Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fenster's, The Case of Abraham Lincoln

A long time ago, a client and a good friend gave me a painting: It was a Norman Rockwell of a young man reading the law, apparently on break from the more pressing concerns of earning a living. I think of Abraham Lincoln.

What sort of lawyer was Lincoln?

Julie Fenster's The Case of Abraham Lincoln: A Story of Adultery, Murder, and the Making of a Great President (Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2007), focuses on the year 1856. Lincoln the circuit riding litigator struggles at the creation of the Republican Party and is a go-to lawyer in Central Illinois. How did he manage to play both roles? Does this year shed light on how he became the stuff of legend?

Sadly, Fenster's book disappoints.

I confess that the title grabbed me. Lincoln, adultery, murder? I am no scholar as regards Lincoln, so I wondered what possibly I could have missed. This is pretty juicy stuff.

As it turns out, Lincoln played a brief but decisive role in a spectacular murder trial in 1856 in Springfield, Illinois, involving the murder of George Anderson, a man suspected of being poisoned and then bludgeoned to death by his wife and her lover. (I refuse to spoil the book by relaying either the role Lincoln played or the outcome of the trial.) Fenster deflty moves from examination of the crime to Lincoln's emerging role as political leader. The book is, for the most part, well written and researched.

However, in the end, it seems as though the two tales never really meet in a way that sheds much light on Lincoln's character. I am left with the sense that the author set out to write a book on Lincoln, couldn't decided between one topic or another, and tried nearly in vain to stitch together one compelling narrative. Alas, the narrative does not compel.

This is not to say the book is without redeeming features. I enjoyed glimpses of Lincoln's life as a lawyer. I loved the insight into the day-to-day practice of law in the 1850s. And I envied the easy days of the law, when a lawyer could meet a client one evening, and try his case the very next day. Most facts really are that simple. Only in our day and age can we have a surfeit of lawyers and at the same time complain about the vanishing trial.

"His style," Fenster writes, "in trial was to allow the prosecution to makes its best case; sometimes, he even helped to delineate the state's case. When he felt that everyone in court understood the opposing argument clearly, he could all the more easily break it apart and dispense with it." Well, that's not much of an insight. Indeed, it is so conclusory as to approach meaninglessness. Even so, this work whetted my appetite to learn more about Lincoln the lawyer, a topic about which I know very, very little.

I will be forever grateful to Fenster for the second sentence of the book's acknowledgements. She cites a 3-volume CD set entitled The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition. This work apsired to collect every document on every case Lincoln worked on during his career as a lawyer. This set is not available in a Second Edition selling for $500. http://www.papersofabrahamlincoln.org/complete_edition.htm

Much though there is fault to find with this book, I am grateful to Ms. Fenster for shedding new light on a familiar figure.