The greatest fortune a man can have in youth, during the formative period of his character growth, is to come constantly in contact with a strong and inspiring personality. Therefore, it was a fortunate day for me when I arrived in Springfield, Illinois, back in the fifties [1850s], crossed the public square to a brick building opposite the courthouse, mounted the stairs to the second floor, walked back through the hall, and entered the law office of Abraham Lincoln. I can still see vividly that dingy room. Two windows, none too clean, faced me. A long table, covered with green baize, extended lengthwise. An old-fashioned secretary, containing many pigeonholes, stood in one corner. Mr. Lincoln' s desk was in an inner room, but commanded a view of the door. As I entered, he turned slowly, a half smile relaxing the stern lines of his mouth. I introduced myself.
"O, yes, I remember," he exclaimed, and then called out to his partner, William Herndon — "O, Billy! here is Mr. Littlefield, who wants to study law with us. Any arrangement you may make with him will be satisfactory to me."
Thus began my association with the greatest and . most successful American of the century. For a number of years I saw Mr. Lincoln almost daily, in his law office, leaning back in his chair, with his long legs crossed, listening to the story of some client,— in the courtroom, rising slowly and carelessly, and, in a drawling voice, with no attempt at oratory, completely puncturing and collapsing the inflated argument of his adversary with one or two quick, keen thrusts,—on the platform, in the stress of political campaigns, telling stories that made the other side ridiculous, and then suddenly growing deeply earnest,—and finally, in the White House, at Washington. Always he was the same man, bringing to bear on every problem, great or small, the same extraordinary common sense and the same extraordinary honesty. These two qualities are the chief constituents of the success of Abraham Lincoln.
If he had had the former without the latter, he would have been a very dangerous man; if the latter without the former, he would have been impractical and the victim of others. But they balanced each other in his character, and made a great man of him. Years before Mr. Lincoln became a national figure, he was known as "Honest Old Abe." Everybody knew he was honest,—honest in spirit as well as act,—and he seemed older than he really was on account of a certain air of understanding many things that he kept close within himself.
All clients knew that, with "Old Abe" as their lawyer, they would win their case,—if it was fair; if not, that it was a waste of time to take it to him. After listening some time one day to a would-be client’ s statement, with his eyes on the ceiling, he swung suddenly round in his chair and exclaimed:
"Well, you have a pretty good case in technical law, but a pretty bad one in equity and justice. You’ll have to get some other fellow to win this case for you. I couldn’t do it. All the time while standing talking to that jury, I’d be thinking, ‘Lincoln, you’re a liar,’ and I believe I should forget myself and say it out loud."
But with justice on his side, no matter what the law might be, Mr. Lincoln rarely failed to win. He had a way of devoting himself entirely to the vital, pivotal point in a case, letting the minor details take care of themselves. He took less time to sum up than any other lawyer I ever saw,—often only five or ten minutes,—and half that time devoted to a story. But it was as if he had leaned over and lifted the gaudy covering from a very weak and shabby piece of furniture. The other side had spent two or three hours, perhaps, in covering up with showy oratory the weakness of their case. In ten minutes, with apparently no effort at all, he would lay it bare. Expansive oratory was the style in those days, but Mr. Lincoln’s manner before a jury was like that of many of the best lawyers of to-day. It was merely simple, concise statement, directly to the point, and clear, logical argument He believed in simplicity, and was a master in the use of vigorous Anglo-Saxon words.
But he would tell stories. At that time, in that region, the people expected them, even in the courtroom. There were few theaters, and not much diversion out in that country then, so the town would flock to court for its entertainment. There was also much more personal feeling in business then than now, and it was the chief cause of a great deal of litigation. When these "animus" cases were being tried, there was often a spirit of levity in the courtroom. Lawyers would seize every chance to exploit their wit and powers of repartee, and the room would resound with laughter. In these contests, "Old Abe" was often a central and victorious figure. His natural ability as a storyteller was greatly developed by his environment. The lawyers rode the circuit on horseback together, and beguiled the dragging hours with stories. Then, at the hotels, in the evening, there was not much to do but sit around, usually in the midst of a crowd of admiring citizens, spinning yarns and relating real and imaginary experiences. From this school Mr. Lincoln svas graduated, the best story-teller of them all. He was grateful for a good and new story. Whenever I heard one, I would take the first opportunity, after getting back to the office, to repeat it to him.
"John," he said to me one day, after he had finished laughing at one of my stories, "that’s a good story, but you don’t tell it right Your arrangement is slipshod. Why, you should be as careful to have your story precise and logical as if you were making a geometrical demonstration."
His great fund of stories was very useful to Mr. Lincoln. He relieved many an oppressive or painful situation with a lively anecdote. And he also used his stories as a kind of self-protection. With all his geniality and apparent expansiveness, Mr. Lincoln was a very reticent man. It was only to a very few that he really revealed himself. To the many,—he told stories. At heart, he was, of course, deeply serious and earnest. I remember well the scene in the office of the Illinois State Journal when he received the news of his nomination for the presidency. He was much affected and went about the room shaking hands with everybody, without uttering a word. When we got outside, he remarked: “Well, I must go home and tell Mrs. Lincoln about this.”
She was much more ambitious about his attaining a high position than he was, and, I know, used to stir him up on the score of his indifference to political fame.
His greatness, in truth, came not from exalted station. If he had never become the Martyr President, and had been merely Abraham Lincoln, the country lawyer, or even "Abe" Lincoln, the rail splitter, he would have been a successful man in the highest sense; for, whatever his position, he would have lived a wholly sane, harmonious, and honorable life. His greatest purpose seemed to be a desire to do good to others, and to spread a feeling of good fellowship among all mankind. He never believed that he was a greater man than any other American, simply because he had been elected president of the United States, for in that capacity he lived to serve his fellow men, to help in shaping a great destiny for his country. He believed in the best interests of his country; he could picture its greatness, and even during the darkest hours of the Civil War, he prophesied that the victory of the Union forces would mean a victory' for commerce, industry, and education. He also prophesied that such a victory would bind more tightly the bonds of brotherhood between the North and the South. His death was an irreparable loss to the nation.
As it was, he was not particularly successful, financially. When he went to Washington, he had saved, after years of labor, an amount somewhat less than ten thousand dollars. He would have had a great deal more if he had been a better collector, and had cared more for money. In Washington, he had frequently to be reminded about collecting his salary. His personal expenses were hardly more than those of a twelve-hundreddollar clerk. He disliked to have people wait upon him. In Springfield, he would walk home for a law paper, rather than ask me, his clerk, to go for it; and in Washington, one night, I recollect, he was discovered in the basement of the White House.
"What are you doing here, Mr. Lincoln?" someone asked. "Well, I’m browsing around lor something to eat," answered the President.
The highest tribute I can pay to Abraham Lincoln is this: those who knew him best loved him best and admired him most.
By General John Harrison Littlefield, (a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln), February 1901.
Edited by Neil Gale, Ph.D.