Sunday, January 12, 2014


In writing the book on the Almanac Trial I tried to present my conclusions and to show the line of reasoning I took to arrive at them. I recognized that other people could look at the same evidence and draw different conclusions, and that suited me fine. I wanted readers to be able to decide for themselves what happened, a task which is made harder when they’re reading the facts filtered through someone else’s conclusions. I therefore included two appendices which set forth the statements of the major witnesses to the trial and the court record. Considerations of space prevented me from including everything I wanted in the appendices, but I’m satisfied that what I omitted was of lesser importance. Space considerations also prevented me from dealing with all the details of other works which I believed to be mistaken.

Some errors were caused by the authors not having all the relevant information. When an author like Sandberg, Beveridge, or Tarbell is writing a multivolume work about the entire life of Lincoln, the author isn’t going to be conversant with the minute details of every aspect of Lincoln’s life. Other errors resulted because the authors, not being criminal trial lawyers, were not familiar with the ins and outs of prosecuting and defending criminal cases and hence misunderstood the significance of some evidence. Others came about because when the authors looked at the evidence, they looked at it from the vantage point of preconception. Often you fail to see what is there because your preconceptions have conditioned you to see what you expect. As Sherlock Holmes once complained to Dr. Watson, they saw but they did not observe.

Here is an example of what I am talking about. The idea has become current that when Lincoln moved to have Duff Armstrong released on bail, the motion was really a motion to reduce the charge from murder to manslaughter. The Illinois constitution at the time denied bail as a matter of right to those accused of murder where the proof of guilt was evident or the presumption great. Nonlawyers looking at the situation used this chain of reasoning: (1) Murder defendants could not be to bail. (2) Duff Armstrong was charged with murder. (3) Duff Armstrong could not be released on bail. (4) Lincoln asked that Armstrong be released on bail. (5) Armstrong could only be released on bail if he were charged with manslaughter. (6) Therefore, Lincoln was asking that the charge be reduced to manslaughter. A good, tight line of reasoning leading to an inescapable conclusion if premise (1) were correct. Unfortunately for the soundness of the argument, it is not correct. It was possible for murder defendants to get out on bail regardless of whether they were legally entitled to bail.

Bail as a matter of right was denied to murder defendants  only if the proof of guilt was not evident nor the presumption great. This meant that if the evidence against the defendant was strong, he had no right to bail, but if the defendant could show that the evidence against him wasn’t strong he was entitled to bail as a matter of right. Lincoln may have been arguing that the evidence was weak enough to allow for the defendant to be entitled to bail as a matter of right.  I don’t think that was the case for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that apparently the court did not hear testimony on the motion for bail. At least there is no record of witnesses having testified. I think it is more likely that Lincoln made another argument to the judge. A capital defendant had no right to bail, but that doesn’t mean that the judge can’t grant bail as a matter of judicial discretion.

1 comment:

  1. I like your line of clarification about the way Lincoln was thinking. It clears up a lot of doubts in my mind. Clearly, Lincoln was trying to have the charges dropped. I agree that Lincoln probably thought that the defendant should be denied bail, under those circumstances. The judge in the case, however, had the right to grant bail.