'Honest Abe' before he became president

Historian Julie Fenster shows us Abraham Lincoln as a good lawyer and a politician on the rise.

It's always a bit unsettling to catch a glimpse of someone you think you know in an unfamiliar setting. For instance: middle-aged, country attorney Abraham Lincoln, sitting in his sparsely furnished Springfield, Ill., office, surrounded by "unfiled papers and abandoned books."

A would-be client recalls walking in on Lincoln, long legs crossed and propped up on a table. "He was so different from any person I had ever seen that for a moment I was dazed. The man looked like a cathedral."

Julie Fenster has become expert at catching surprise glimpses of Abraham Lincoln. For a decade now she has studied Lincoln's legal practice – and a healthy practice it was. Between 1836 and 1861 Lincoln was involved in more than 5,100 cases. He was one of Illinois's premier lawyers, viewed as "deft, quick ... confident."

But in The Case of Abraham Lincoln: A Story of Adultery, Murder and the Making of a Great President, Fenster chooses to concentrate on one particular case and one particular year in the life of Lincoln.

The year is 1856 and the case was a juicy one. A Springfield neighbor of Lincoln's was murdered in his backyard one night on his way to the outhouse. His wife and nephew – believed to be having an affair – came under suspicion. The press had a field day and soon this was "the case of the year." Both sides – prosecution and defense – wanted Lincoln. He chose the defense.

From our distance today, of course, the case seems absurdly small, but then again, this is a book full of small but significant pleasures. The microview Fenster offers of both Lincoln's life and daily experience in mid-19th-century Springfield is fascinating. We see Lincoln juggling two careers – politicking and lawyering. We watch him zigzagging across Illinois with a pack of other lawyers on the heels of a circuit judge, hoping to pick up enough cases to make a decent living. We follow him on trains and barges, into small inns where he must sometimes share a bed with another attorney, and on to lively dinners and evening gatherings where his colleagues find him a congenial companion.

We also come to know the domestic Lincoln, as he deals with a home expansion project, a nervous wife, and overindulged children.

But in this case small should not be confused with trivial. The year 1856 was a pivotal one in Lincoln's experience. In a country in crisis over the question of slavery, he stood and gave what we now call his "lost speech" at a state political convention in Bloomington. Even as Lincoln continued to handle two-bit debt collections cases, he was growing in stature and nurturing that particular set of abilities that would eventually take him to the highest office in the land. Fenster does an excellent job of allowing us to watch him grow, almost as if by time-lapse photography.

I won't give away the end of the case except to say that Lincoln's "ease before a jury, his uncanny way with a witness, and his sense of strategy" come through. As does this story. Admittedly, it's a small and unusual gem. But it is a gem indeed.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to kehem@csps.com.

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