On this day in 1839, future President Abraham Lincoln advances to another stage in his legal career when he is admitted to practice law in the U.S. Circuit Court. It was during his years practicing law that Lincoln honed his now famous oratorical skills.
Lincoln made the first step toward becoming a lawyer in 1836 when the state of Illinois certified him as being “a person of good moral character.” (He did not attend law school but studied on his own while working as a clerk in a law office.) In 1838, he delivered closing arguments in the Jacob Early murder case, persuading the jury that his client, the defendant, had acted in self defense. In 1840, Lincoln was re-elected to the Illinois State Assembly—his third term since 1834—and by 1846 earned a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. By that time, Lincoln had begun to use his debate and speaking skills to help fellow Whigs campaign for state and national offices and, in 1848, he delivered a blistering attack on President James Polk for what Lincoln believed was an ill-advised war against Mexico. He called Polk “a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man” for waging a war that ended up costing the nation 13,780 lives and a whopping $100 million.
After losing his House seat in the election of 1848, Lincoln returned to practicing law in the state of Illinois, where he helped to establish the new Republican Party. His oratorical skills came in handy while speaking out against the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) and the Dred Scott decision (1857), which both served to perpetuate the practice of slavery, an institution Lincoln saw as immoral. In his 1858 campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate, as secessionist sentiment brewed among the southern states, Lincoln warned in a campaign speech that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Although he did not win a Senate seat that year, he earned national recognition as a strong political force. In 1860, Lincoln was elected to the presidency.
Lincoln’s skill with words helped soothe an anxious populace throughout the Civil War. His most famous speech is the Gettysburg Address, which he delivered in the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. In that speech, Lincoln resolved that those killed in the battle “shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Though less than 300 words, the Gettysburg Address is now considered a defining vision of American democracy.