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

The true story of Abraham Lincoln’s last murder trial, a case in which he had a deep personal involvement—and which played out in the nation’s newspapers as he began his presidential campaign

At the end of the summer of 1859, twenty-two-year-old Peachy Quinn Harrison went on trial for murder in Springfield, Illinois. Abraham Lincoln, who had been involved in more than three thousand cases—including more than twenty-five 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 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 Lincoln had been his friend and his mentor. His accused killer, the young man Lincoln 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 longtime 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 that remains incredibly relevant today.

 

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

“Dan Abrams and David Fisher write the heart-pounding pulse of history. Abraham Lincoln: the dusty shoes, the weary eyes, the Jedi mastery of a jury. In a true case of life and death. So pull up a chair. This book not only brings a rare transcript to life, it makes you feel like you are watching a live camera riveted on a courtroom more than 150 years ago.” — Diane Sawyer

“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

“We all know the story of Abraham Lincoln the wartime president, the defender of the Union, and the emancipator of the slaves. But Abraham Lincoln, the defense lawyer? Dan Abrams and David Fisher recount the engaging story of Lincoln’s last trial, occurring on the cusp of the Civil War. An entertaining book filled with twists and turns and tailor-made for Civil War buffs.” — Jay Winik, author of April 1865 and 1944

“Lincoln’s wartime leadership overshadows his life as a lawyer. But you can’t understand one without the other. In this rich and previously unexplored corner of history, the authors take you inside the courtroom to watch Abraham Lincoln – at the height of his powers as a lawyer and on the edge of eternal fame – as he tries a thrilling murder trial to a jury.” –Chris DeRose, New York Times bestselling author of The Presidents’ War, Congressman Lincoln, and Founding Rivals

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Dan Abrams

Dan Abrams is an attorney, author, Legal Analyst for ABC News, and substitute anchor for Good Morning America. Dan has published articles in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The American Lawyer, Yale Law & Policy Review, and is a regular contributor to Men’s Health magazine. His first book, “Man Down: Proof Beyond A Reasonable Doubt That Women Are Better Cops, Drivers, Gamblers, Spies, World Leaders, Beer Tasters, Hedge Fund Managers, And Just About Everything Else” was published in March 2011.

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