Thursday, March 27, 2008

Abe Lincoln In Illinois -- 1856

The Case of Abraham Lincoln by Julie Fenster (2007 Palgrave MacMillan)(228 pages plus notes and index)

"Looking over the Know-Nothing platform (the Democrats) did not notice any animosity towards old bachelors, only towards foreigners, and especially Catholics. With that the country was drenched with the news that John Fremont was a Catholic -- a lie they managed to back up with facts. For instance, although Fremont was a practicing Episcopalian, his father had indeed been a Catholic. And Fremont had been married by a Catholic priest, due to his Protestant clergyman being indisposed at the last minute. In the campaign of 1856, that was more than enough to sustain a scandal that followed the Republican campaign all year .. To them (being married by a priest) amounted to a kind of treason, and the Anti-Nebraskans undoubtedly lost votes because of it."

The book covers the murder of a blacksmith in Springfield Illinois in 1856. The blacksmith's wife and his nephew, who was boarding with them at the time, are the prime suspects. Wife and nephew/ boarder may have had something going on. The case pulls in all of the leading Springfield attorneys at the time. Some of these names -- William Herndon and John Stuart, along with the Judge, David Davis -- are familiar to Lincoln buffs.

While all this was happening, Lincoln was hardly in town. He was busy helping to form the new "Anti-Nebraska" Party in Illinois, making speeches for the Presidential candidate, John Fremont, practicing law on the Illinois circuit, which seems a lot like a travelling circus (in the best sense of the word), and leaving his wife to supervise the renovation of their home.

The book paints an interesting picture of Lincoln on the cusp of fame, and what mid-century small-city life was like for the rising man. It also paints a pretty nice picture of the "hurry-up-and-wait" nature of the legal practice, and the theatrics of the political rallies and stump speeches. One interesting vignette shows how Lincoln, due to a scheduling conflict, had to move a speech up a few hours. So he was speaking at one corner of the square (probably more like an undeveloped field), and other speakers were competing for attention at other parts of the square.

The book, in part due to its short length, has problems of focus -- it spends too much time on this, and not enough time on that.

In particular, the book makes too little of the fact that Lincoln, without really being too famous, and without being there, or having any of his major supporters there, was the runner-up for the Republican Party Vice Presidential nomination in 1856. The book does not even mention John Brown at all, or Dred Scott at all.

On the other hand, the book has the fullest development of the so-called "Lost Speech" (the first speech that Lincoln made as a Republican)that I have seen. The tag line to a South threatening secession --

"We WILL not go out; and you SHALL not go out."