Through the lens of a sensational 1856 Springfield, Ill., murder case, a historian focuses on Abraham Lincoln the lawyer and politician, four years before his election to the presidency.
Was blacksmith George Anderson slowly poisoned by his adulterous wife before her lover, Anderson’s own impatient nephew, finally finished him off with a bloody hammer? The local citizenry certainly thought so. After declining an offer to aid the beleaguered state’s attorney, Lincoln joined the defense and devised the crucial strategy that kept questions about possible adultery out of the trial, destroying the prosecution’s theory about motive and ultimately freeing the defendants. This lurid case was one of many in the prairie lawyer’s crowded practice, and Fenster (Race of the Century: The Heroic True Story of the 1908 New York to Paris Automobile Race, 2005, etc.) follows Lincoln and other colorful members of the Illinois Bar as they trail after the traveling Circuit Court. Simultaneously, the author charts a second, more fateful, track: the speech-making tour that resuscitated Lincoln’s political career. Following the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act—which nullified the Missouri Compromise and destroyed the Whig Party—and beginning with his stirring “Lost Speech” at the state’s Anti-Nebraska Bloomington Convention, Lincoln traveled throughout Illinois on behalf of John C. Fremont, candidate of the nascent Republican Party, attempting to thread the needle among outright abolitionists, pro-slavery Buchanan Democrats and the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party headed by former President Millard Fillmore. He couldn’t persuade the critical swing state to go for his candidate, but this tour turned him into the Party’s premier Western spokesman, put him first in line to challenge popular Senator Stephen A. Douglas and ultimately led to his nomination for president. Already a successful, mature attorney whose talent and insight tipped the balance in People v. Anderson and Anderson, Lincoln began in 1856 his transformation into a master politician whose deep understanding of our founding documents and whose genius at translating their meaning for his fellow countrymen would make an even greater difference for the nation.
An unexpected, odd-angle approach to Lincoln that proves marvelously insightful.