In Lincoln’s Last Trial (Hanover Square, June), Abrams and David Fisher recreate Lincoln’s final outing as a defense lawyer in a murder trial.
Why did you decide to write the book?
I have always been an amateur history buff, and I’ve been fascinated by legal history. My coauthor David Fisher and I were talking about a project together, and he mentioned that there was a basically ignored transcript of Lincoln’s last murder trial. I was in disbelief it existed, and so we dug in a little bit, and the more we dug in, the more appealing the case became. It was a close case and, as I say in the introduction, close cases often are the most interesting.
When and where was the transcript discovered?
The transcript was found in 1989 wrapped in a ribbon in the garage of, I think, the defendant’s great-grandson. Apparently the defendant, a man named Peachy Quinn Harrison, gloated on a somewhat regular basis that Abraham Lincoln had defended him in his case, and since he was always trying to capitalize on that, it’s not surprising that the transcript had been saved.
Do you think that if the trial had gone badly Lincoln’s presidential ambitions might have been negatively affected?
Absolutely. It was a case with passions running high in the community, and if Lincoln made mistakes it could all have been detrimental to his reputation leading into 1860. I think he had a lot to lose and not a lot to gain. He didn’t need this as a lawyer—his reputation as an attorney was legendary; he had tried dozens of murder cases. So I think that there must have been something special about the case that drew him in.
What do you think that was?
I think a number of things: a combination of the people who asked him to do it—one being his former law partner—probably his finding it interesting, and, although we didn’t say this in the book, my guess is that he believed Harrison shouldn’t have been charged as he was. There was a deep divide in the community over that. And it’s also my guess that it was pretty well-paying work. The fact that Harrison’s family could afford the transcription tells you that they had money.
What do you think Lincoln would think about the current controversy surrounding the removal of Civil War monuments?
That’s a hard question. I’ll say this—Lincoln’s position, as we know, on some of the issues that came to define him evolved over time. If, somehow, Lincoln had lived through everything that has been seen since, he might think it’s time to remove certain statues. As I think about it, at the end of the Civil War he would have been supportive of monuments in support of Southern leaders because he really wanted to make sure that the South was incorporated into the United States, but I think he might have viewed it very differently today.