Lincoln's Last Trial: The Murder Case That Propelled Him to the Presidency

Lincoln’s Last Trial: The Murder Case That Propelled Him to the Presidency

Dan’s new book, Lincoln’s Last Trial: The Murder Case That Propelled Him to the Presidency tells the true story of Abraham Lincoln’s last murder trial, a strange case in which he had a deep personal involvement—and that was played out in the nation’s newspapers as he began his presidential campaign.

“You didn’t know that Abraham Lincoln was the defense lawyer in a notorious murder case on the eve of his presidency? Neither did I. But Dan Abrams and David Fisher tell the remarkable tale in Lincoln’s Last Trial, and the story is both compelling on its own terms and a lesson about some eternal truths about criminal justice.” — Jeffrey Toobin, author of American Heiress

At the end of the summer of 1859, 22-year old Peachy Quinn Harrison went on trial for murder in Springfield, Illinois. Abraham Lincoln, who had been involved in more than 3,000 cases – including more than 25 murder trials – during his two-decades- long career, was hired to defend him. This was to be his last great case as a lawyer.

What normally would have been a local case took on momentous meaning. Lincoln’s debates with Senator Stephen Douglas the previous fall had made gained him a national following, transforming the little-known, self-taught lawyer into a respected politician. He was being urged to make a dark-horse run for the presidency in 1860. Taking this case involved great risk: His reputation was untarnished, but should he lose this trial, should Harrison be convicted of murder, the spotlight now focused so brightly on him might be dimmed. He had won his most recent murder trial with a daring and dramatic maneuver that had become a local legend, but another had ended with his client dangling from the end of a rope.

The case posed painful personal challenges for Lincoln: The murder victim had trained for the law in his office, and he had been his friend and his mentor. His accused killer, the young man he would defend, was the son of a close friend and loyal supporter. And to win this trial he would have to form an unholy allegiance with a long-time enemy, a revivalist preacher he had twice run against for political office – and who had bitterly slandered Lincoln as an “infidel… too lacking in faith” to be elected.

Lincoln’s Last Trial captures the presidential hopeful’s dramatic courtroom confrontations in vivid detail as he fights for his client – but also for his own blossoming political future. It is a moment in history that shines a light on our legal system, as in this case Lincoln fought a legal battle remains incredibly relevant today.

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