Abraham Lincoln in Illinois
A Selection of Documents from the Illinois State Archives

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March 1, 1837

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This page from the Illinois Supreme Court Roll of Attorneys: 1817-1902 shows that Abraham Lincoln met the requirements to practice law in Illinois.

Lincoln did not go to law school but, as was a common practice in the mid-nineteenth century, studied law under the supervision of an established attorney. Generally, the attorney with whom the student had studied informed the court that the person was ready to become a lawyer. In Lincoln's case, it was John Todd Stuart, his old friend from the Black Hawk War and from his early days in the legislature, who mentored Lincoln.

The first step was to get a certificate of good moral character, which Lincoln received from the Sangamon County Circuit Court on March 24, 1836. Lincoln then received his law license on September 9, 1836, after Stuart had vouched for him. On March 1, 1837, the clerk of the state Supreme Court entered Lincoln's name on the Roll of Attorneys, which was the final step of recognition to be a practicing attorney in Illinois. This document shows the portion of the Roll listing attorneys with last names beginning with "L" that were registered in Illinois between 1834 and 1846.

Lincoln was one of the most successful attorneys in pre-Civil War Illinois. He did not specialize in any particular field of the law but instead practiced general law. According to the Papers of Abraham Lincoln (formerly the Lincoln Legal Papers), Lincoln was involved in more than 5,600 cases in his career.

Twice a year for much of his law career, Lincoln would "ride the circuit," traveling to various county courthouses, first by horseback or carriage, later by train, when the circuit court was in session. Lincoln's travels kept him away from home for weeks at a time but helped him in his political career, as he became well-known throughout central Illinois.

One month after Lincoln became a lawyer, he moved to Springfield. Living in the new state capital helped him become a leading attorney because it was the home of the state Supreme Court and the United States Circuit and District Courts. Lincoln argued several cases in front of these courts, with many of his arguments in front of the state Supreme Court setting legal precedents for the new state.

Points to Consider

How did being an attorney help Lincoln politically?

How do people become attorneys today and how does that differ from Lincoln's time?

Why would a certificate of good moral character be necessary for attorneys?

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