GDG- : Reece on Billings and Williams, 'Abraham Lincoln, Esq.: The Legal Career of America's Greatest President' and Holzer and Symonds and Williams, 'The Lincoln Assassination: Crime and Punishment, Myth and Memory A Lincoln Forum Book

Dennis Lawrence denlaw at
Mon Jan 16 11:37:08 CST 2012


Timely review of  book on Lincoln assassination following the review 
of his legal career.

 From academic snobs at H-NET List for the History of Slavery



>Thread-Topic: REV:  Reece on Billings and  Williams, 'Abraham Lincoln,
>               Esq.: The Legal Career of America's Greatest President' and
>               Holzer and  Symonds and  Williams,
>               'The Lincoln Assassination: Crime and Punishment,
>               Myth and Memory A Lincoln Forum Book
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>Subject: REV:  Reece on Billings and  Williams, 'Abraham Lincoln, 
>Esq.: The Legal Career of America's Greatest President' and Holzer 
>and  Symonds and  Williams, 'The Lincoln Assassination: Crime and 
>Punishment, Myth and Memory A Lincoln Forum Book
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>From: Charles Becker [mailto:beckerleschar at]
>Roger D. Billings, Frank J. Williams, eds.  Abraham Lincoln, Esq.:  The
>Legal Career of America's Greatest President.  Lexington University
>Press of Kentucky, 2010.  263 pp. + 16 pp. of plates. $40.00 (cloth),
>ISBN 978-0-8131-2608-1; ISBN 978-0-8131-2609-8.
>Harold Holzer, Craig L. Symonds, Frank J. Williams, eds.  The Lincoln
>Assassination: Crime and Punishment, Myth and Memory A Lincoln Forum
>Book.  New York  Fordham University Press, 2010.  xii + 259 pp. $27.95
>(cloth), ISBN 978-0-8232-3226-0.
>Reviewed by Lewie Reece (Anderson University)
>Published on H-CivWar (January, 2012)
>Commissioned by Martin Johnson
>Of Lincoln and Law
>These two collections of essays address relatively unstudied elements of
>Abraham Lincoln's career, death, and martyrdom. The first discusses
>Lincoln's career as a lawyer in Illinois and also attempts to make law
>and constitutionalism an important element in his political thought. The
>second examines key elements of his assassination.
>Frequently the quality of essays in an edited collection varies
>considerably. That is certainly true in this case. Many of the
>contributors have written thoughtful pieces that are worthy of serious
>consideration while some of the other pieces seem little more than a
>recasting of conventional wisdom, recycling of previous work, or an
>overly narrow conception of their subject. Nevertheless, the volumes
>taken as a whole provide a good window on the state of the field for
>Lincoln's legal career and his assassination.
>"The Legal Career of America's Greatest President" represents part of an
>ongoing effort to examine Lincoln's career as a lawyer. Earlier works
>have tended to situate Lincoln within the world of the frontier and
>dramatize Lincoln's success as an advocate. Lincoln is less a serious
>student of the law and more someone whose folksy demeanor charmed rural
>audiences as part of his approach. The mythic and legal Lincoln were
>joined, as it was argued that he refused to accept disreputable clients
>or sought to lose cases he considered unjust. Conversely, James G.
>Randall's "Constitutional Problems under Lincoln" (1926), with its sharp
>critique of the Lincoln administration's policies during the Civil War,
>only contributed to the sense that Lincoln cared little about law,
>precedent, or constitutional thought. Lincoln was less the rural savant
>than the rural bumpkin who was untutored in the more sophisticated legal
>analysis that came to dominate the study of law in the nineteenth centur
>  y. These two different modes of interpretation were reflected in two
>texts that appeared at roughly the same time in the early 1960s. John
>Duff's "A. Lincoln: Prairie Lawyer" (1960) presented a folksy Lincoln on
>the circuit, while John Frank's "Lincoln as a Lawyer" (1991) offered a
>more critical view of Lincoln as a rather unexceptional lawyer who
>thought little about law or constitutionalism.
>Much of the older view of Lincoln's legal career appears especially
>anachronistic considering the wealth of documentary material that is now
>available. For historians in an earlier period, much of the archival
>material about Lincoln's work as a lawyer was widely scattered. Some of
>it could be found in the Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, but
>much of it was housed in a variety of county courthouses in Illinois,
>making it difficult and cumbersome to retrieve. Such difficulties were
>overcome with the publication of collections of Lincoln's legal papers.
>These appeared first in a CD-Rom that included the entire collection
>edited by Martha Benner and Cullom Davis, "The Law Practice of Abraham
>Lincoln: Complete Documentary Collection", published in 2000. Their work
>was augmented by a letterpress edition edited by Daniel Stowell, "The
>Papers of Abraham Lincoln: Legal Documents and Cases", which was
>published in 2008. "The Legal Career of America's Greatest President"
>  appears when we are in the midst of a reconsideration of Lincoln's
>legal career and his constitutional thought. As of this writing two
>important scholarly accounts of Lincoln's work as a lawyer have
>appeared: Brian Dirck's "Lincoln the Lawyer" (2007) and Mark Steiner's
>"An Honest Calling "(2006). I would imagine this is just the start of
>what will be an increasing surge of dissertations, articles, and books
>yet to be written.
>"The Legal Career of America's Greatest President" is divided into three
>parts. The first consists of four essays that discuss the larger context
>of Lincoln's legal career. It is followed by a second section that
>examines Lincoln's career as a lawyer in Illinois and Kentucky in six
>essays. The final section is focused on Lincoln's presidency, with an
>emphasis on its domestic and international law aspect, covered in two
>The first section represents essays that are quite broadly conceived. As
>a result they lack sufficient space to delve into the subject matter in
>much depth. Harold Holzer provides a general overview of Lincoln's legal
>career; Frank Williams follows with a discussion of how Lincoln serves
>as a model for the practicing lawyer. Mark Steiner and Brian Dirck
>complete this section with essays that seek to summarize Lincoln's law
>career. They are some of the more interesting in the entire volume, but
>their brevity leaves the reader unsatisfied. I was especially taken by
>Steiner's discussion of Lincoln's Whig politics, with its emphasis on
>the rule of law and the need for societal harmony, as an important
>component of his legal career. However, Steiner discusses this in only a
>few pages and the larger point that he wishes to make could be
>developed. It would have been interesting to explain how these Whig
>conceptions of societal harmony could be reconciled with the tremendous
>  c transformations that took place in the period. Similarly, Steiner's
>discussion of honor is equally abbreviated, and that too could be more
>thoroughly explained. Dirck's essay is a concise discussion of Lincoln's
>legal career. He makes it clear that Lincoln took all manner of cases
>and that he was a generalist when it came to the cases that came before
>him, and provides a good discussion of the practical issues that
>consumed his practice.
>In the second section, five essays discuss various aspects of Lincoln's
>Illinois law practice, while the sixth examines Lincoln's connection to
>Kentucky. Many of these essays have a highly detailed emphasis on
>Lincoln's involvement in property law cases and show how these cases
>were an important part of his legal career. One wishes that some of
>these essays included discussions of larger legal and economic matters.
>However, they serve as a reminder that Lincoln's legal career involved
>him in a range of cases that dealt with economic questions in the
>antebellum period. Certainly, Lincoln had an intimate view of how real
>estate transactions took place in the state, and he understood the
>difficulties many people faced in the era of the market revolution. At
>least three of the essays involve some discussion of ethical issues--how
>Lincoln serves as a model of strong ethics and of how to interact with
>legal clients. The concluding essay in this section addresses Lincoln's
>work with
>   neighboring Kentuckians.
>The final section includes two essays that seek to make connections
>between law and politics, examining Lincoln's behavior as president.
>Nonetheless, many of the essays of this volume address both law and
>"The Legal Career of America's Greatest President "represents a serious
>effort to understand Lincoln's legal career. The subject matter is so
>diverse that at times unifying themes are lost. Some of the essays seem
>overly broad while others so narrow that their value seems limited. The
>authors write well about the subjects they find of interest, but it
>would have been useful to provide a larger framework. Had the essays
>been chronologically spaced, readers would be able to see Lincoln's
>growth and maturity over the decades. The role of technology in shaping
>law in the period also would have been a useful subject for study. Race
>and slavery are relatively neglected in the essays, although they are
>mentioned perhaps most strongly in Christopher Schnell's interesting
>discussion of Lincoln's interactions with Kentuckians. Nevertheless, the
>authors are to be commended for paying close attention to Lincoln's
>legal career. Those interested in Lincoln's antebellum legal career will
>  nt to read these essays for themselves.
>Certainly, one of the more dramatic events in American history was the
>assassination of Abraham Lincoln. This solemn subject forms the heart of
>"The Lincoln Assassination", a collection of essays that discuss various
>elements of Lincoln's murder. As a group, the authors seem less
>interested in the actual murder of Lincoln than in discussing the larger
>legacy that flowed from the assassination. As a result, the method used
>to try the conspirators, how the assassination was remembered by the
>larger public, and the legacy of the event, form the heart of their
>While the Lincoln assassination was clearly recognized as a seminal
>event in American history, until recently, historians of both Lincoln
>and the Civil War have given it slight attention. Perhaps it remained
>unmentioned principally because of the subject itself. While it is true
>that hatred of Lincoln has fueled the emotions of some Americans
>throughout our history, such hatred has always been held by a minority.
>Do historians really want to spend their time recounting the sad,
>pathetic worldview of a group of people filled with so much hatred that
>they murdered our greatest president? It can hardly be considered
>surprising that both scholars of Lincoln and the Civil War seem to
>prefer writing about Lincoln's presidency and the war rather than his
>fatal evening at the Ford Theater.
>This is not to say that serious works of scholarship on the
>assassination are nonexistent, for in the last thirty years some
>important studies have indeed sought to address Lincoln's death. Thomas
>Turner's "Beware the People Weeping" (1991) examined the North's
>reaction to Lincoln's murder while Merrill Peterson's "Lincoln in
>American Memory" (1995) has a strong and moving opening chapter in which
>he addresses the assassination. Moreover, historians have recently begun
>to publish important accounts that seek to present a clearer picture of
>what happened. Edward Steers's "Blood on the Moon" (2005) presents a
>definitive account of the Lincoln assassination. Michael Kauffman's
>"American Brutus" (2005) provides an exhaustive discussion of John
>Wilkes Booth's role in managing the conspiracy and the repercussions
>that followed for the survivors who were tried. Additionally, in
>"Lincoln's Avengers" (2004), Elizabeth Leonard has focused on the trial
>by military commission. Certainly,
>   a range of works has appeared in recent years examining the
>assassination, the role of the Confederate secret service, the process
>of capturing conspirators, the trials that followed, and its larger
>legacy for American history.
>Nevertheless, for all of this increasing attention the assassination
>still seems more the preserve of the conspiracy theorist than of the
>serious historian. For those Americans who remain convinced that some
>dark government conspiracy led to the death of President John F.
>Kennedy, it is not a large leap to believe the same process was at work
>in the death of Lincoln. The appearance of these thoughtful essays is
>thus useful for no other reason than to separate myth from history.
>This volume consists of eight original essays and a ninth from Richard
>Current that is reprinted from the "Lincoln Nobody Knows" (1963). The
>first two essays represent an effort to examine the assassination itself
>and connect it to art, photography, and memory. Especially interesting
>is the opening essay by Harold Holzer and Frank Williams in which they
>trace how Americans have over time remembered the assassination. Equally
>engaging is Richard Sloan's examination of the memorial exercises held
>in New York City following Lincoln's death. Sloan manages to combine
>both a historical reconstruction and analysis of the events themselves;
>he also connects it all to the present by identifying the present-day
>terrain of the path Lincoln's body passed on the parade route.
>Readers are also treated to four separate essays that examine the
>conspirators' trials by military commission. Elizabeth Leonard
>contributes a largely biographical study of Judge Advocate General
>Joseph Holt, who was responsible for heading up the prosecution. Frank
>Williams examines the legal process which led to the conspirators'
>conviction and execution, and tries to situate it into a larger
>historical framework. Edward Steers presents a detailed discussion of
>the trial itself, while Michael Kauffman asserts that Booth largely
>manipulated the other conspirators to achieve his desired result. Steers
>and Kauffman are both talented historians who have written important
>works in the field, but their conclusions are often quite different.
>Their essays in "The Lincoln Assassination" at times reach different
>judgments about the trials and the conspirators, and should be read
>together. They differ most widely on the conviction of Dr. Samuel Mudd.
>Steers believes that Mudd was guil
>  ty and deserved his conviction, while Kauffman clearly does not.
>The heavy focus on the military commission reveals an increasing
>attention to the trial process. Certainly, the use of military
>commissions instead of civilian trials was controversial at the time.
>But one has to wonder whether historians are focusing on this issue out
>of a concern for the legal process in the 1860s or a dislike for their
>use in the present by both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Their work
>can at times smack of presentism, in which historians take concerns over
>the legal process in the twenty-first century and impose them on the
>Civil War and Reconstruction era.
>While many of the essays are quite interesting and engaging, it does
>seem odd that a volume on the Lincoln assassination seems more
>interested in the trials than in the murder itself. Also, considering
>that Booth was a dedicated white supremacist, it is striking that race
>seems all but completely missing from these volumes. With the exception
>of the Kauffman essay, little attention is devoted to the role of racial
>hatred and opposition to emancipation as motivating factors for the
>conspirators. Additionally, an examination of the climate of opinion in
>both Maryland and the District of Columbia during the Civil War would
>have been a useful addition to these works. Nonetheless, both of these
>volumes present important studies of Lincoln and are worthy of close
>attention from both scholars and the general public.
>Citation: Lewie Reece. Review of Billings, Roger D.; Williams, Frank J.,
>eds., "Abraham Lincoln, Esq.: The Legal Career of America's Greatest
>President" and Holzer, Harold; Symonds, Craig L.; Williams, Frank J.,
>eds., "The Lincoln Assassination: Crime and Punishment, Myth and Memory
>A Lincoln Forum Book". H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. January, 2012.
>This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
>Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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