November 30, 1856—At 3 in the morning, after six hours of deliberations, the jurors in a sensational murder trial in Springfield, Ill., came to an agreement. When the prosecution and defense teams assembled, citizens discovered, frequently to their anger, that the victim’s wife and nephew, accused of adultery and charged with administering him poison before beating him to death, had been acquitted—due in no small part to their counsel, an attorney reputed to be among the best in central Illinois: Abraham Lincoln.
Some years ago, I remember reading that during his time on the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall was the only one of the justices then serving who had ever defended men on death row. It made me wonder how many Presidents had similar experiences.
As it happened, 27 of our nation’s chief executives have had a legal education, taught law, or held a legal post, but far fewer, I suspect, have ever defended men subject to the death penalty. In fact, only two come immediately to mind: John Adams, who managed to win the acquittal of redcoats for their involvement in the Boston Massacre, and Lincoln.
You would think, a century and a half after his death, that there would be nothing left to write about the Great Emancipator, but you would be wrong. One of the richest avenues for exploration in Lincolnia involves the quarter-century from his admittance to the Illinois bar in 1836 to his departure for Washington to become President at the time of the nation’s greatest crisis.
Editions of his private letters and public papers have been issued for many years, but to a large extent his legal work remained uncollected and unexplored. That has begun to change significantly. Now, instead of having to travel to Springfield to laboriously review the records of his cases, scholars can peruse them at any time of the day from the comfort of their homes, through a Web site called “The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln.”
Michael Connelly has written about “The Lincoln Lawyer,” but the 16th President was the real McCoy. Lincoln was involved in approximately 5,000 cases during his 25 years as an attorney, with his most significant client being the Illinois Central Railroad. As Stephen B. Oates notes in Abraham Lincoln: The Man Behind the Myths, one special mark of his high standing in the state was that he argued appeal cases for other attorneys, including participating in 243 cases before the Supreme Court of Illinois.
A number of these were dry as dust, but 30 cases that Lincoln took on were murder trials. The large American public, if they know anything about the latter at all, are likely to have gleaned their information from the 1939 John Ford classic, Young Mr. Lincoln, starring Henry Fonda.
That motion picture is far better for its bravura storytelling and loving depiction of communal events that evoke nostalgic Americana (e.g., tug-of-wars, pie-eating contests) than for conveying the reality of history. It was based only loosely on a real-life murder case, one that occurred not when Lincoln was just starting out but in 1858, when he had already established his legal reputation and was in the midst of his campaign for the Senate against incumbent Stephen A. Douglas.
That film got one thing right--Lincoln did indeed use an almanac to prove that the prosecution’s star witness could not, as claimed, have witnessed a murder by the light of the moon. However, Lincoln did not then use Perry Mason-style cross-examination to expose the actual murderer, but merely secured the acquittal of his client.
Something similar happened in the case of George Anderson, a successful Springfield blacksmith found bludgeoned to death in May 1856. Suspicion quickly turned to his widow and nephew, who were rumored to be having an affair. So sensational were the circumstances that the case would be the most notorious seen in the city for the rest of the century.
Lincoln could have worked for the prosecution, but eventually threw in his lot for the defense team because he believed the two innocent of the crime. His contribution to the case was crucial: persuading the judge to exclude testimony suggesting that Jane and Theodore Anderson had engaged in adultery, an act itself in violation of the law at the time. In her account, The Case of Abraham Lincoln, Julie Fenster observed that Lincoln’s gambit was critical in undercutting the prosecution’s attempt at suggesting a motive for the crime.
Lincoln and the rest of the defense team succeeded in saving Jane and Theodore Anderson from the gallows. But the case of the cuckolded blacksmith was never solved.
The case does, however, open a window into a comparatively little-known aspect of the President’s pre-White House life: his legal practice. Lincoln’s office contained, according to a former student and clerk named Gibson Harris, “somewhat dilapidated” furniture and a floor that was never scrubbed. Potential clients who had been told he was an ace attorney might have received an initial shock upon looking at his cluttered desk, which usually contained a bundle of papers into which he would quickly stuff items he thought might be relevant soon.
“Some years ago,” his partner William Herndon recalled, “on removing the furniture from the office, I took down the bundle and blew from the top the liberal coat of dust that had accumulated thereon. Immediately underneath the string was a slip bearing this endorsement, in his hand: 'When you can't find it anywhere else, look in this.'"
His legal practice allowed Lincoln to regain his psychic bearings and secure income for his growing family when he returned to Springfield, after a single, disappointing term in Congress, in 1849. When he departed the city, for what turned out to be for good, in 1861, Lincoln contemplated a similar outcome after his time as President was up. "If I live I'm coming back some time,” he told Herndon, “and then we'll go right on practising law as if nothing had ever happened."
All kinds of blogs have dealt, in one way or another, with President Lincoln (including, on certain posts, the one you’re reading now). But one of the more interesting ones I’ve come across is The Abraham Lincoln Blog, maintained by Geoffrey Elliott.
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