THE LAWYER & THE PREACHER
Springfield, Illinois, February 22, 1850
His partner and personal friend Herndon said of him, when we talked about him many years after, that around the time I met him “Melancholy dripped from him as he walked.” I had noticed from the first a somberness to him that seemed peculiar for a political man who had been down to Washington as a Congressman not a year before. And though I had heard that one of the last things he had done there was to argue a case before the Supreme Court, and lost it, I had also heard he was a man who could be trusted to say what he would do, and trusted to do it. And so I came to him from Petersburg with my complaint.
He stood up from his chair as I entered his office, showing a tall and lanky frame that put me to mind of a scarecrow. His dark eyes had a steady stare that made him appear to be looking as much in as out when he spoke. Something in him, though, seemed to be missing, and it was only later in the day I learned that his little son had died that month. “Mr. Bale,” he said, and pointed, without saying more, to a chair beside his desk on which he invited me to sit; and we both sat down.
“Well,” I began, “here is the case. It’s partly my son’s, and partly my own, and I’m speaking for both of us. I been preaching now for three years, and my son Abram –same name as my own– been running the farm. Hickox here in Springfield bought 100 bushels of wheat from us, payment on delivery. Abram delivered it, and left it, as we’d agreed, in the granary here for Hickox to pick up. We were to meet the day after for Hickox to take it and pay us. He was to carry the granary charges too. There’d been a heavy rain that night, and when we met there the next day, he said half the wheat was soaked and no good to him, and he wouldn’t pay for more’n fifty. So we didn’t take a penny, and the wheat’s been sitting five days. We want our money as agreed and we don’t want to take the wheat back. Can you help us? We’ll go to law if need be.”
He leaned back in his chair, not seeming too comfortable there– his legs being too long to fit easily under his desk– and he asked me: “Has the granary been paid?” “Well not as I know of,” I said, “they let me store on trust before.” “So you were to pay the granary, and Hickox pay you back?” “That’s the way it might’ve happened,” I told him, “but since it was only a day, we figur’d Hickox would pay direct.” “But,” he asked, looking at me very intent, “you made the agreement with the granary about storage?”
Now sometimes it ain’t easy to say what the honest answer to a question really is. There was somethin’ about the way he asked me his question though, that told me it was important, and that I should give him the best answer I could, considerin’ the situation. I had to think whether Hickox, who lived there in Springfield, had spoken to the granary too, or whether Abram had arranged it himself, and I couldn’t remember. “Abram might of,” I said, “I don’t know about whether Hickox had anything to do with the granary before he delivered the wheat or not.”
“‘Aye, there’s the rub’ Mr. Bale,” he said with a point of his finger, “because then we have a situation where it ain’t clear if you’re entitled at law to payment for the whole 100 bushels. The law would probably give you your money for the fifty Hickox agreed to accept. It’s a question I can look into better when you find out from Abram who made the agreement with the granary, and let me know.”
I was troubled to think that this was a lawyer’s dodge. Abram had delivered the wheat, and Hickox refused to pay for it, and we were out our money. So I asked him: “But we can take Hickox to law to get all our money, can’t we? Abram delivered the wheat, what’s plainer than that?”
He smiled a mite, leaned back further in his chair, and put those long arms of his behind his head: “‘Agree with thine adversary quickly, while thou art in the way with him,’ ain’t those words from Scripture, Mr. Bale?” Then he got more serious, put his hands to the sides of his chair and said: “I like to persuade my neighbors to compromise whenever they can. In a lawsuit, the party who takes the judgment is often the real loser, in fees, expense, and waste of time.” He looked up to the ceilin’, like he was searchin’ for an answer there: “Isn’t there something else –I can’t rightly rec’llect the words– about going to law with your brother?” He asked this question so serious I had to tell him it word for word: “But brother goeth to law with brother, and that before the unbelievers. Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law with one another.”
“But, with all respect, sir,” I continued after readin’ him St. Paul, “that puts you out of your business, don’t it? Preaching is my business, and I’m a good preacher. Hickox ain’t acted very brotherly here, so this ain’t a quarrel between brothers; it’s a fair contract been broken. Your business, sir, is the law, and you’re supposed to be good at that. So I’m askin’ you to help me and my son have such justice as a man can have by the grace of God, and I’m willin’ to pay you your fee to do it. I think you should do your business, while I continue to do mine and, if necessary, go the law to get me my money. I only want what’s fair.”
“Preacher Bale,” he said to me a little stern, “if I was to do what you think you want me to do, ‘I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines’ for you instead of me, with me pretending I was a man of the law, and your lawyer to boot. I agree it’s my business to help you get your money, but I try never to stir up litigation when I can avoid it. A worse man can scarcely be found than one who does. And I expect you agree that ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’
“It’s always seemed to me, Preacher Bale, that, as a peacemaker, a lawyer has a better prospect to do what’s right. And there’s still business enough.”
I was beginnin’ to doubt whether I had the right man by coming to him. He was a politician, and though he’d argued before the Supreme Court, he’d lost the case; and I hadn’t heard very much from him to help mine. But then he got up from out of his chair, and walked over to the window without a word, and, lookin’ out the window, said to me –though most as if he was talking to himself:
“The truth is, that I am not an accomplished lawyer. I could find quite as much to explain to you the points wherein I have failed, as those in which I have been moderately successful.”
I was dumbfounded to hear a lawyer, who I had come to see as a client, speak with such blunt honesty about himself. We was both quiet for a while, then he turned back round to look at me.
“The leading rule for a lawyer, as for the man of every other calling, is diligence. If I’m to help you as an honest lawyer, I must know all the facts just about as well as you know your Scripture. Perhaps, sir, you’re thinkin’ like a lot of people that a lawyer’s got to be at least a little dishonest. That’s a kind of fuzzy idea, seems to me; because when you think about the confidence and honors folks give to lawyers –like ones I myself’ve been privileged to receive– it strikes me unlikely that the general impression is one folks fix on clear.
“I’ve just been asked by a young man to give him a letter of advice about choosing the law for a calling. I’ve been thinking to tell him I would not have him yield, even for a moment, to this vague popular belief about the dishonesty of lawyers. And that he should resolve to be honest at all events; and if, in his own judgment, he cannot be an honest lawyer, then he should resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. He should choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which he consents, in advance, to be a knave. I might tell him, Preacher Bale, that he should much rather be an honest farmer or preacher than a dishonest lawyer.”
I got so caught up in his thinkin’ out loud with me, that I put aside my concerns about our wheat and our money to ask him how he could square his knowledge of Paul’s preaching ‘gainst going to law, with his bein’ a lawyer himself. He smiled at my question, a great big smile, but a little sad too, I thought.
“Our great, and good, and merciful Maker notes the fall of a sparrow, and numbers the hairs of our heads. Our law is in a way His law too. But it isn’t the letter of any law He cares much about. It’s the spirit of the law that’s to be preached and lived. I reckon that since Paul was a lawyer himself, he knew the difference between the letter and the spirit.
“I trust we can be faithful, Preacher Bale, and yet be good lawyers, if we follow the spirit, as much as is within our power, of the great Commandments. That I am not a member of any Christian church is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures. For myself, I would just as soon call Euclid a liar in his mathematical propositions as to say that only the unfaithful can practice law. That’s because reason and justice and mercy are the spirit of the law. At times the law may be all we have to raise us up from the brutish and bring some peace between neighbors and brothers. I don’t even reckon I could myself support a man for office, Preacher Bale, if I knew him to be a scoffer at religion. Leavin’ the higher matter of eternal consequences between him and his Maker, I don’t think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, of his neighbors.
“Let me think about your case,” he finished, “and see what I can do to help you. You shall hear from me by post directly.”
Our interview was over, and I left to wait to hear from him.
The next day I got the following letter from him by morning post. I’ll be passing it on to my son Abram as part of his inheritance:
“Springfield, February 22, 1850
I understand Mr. Hickox will go, or send to Petersburg tomorrow, for the purpose of meeting you to settle the difficulty about the wheat. I sincerely hope you will settle it. I think you can if you will, for I have always found Mr. Hickox a fair man in his dealings. If you settle, I will charge nothing for what I have done, and thank you to boot. By settling, you will most likely get your money sooner; and with much less trouble & expense. Yours truly,
Hickox and I did meet; and we did settle and, in fact, became friends in doing it. I was put in mind of this fact almost exactly eleven years later when, in my lawyer’s First Inaugural Address, he tried to patch up the quarrel between the North and the South in much the same way as he’d patched up mine and Hickox’s, though without a like success. These were the last words of that first speech he gave as our President:
“We are not enemies, but friends. we must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
In his own way, he was always preaching the Gospel. He didn’t call himself a Christian, but he knew how to love his neighbor as a brother, even when he lived a thousand miles away.