Lessons for Trial Lawyers from Lincoln’s Greatest Speech

Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address

Today is the 150th anniversary of a dark day in American history: the death of Abraham Lincoln. Our nation lost not only a great president, but also a great persuader who brought his career as a trial lawyer into the White House. Nowhere were Lincoln’s skills as a trial lawyer on greater display than in what most historians consider his finest speech. No, not the Gettysburg Address, but his Second Inaugural, given from the steps of the capitol only a few weeks before the assassination.

Trial Guides author Patrick Malone wrote an article analyzing the persuasive lessons for trial lawyers from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Malone writes about timeless lessons: of courage underlined with humility, of the slow development of a difficult-to-hear theme, of the importance of shared values with one’s audience, and of the rhetorical devices that made this speech so memorable. You can read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address here.

By the way, there is only one known photograph of Lincoln giving a speech, and it’s this very one. You can see the president standing above the makeshift podium with a water glass. Now look up to the balcony above Lincoln. Just in front of the third pillar from the left, you can see the head of a young man with wavy hair and a mustache. This is, as Malone wrote in his article, “a man who watched the Second Inaugural, but who must not have listened to it,” and who forty-one days later put a bullet into the back of Lincoln’s head.