois proposed a resolution: “That the nomination of Samuel McHatton, for County Surveyor of Schuyler county…be vacated for the reason that said office was not vacant at the time said nomination was made”[3]

The Journal continued.

Mr Lincoln said, That if, as appeared to be the opinion of legal gentlemen, there was no danger of the new surveyor’s ousting the old one so long as he [the present surveyor] persisted not to die—he

Lincoln in Illinois Legislature
Sketch by unknown artist of Lincoln in the Illinois Legislature

would suggest the propriety of letting matters remain as they were, so that if the old surveyor should hereafter conclude to die, there would be a new one ready made without troubling the legislature.

Following Lincoln’s remarks, the article concluded, the legislators took Lincoln’s humorous advice, and the resolution was tabled.[3]

Lincoln believed in the body politic that was America. As such, he viewed the law and the law-making bodies as vital to protecting and expressing its will. Also, he felt it was equally vital that the people follow the laws enacted.

Therefore, frivolous lawsuits and laws, to Abraham Lincoln, wasted time and jeopardized America as a whole.

Too bad his views aren’t shared today.

Food for thought.


Works Cited

[1] “Fragment: Notes on a Law Lecture.” Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. vol.II: pp.82-83.

[2] Gross, A., & Lincoln, A. (1912). Lincoln’s Own Stories. Collected and edited by A. Gross. With portrait. New York & London: Harper & Bros. p.24.

[3] “Speech in Illinois Legislature Concerning the Surveyor of Schuyler County – January 6, 1835.” Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. vol.I: p.32.

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