Here are two letters in which Lincoln offers advice to young men on the importance of reading and hard work in study. He responds to young men who sought to “read law” with him, i.e., to study law under his guidance. In the 19th century, the most common way of learning law was to study with an experienced lawyer. Although Lincoln was not able to accept them (he wrote these letters during the months of his first campaign for the presidency), he offers them the following advice. Lincoln speaks from his personal experience, as he never attended college and was entirely self-educated, principally by continuously reading. These two letters, and others, can be found here.
Letter to John M. Brockman on September 25, 1860
J. M. Brockman, Esq.
Yours of the 24th. asking "the best mode of obtaining a thorough knowledge of the law" is received.
The mode is very simple, though laborious, and tedious. It is only to get the books, and read, and study them carefully. Begin with Blackstone's Commentaries, and after reading it carefully through, say twice, take up Chitty's Pleadings, Greenleaf's Evidence, & Story's Equity &c. in succession. Work, work, work, is the main thing.
Yours very truly
Letter to Isham Reavis on November 5, 1855
My dear Sir:
I have just reached home, and found your letter of the 23rd. ult. I am from home too much of my time, for a young man to read law with me advantageously. If you are resolutely determined to make a lawyer of yourself, the thing is more than half done already. It is but a small matter whether you read with any body or not. 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.
It is of no consequence to be in a large town while you are reading. I read at New-Salem, which never had three hundred people living in it. The books, and your capacity for understanding them, are just the same in all places. Mr. Dummer is a very clever man and an excellent lawyer (much better than I, in law-learning); and I have no doubt he will cheerfully tell you what books to read, and also loan you the books.
Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing.
Very truly Your friend
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