Book Review: The Case Of Abraham Lincoln

The Case Of Abraham Lincoln:  A Story Of Adultery, Murder, And The Making Of A Great President, by Julie M. Fenster

It should go without saying that there are a lot of books about Abraham Lincoln [1], many of which I have read and reviewed.  Perhaps some might argue that there are far too many, but I have generally found the books to be worthwhile and this book is no exception.  The author here follows a familiar approach–find something little well known or recognized about Abraham Lincoln’s life that is nonetheless well-documented, pour over texts that others ignore, and create a worthwhile book that offers something new to readers.  As familiar as that approach is, it is a worthwhile one and pays off here.  The biggest issue I have with the book is its title, which would indicate to those who like reading about legal cases that Abraham Lincoln was somehow a party to the case in question rather than an advocate who was part of a superstar defense team.  The contents of this book are excellent and the author has an excellent style, but unfortunately this book suffers greatly from having an ambiguous title that would seem to put Abraham Lincoln in the middle of a sordid drama of his own, rather than one that he was a belated participant in after it had already reached sensational levels.

In a book that pays a great deal of attention to the much ignored legal career of Abraham Lincoln on the 8th circuit, the author manages to deftly weave a story of Lincoln’s behavior in 1856.  Coming midway between two unsuccessful attempts at gaining a seat in the US Senate, the year is most notable in Lincoln’s political history for showing him as having developed enough of a national reputation to get the second highest number of votes for Vice President at the first Republican convention.  Likewise, the year shows him becoming an indispensable figure in helping to fuse the Republican party out of its disparate elements of Northern Whigs, free-soil Democrats, and anti-slavery nativists and make it a contender in Illinois politics as well as throughout the North.  This book captures the dual track of Lincoln as a lawyer at the top of his game but frustrated by a lack of progress and aware that the legal culture is moving to a more professional and bookish model and as a frustrated political insider seemingly relegated forever to the backbenches and minor leagues.  And yet Lincoln’s strong integrity and interpersonal skills are shown in both his legal and his political work in ways that would shape him in the not-so-distant future.  The author captures Lincoln towards the end of his period of obscurity and it makes for a compelling and deeply sympathetic read.

That is not to say that the book its perfect–its title is certainly a drawback, but it is a very good book that looks in chronological order over the course of about 200 pages during a decisive but often-ignored year in Lincoln’s life and political maturation.  Readers of this book will get a glimpse into how Lincoln’s well-tuned lawyerly mind influenced his later presidential behavior–specifically the Emancipation Proclamation–and get at least some reasonable and solid interpretations for the influence of Lincoln’s career on his behavior as president, and the way that his ambition was fired in ways that were increasingly obvious to the general public at large and especially his own neighbors and rival lawyers.  Particularly noteworthy is the way that the titular sensational (and still unsolved) murder is handled by Lincoln, who defends two suspects and keeps suspicions of possible adultery from providing the necessary motive and moral outrage for a murder conviction, a clever strategy and one that befits a person of rigorous public virtue and restraint.  This is a worthy addition to the large body of works on Lincoln.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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9 Responses to Book Review: The Case Of Abraham Lincoln

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