The Case of Abraham Lincoln— Julie Fenster
Many Americans think they know Abraham Lincoln. But Julie Fenster reveals a Lincoln of a different stripe in her new book, The Case of Abraham Lincoln, which finds the future President on the edge of political fame and in the midst of the most controversial trial to ever hit Springfield, Illinois. Richard E. Hart, the President of the Abraham Lincoln Association, says, “Fenster transports us to 1856 Illinois, describing the colorful life of Lincoln and his fraternity of circuit-riding lawyers as they try cases and help birth the Republican Party…Interwoven is a murder mystery – the story of an adulterous wife, the murder of her blacksmith husband, and Lincoln’s defense.” Fenster’s Lincoln is not the carefully burnished hero of history textbooks but an intelligent, fervent, principled, ultimately human, man who tells dirty jokes, dresses badly, and cannot seem to discipline his sons when they make a mess of his office.
Fenster argues that 1856 was the year that defined Lincoln’s political future. At its outset, his friend John Stuart was in the minority in his opinion that Lincoln possessed “political ambitions.” A fellow lawyer would later say, “No one here during Lincoln’s active life as lawyer and politician looked on him as likely to have a greater, grander, and more glorious place in the history of his country than any one of half a dozen others then living here.” Yet, Lincoln had the respect of his fellow attorneys, one of whom dubbed Lincoln, “the most respected Anti-Nebraskan [Republican] in town.”
Although initially reluctant to join the Republicans because he feared the political consequences if the abolitionists were allowed to dominate the new party, Lincoln became one of its most brilliant and compelling speakers and a top political strategist. Lincoln also became the leader of a changing style of politics. As a colleague remarked, “[h]is mode of speaking was new…He was full of philosophy, and got into the souls of men. He produced a new manner of politics,” and another said of one of his speeches, “that was the greatest speech ever made in Illinois and it puts Lincoln on the track for the Presidency.”
At the same time, while Lincoln was traveling widely to speak on behalf of the Republican Party, the trial of the century was building back in Springfield. The Anderson case was an unusually salacious one; Jane was believed to have murdered her husband because she was having an affair with his nephew Theodore. Furthermore, she was accused of poisoning George with strychnine before having her paramour bash in his head. The trial turned everyone in town avid observers as they speculated on whether the pair was guilty. In this atmosphere and with his services sought by both sides, Lincoln was to play a central and decisive part in the case. It is also a trial that continues to resonate since the actual events have never been established and the true guilt of the defendants is still unknown.
Critics have praised The Case of Abraham Lincoln for its “unexpected, odd-angle approach to Lincoln that proves marvelously insightful” and Richard E. Hart called it”[a] real page-turner, bringing alive Lincoln’s world before his national fame.” Library Journal said “Fenster’s rhythms have Twain-like timing,” while Booklist declared it “a worthy addition to our ever-expanding knowledge concerning America’s secular saint.” Fenster is the author of several other works of popular history, including Race of the Century, Ether Day and with Douglas Brinkley, Parish Priest, which was a New York Times bestseller. She lives in upstate New York.
— Caroline Patton