Abraham LincolnSome wise guy on Quora asked the other day, if Abraham Lincoln was the Emancipator and the Rail-Splitter, and Theodore Roosevelt was the Trust-Buster, what title should we give President Donald Trump.

I wasn’t about to get drawn into that kind of conversation, but I did point out to the wag that Abraham Lincoln did not want to be referred to as a rail-splitter or a grocery clerk or a riverboat pilot. The title he wanted was “lawyer,” and with good reason.

As Dan Abrams points out in this book, written with David Fisher, Lincoln tried about 2,000 civil and criminal cases. He was one of the most prominent attorneys in what was then The West, and he played an important role in the development of legal precedent in this country.

The present volume concerns the last case Lincoln tried before he was elected president. The matter before the court sitting in Springfield, Illinois in 1859, was the stabbing death, in the village of Pleasant Plains, of Greek Crafton, a young man who had studied law in Lincoln’s office. Lincoln and a former law partner, Stephen T. Logan, defended the fellow who fatally stabbed Crafton—”Peachy” Quinn Harrison, a questionable character at best.

Abraham Lincoln 2This account, while it is documentary, is presented in an engaging story-telling style that Lincoln, the old tale-spinner, would have appreciated. In a compact volume, the reader learns about the application and evolution of law in those prairie days, about the phenomenon of the circuit—judges and lawyers, more or less as a body, making the rounds among the far-flung communities of the western states, and about the focus and skill with which Lincoln studied and argued a case. Abrams and Fisher also present a study of Lincoln’s courtroom style in which he maintained an inscrutable visage and avoided histrionics.

The killing that led to this trial was the result of Greek’s perception of honor. Peachy had said something offensive about a member of the Crafton family, and Greek made it clear that he intended to have satisfaction—which, in his mind, meant pummeling Peachy. When Greek cornered Peachy in a Pleasant Plains drugstore, Greek got the worst of it. The defense built by Lincoln and Logan involved the question of whether Peachy was reasonably acting in self defense when he stabbed Greek. Another issue was whether Greek himself, on his deathbed, had exonerated Peachy of any blame for the incident.

Robert_R._Hitt

Robert Roberts Hitt

The authors tell much of this story through the eyes of Robert Roberts Hitt, who was a friend and admirer of Lincoln and an expert at shorthand. The year before this trial, Hitt had recorded the debates between Lincoln and Sen. Stephen A. Douglas in the campaign for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois and it was his account that readers found in newspapers around the country. An Illinois newspaper engaged him to report the proceedings in the trial of Peachy Harrison.

Hitt, by the way, had a distinguished career when he was done with the painstaking task of taking down millions of words by hand. He served in the American embassy in Paris; he was an assistant secretary of state and a member of Congress, and he was a regent of the Smithsonian Institution.

Hitt was serving in Congress in 1892 when the Chinese Exclusion Act, enacted ten years before, came up for renewal. This act prohibited immigration by any Chinese laborers, and it was the first law in the United States that shut out a specific ethnic group. Hitt unsuccessfully opposed the law (which was repealed in 1943) and his reaction has a troubling resonance in 2018:

“Never before in a free country,” Hitt said, “was there such a system of tagging a man, like a dog to be caught by the police and examined, and if his tag or collar is not all right, taken to the pound or drowned and shot. Never before was it applied by a free people to a human being, with the exception (which we can never refer to with pride) of the sad days of slavery. …”

 

 

 

 

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