By BRENT D. BENJAMIN
CHARLESTON -- February 12 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of arguably our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln.
We forget that this greatest of all presidents was considered by many of his time to be a relatively unknown Springfield, Ill., lawyer with little experience for the office he was to assume. A man of personal strength and integrity, Lincoln's training as a lawyer produced a man of quiet eloquence and immense courage -- a man perfectly prepared for the challenges of leadership.
Our Supreme Court chamber in Charleston is rimmed with quotations from Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's, which is readily apparent to those sitting in the courtroom, reminds litigants of their rights and their equality to other litigants. Lincoln's words are at the rear of the courtroom, just above the doors. They sum up Lincoln -- his life, his greatness.
"Firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right." That is what it says. Simple. Direct. Just as our state was born from the strife of civil war, so too were these words. To the 43 justices who have served on the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia since the opening of our courtroom in 1928, that is what we, as justices, see from the bench. Lincoln's simple eloquence reminds us that ours is a duty to safeguard the rights of the people through the rule of law.
But Lincoln's words do more. They also direct us as judges to be dedicated and resolute in our adherence to the rule of law -- even in the face of harsh criticism and partisan attack. Coming at the end of our nation's greatest ordeal in his March 4, 1865, second inaugural address, and ironically at the end of his life, Lincoln spoke these words not only as a president, but also as a man who had experienced the sometimes harsh realities of tough decisions.
No matter how right those decisions may have been, he also spoke as one who had endured the frequently unfair and often vicious attacks of his political adversaries. Though personal expediency may have urged otherwise, Lincoln, the president, did not waiver in his resolution. He knew his duty and he did it. And in return, he sought nothing except to serve the people. For doing so, we now honor and respect him.
For Lincoln, firmness of conviction was not a lately acquired trait. It was an attribute which defined Lincoln as a lawyer. In his Cooper Union Address in February 1860, Lincoln said, "Let us have faith that right makes might and, in that faith, let us, to that end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."
Character was not something Lincoln learned from office; it is what he brought to office.
Though in fact a complex man, Lincoln considered and presented himself as a simple man, born to common folks. Lincoln eschewed elitism. He spoke of the "common right of humanity" as the basis for our way of life and criticized those who would invoke "the divine right of kings" by which to control others. Indeed, Lincoln spoke of the conflict between such concepts in terms of "the eternal struggle between these two principles -- right and wrong." These were the words of Lincoln the lawyer.
The traits which made Lincoln a great president are the traits which first made Lincoln the lawyer a great man. He had a deep and abiding faith in the goodness of people. He exemplified honesty and integrity. He built on that foundation with liberal amounts of empathy. He appreciated and respected the viewpoints of others. He was rigid when needed, and flexible when possible.
He could listen and take advice, and was unafraid of criticism. He understood failure not as a personal tragedy, but as a means for personal growth. He was sincere. He was kind. And he was passionate. He understood that life is about giving, not about getting. We all recognize these traits as the traits which distinguish our profession as lawyers.
As lawyers, we share a professionalism with Abraham Lincoln. His life serves as a beacon that greatness is not something to which we are born, but something to which we aspire. In Lincoln -- his life, his leadership and his words -- we are inspired to rise above. We can also be reminded of the greatness of our profession.
Benjamin is Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.