Walter Dellinger stood without notes in front of the podium to make the case that Abraham Lincoln was America’s best lawyer.
It was an argument for the defense, rebutting a 2013 American Lawyer ranking of one hundred most influential lawyers, listing Lincoln sixty-ninth. To show that Lincoln was “America’s Greatest Lawyer,” Dellinger described Lincoln’s characteristics as an arguer and orator, such as focusing on concrete results, logic, rhetorical skills arising from familiarity with the King James bible and Shakespeare, and use of the legal skill of re-contextualization.
Consider the wit of his reply to the demand that he rescind the Emancipation Proclamation: “If it is invalid, I do not have to retract it; if it is valid, I cannot.”
Consider also this symmetrical announcement that General Grant had taken the crucial town of Vicksburg: “The father of waters again runs unvexed to the sea.”
Dellinger analyzed the strategy of the speech in which Lincoln accepted the Republican nomination for the Senate, often known by its biblical theme, “A house divided against itself cannot stand” (Mark 3.25), a response to the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision. The issue of the day was whether new states would be slave or free, with much of the argument concerning whether the decisions would be made by state governments or by popular votes. Lincoln bypassed the arguments of natural allies William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglas, re-contextualizing the argument as based not on the Constitution, but instead on the Declaration of Independence, asking why slaves should not be able to eat what they had grown, making the question a matter of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I do not know Walter Dellinger’s won/loss record before the Supreme Court, but he was very persuasive before the court of Carolina Meadows.