In his 1860 autobiography, Abraham Lincoln wrote that he studied law with “nobody”. In an 1855 letter to Isham Reavis, a would-be attorney, he offered this counsel: “I did not read with any one. Get the books, and read and study them till, you understand them in their principal features; and that is the main thing.”
By Lincoln’s own account, he made himself a lawyer by studying Blackstone’s Commentaries – the first attempt to bring together the whole corpus of English common law – by candlelight. “Begin with Blackstone’s Commentaries,” he advised another aspiring lawyer, John Brockman, in 1860. “After reading it carefully through, say twice,” move on to other law books.
And how did the cash-strapped young Lincoln acquire his personal set of Blackstone? Through the kind of coincidence that must have reassured him that there is something at work behind the surface of events.
Lincoln had just gone into the grocery business, struggling to maintain a country store in a hamlet of fifteen log cabins. In his own words: “One day a man who was migrating to the West drove up in front of my store with a wagon which contained his family and household plunder. He asked me if I would buy an old barrel for which he had no room in his wagon, and which he said contained nothing of special value. I did not want it, but to oblige him I bought it, and paid him, I think, half a dollar for it. Without further examination I put it away in the store and forgot all about it.
“Some time after, in overhauling things, I came upon the barrel, and emptying it upon the floor to see what it contained, I found at the bottom of the rubbish a complete edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries.” He had plenty of time to read through long summer days when the farmers were busy with their crops and he had few customers. “Never in my whole life was my mind so thoroughly absorbed. I read until I devoured them.”
Lincoln later remarked that this was “the best stroke of business I ever did in the grocery line.” We see how an act of spontaneous generosity was rewarded, and feel that hidden hand behind the surface of things that can change a life, and shape great events, beyond the calculations of the everyday mind.