Book Review: Lincoln’s Last Trial

Lincoln’s Last Trial:  The Murder Case That Propelled Him To The Presidency, by Dan Abrams

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by Edelweiss/Hanover Square.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

The title of this book is not entirely accurate.  While this was the last sensational case that Lincoln handled as an attorney before his nomination for the presidency, he had a few smaller cases after this one finished in the summer of 1859.  Also, it is a bit of a stretch to say that this case propelled him to the presidency, although it could have done a lot of harm had he lost the case or embarrassed himself in how he handled it.  Even so, this book manages to do something unusual, and that is provide something new to say about Lincoln studies by focusing on a long-lost court transcript written by a noted court reporter named Hitt who serves as the center of this particular story.  Lincoln’s relationship with the law [1] serves as a fertile place for people to write about for largely unknown insights about the man given the large amount of his life that has been picked pretty clean by writers.  The author does a good job here of placing the murder case and its political complexities in a larger societal context as well as the history of law, all of which I found to be handled well.

The book takes a generally chronological approach to the case at its center, beginning with an introduction about a feud between two young people that ended up in the violent death of one of them, who had been a clerk for Lincoln and Herndon and whose grandfather had been a longtime political nemesis of Lincoln in Illinois politics, itinerant Methodist preacher Dixon Cartwright.  The author follows the course of the case and allows the detailed court transcript to make the hot and stuffy Springfield courthouse come alive, as well as the offices and taverns afterward where stories are swapped.  The author manages to keep tension alive about the case’s outcome and also includes a few flashbacks about Lincoln’s previous behavior of the law or how he was thought by others as well as Hitt’s background and his work as an expert stenographer.  The author also engages in a bit of puffing up of the book’s length to close to 300 pages by adding information about Lincoln’s importance to malpractice law and the history of the laws of self-defense and the somewhat informal nature of the legal practice in antebellum Illinois, all of which allow the reader to gain some understanding about the context of the law in early American history.

What separates this book from a decent and competent book, though, is the deeper pathos to which this book is filled.  Somewhere around the middle of the book I was feeling slightly irritated by the fact that the author included so many reconstructed conversations about the stenographer with other people until I realized that the author was making a subtle point drawing the fate of two hotheaded young men whose feuding led to a fight that neither could back down from while preserving their honor, and how someone who did not want to fight felt forced in self-defense to use deadly force against his assailant with the fate of the United States as a whole.  The warring factions in the outskirts of Springfield are connected to the warring factions within the United States as the Civil War approached, with honor and pride forcing a conflict that most people would have preferred to avoid, and where many men knew what was right but were unable to keep the nation as a whole from having a fight every bit as tragic as the one which led to the court case by which Lincoln turned from a man trying to make peace in his own community to a man who presided over the most destructive war that we have ever fought as a nation against ourselves.

[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.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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