Friday, November 20, 2015


At the end of his 25 year career as a trial lawyer, Lincoln tried one more murder case, defending the grandson of his old political foe, Rev. Peter Cartwright, "the Backwoods Preacher." It involved a brawl between the sons of two of the most powerful political families in Springfield, Illinois, and it garnered a tremendous amount of media attention. Lincoln turned in a stellar performance in all aspects of the case, cross-examining brilliantly, arguing points of law with great vehemence, and giving a final argument which was described as a tour de force of logical analysis. The two main newspapers in Springfield were the Journal and the Register, and their competition to cover the trial led to some controversy as they argued with each other about how the trial should be covered. Here is a sampling of the news reports of the trial:


“Affray at Richland—Probable fatal stabbing,” Illinois State Register, July 18, 1859: Yesterday morning an affray took place at Pleasant Plains, between Simeon Q. Harrison and Greek Crafton. We learn that the difficulty grew out of an old grudge between the Parties, which was augmented by some difficulty about a girl, at a picnic on the fourth. Greek was cut across the abdomen from the lower rib on the left side, to the groin on the right, allowing the bowels to protrude. His brother John, in attempting to prevent the stabbing, received a severe wound, by the hand of Harrison, across thearm. Harrison instantly fled, and had not been arrested up to a late hour last night. It is feared that Greek’s wounds will prove fatal.—The State Democrat.

 “Death of Greek Crafton,” Illinois State Journal, July 20, 1859, Edition 2: We learn that Greek Crafton, who was so severely cut in the abdomen on last Saturday by S. Q Harrison, died from the effects of his injuries on Monday night. It appears that not only were his intestines cut, but he also received a fatal stab in the side, the knife passing in between two of his ribs. A warrant was issued for the arrest of Harrison, yesterday morning, and we presume he will have a preliminary examination today. There is much excitement manifested among the friends of the respective parties.

“The Richland Homicide,” Illinois State Register, July 20, 1859: Mr. Greek Crafton, who was wounded in the recent affray at Pleasant Plains, died on Monday night. His brother, John, who was also severely wounded, is lying in a critical state. Mr. John Harrison, who inflicted the wounds upon the Craftons, we learn, has been arrested and brought to town for examination.

“The Crafton Stabbing Affair,” Illinois State Journal, July 21, 1859: We learn that Harrison has not yet been arrested. When Coroner Kidd arrived at Richland he was found to have taken leg bail. The Coroner went to Richland for the purpose of holding an inquest over the body of Crafton, but for some reason it was buried without that formality.

Untitled Article, Illinois State Journal, July 22, 1859: Harrison, by whose hand Greek Crafton came to his death, has not yet been arrested. We understand, however, that he is ready to surrender himself at the proper time for the purposes of a preliminary examination.

“The Harrison Case,” Illinois State Journal, July 27, 1859, Edition 2: We are informed young Harrison, who caused the death of Greek Crafton, will probably be examined to-morrow. He has not yet been arrested but is ready to give himself up as soon as his witnesses can be got together.

“Surrender of Harrison—Examination set for to-day,” Illinois State Journal, August 2, 1859: Mr. Q. V. Harrison, charged with causing the death of Mr. Greek Crafton, a couple of weeks ago, voluntarily surrendered himself, yesterday morning into the hands of the law. Constable Perce brought him to town. His examination was set for yesterday afternoon before Justices Adams and Hickman; but on account of the absence of the principal witnesses, John Crafton and Silas Livergood, was adjourned till 8 o’clock this morning at the Court House. Harrison remains in the custody of the officers. Seventy-five witnesses have been subpoened and the examination promises to be lengthy. Messrs. White, McClernand and Broadwell appear for the prosecution and Messrs Lincoln, Herndon, Logan and Hay for the defendant.

“The Harrison Case,” Illinois State Register, August 2, 1859: Simeon Q. Harrison, charged with the killing of Greek Grafton, was before Justices Adams and Hickman yesterday afternoon. J. B. White, the prosecuting attorney, and Col. Jno. A. McClernand appearedd for the people, and Messrs. Logan and Lincoln for the defense. The prosecution stated that they were unable to procure the attendance of two important witnesses for the prosecution, and asked that the examination be continued until the attendance of the witnesses could be had. After several propositions were made and discussed, it was finally agreed to continue the examination until this morning, Harrison to remain in the custody of the officers.

“Examination of Harrison for the Murder of Crafton,” Illinois State Journal, August 3, 1859, Edition 2: The examination of Mr. Quinn Harrison, charged, with the murder of Mr. Greek Grafton, took place on yesterday, before Justices Adams and Hickman. The case excited unusual interest and the Court House was densely crowded during the day. The testimony adduced, is of course too voluminous for our columns. It was clear as to the point that the deceased came to his death by wounds inflicted upon him by a knife in the hands of young Harrison. It appears that the parties had had a quarrel on their way to a Picnic on the Fourth of July because Harrison had told his younger brother that the deceased was a not a fit associate. They were prevented however from fighting, but the deceased threatened to whip Harrison on sight, whereupon the latter remarked, that if Greek ever laid hands on him he should defend himself by shooting him. Their next meeting was in Short’s Drug Store at Richland, and it was in there that the affray occurred. Greek, it seems, saw Harrison go in the Store and followed him in and commenced an attack upon him, John Crafton also assisting. In the midst of the melee, Greek was fatally cut by Harrison’s knife. This is a mere outline of the facts so far as we heard them, on which the defense urge the plea that Harrison acted wholly in self-defense in this matter. Quite a number of witnesses were examined, and almost all testified to Crafton’s saying he would whip Harrison, and one went so far as to say he intended to do this by throwing him down and stamping him in the face. The examination closed about six o’clock last evening, and the court adjourned over until 8 o’clock this morning to hear the summing up of the testimony by the lawyers.

“The Harrison Case,” Illinois State Register, August 3, 1859: The examination of S. Q. Harrison, for the killing of Greek Crafton, at Pleasant Plains on the 16th ult., was continued, before Justice Adams and Hickman, yesterday. For the prosecution, Silas Livergood, B. F. Short, Frederick Henry, Daniel Harnett, J. C. Bone, Edward Crafton, Wm. Million, and Wm. Purriance were examined.

Livergood, Short and Harnett testified to the infliction of the wounds by Harrison; who was attacked by deceased. The testimony of the other witnesses was as to previous ill blood between the parties, and threats of deceased to whip Harrison, and of the latter to kill Crafton if he molested him.

‘For the defense, John Allen, Thomas White, A. W. Hays, A. Weir, Thomas Turley, P. M. Carter, Rev. P. Cartright and Rev. John Slater were examined.

Their testimony was mainly to show that threats had been made by Crafton to whip or shoot Harrison, and that the latter threatened to kill deceased if he ever attempted to molest him.

Mr. Cartright testified that Crafton, on his death-bed, absolved Harrison from blame, and blamed himself for the difficulty and its sad result. Mr. :Slater’s testimony was to the same effect. This was rebutted by that of Dr. Million, who was recalled, and who stated that he had had several conversations with Crafton on his dying bed, relative to the difficulty, and that he did not absolve Harrison from blame, but censured him.

After the examination of witnesses entire, by agreement of counsel on both sides, the court adjourned until this morning at 8 o’clock, to argue the case, upon the testimony presented.

There was a very large crowd in attendance all day, and the most profound interest was manifested.

The argument to-day will be by Messrs. McClernand and Broadwell and White for the prosecution, and Messers. Logan and Lincoln for the defense.

“The Harrison Case,” Illinois State Journal, August 4, 1859: The whole of yesterday was occupied by the counsel in summing, up the evidence in this case. The opening speech was made by Mr. Broadwell, for the prosecution. He was followed by Judge Logan and Mr. Lincoln for the defense. Mr. McCIernand then closed for the State. The Justices decided upon all the facts of the case, that he be bound over in the sum of ten thousand dollars. The sureties given were Peyton Harrison, Coleman Gaines and Peter Cartwright. The counsel for the accused, although very clear that he committed the homicide in self-defense, suggested this course to the court, lest his release might appear like too hasty a disposition of so serious a matter. The Court House was crowded to excess the whole day, many being attracted there to hear the able arguments of the counsel in the case.

“Conclusion of the Examination of Harrison,” Illinois State Register, August 4, 1859: The whole of yesterday was occupied before Justices Adams and Hickman in the summing up of the evidence in the case of Harrison, arraigned for the murder of Greek Crafton. The The speeches of Mr. Broadwell for the prosecution and Mr. Logan for the defense occupied the whole of the forenoon, and these of Mr. Lincoln for the defense and Mr. McClernand for the prosecution the whole of the afternoon. The grounds both pro and con were strongly contested, and the testimony thoroughly sifted. It was sought on the part of the state to sustain the charge of murder, and to place the case beyond the power of the court to allow bail for the future appearance of Harrison. The court, however, ordered that he be held to bail in the sum of $10,000 to appear before the next term of the Sangamon circuit court, to answer to the charge of manslaughter.

“Indictment of Harrison,” Illinois State Journal, August 29, 1859:  We are informed that the Grand Jury have found a bill against young Quinn Harrison for the murder of Greek Grafton. By what mode of precedence they made up their minds to such an indictment is a mystery. If there ever was a case of killing in self-defense, we think the testimony at the preliminary examination of Harrison, showed one. The public would not have a word to say even had the Jury seen fit to call it manslaughter; but among those who seem entirely disinterested and impartial in the matter, who have known Greek and Quinn as boys together, and had the same friendship for both, there is much surprise and astonishment manifested. If the Grand Jury in this case could see its way clear to indict Harrison, we do not see how it can fail to indict Matteson for larceny on the much stronger testimony against him. But we guess “that’s a bay horse of a different color.” Harrison’s trial is set for Wednesday by agreement of parties.

“The Harrison indictment,” Illinois State Register, August 30, 1859:  The grand jury, on Saturday found a bill of murder, against Quinn Harrison for the killing of Greek Crafton. Whether rightly or not, it is not for the public press now to express an opinion in justice to either party. But we regret to see that the Journal makes such find a subject of censure; coupling it with matters connected with the political efforts of that paper.

The Journal’s paragraph is one which cannot but be deprecated by every thinking man. It is unjust to the party it assumes to defend, who, if really not indictable for murder, cannot be benefitted by mingling his cause with the partisan commentary of the newspaper press; and so his friends feel it.

The killing of Crafton is a subject of judicial examination. Investigation by the grand jury is a part of the necessary routine. If their finding is to be subject of newspaper commentary pending the trial, and in manner to excite prejudice by joining such comment with matters having partisan connection, the decision of court and jury must necessarily be subject of similar preparatory controversy.

We express no opinion in regard to the finding of the grand jury, but, as a law-abiding citizen, we protest against the conduct of a public journal which assumes to prejudge judicial investigation; and more especially, when that journal attempts to bring partisan feeling to bear in matters before the courts affecting, not only the integrity of the officers of the law, and those under examination for its alleged infraction, but affecting the life of a human being.

If the action of our courts is to be moulded by outside opinion, expressed through the political press, we may as well conclude to decide judicial questions by popular election—to set aside constitution and law, and leave such self-constituted exponents of law and gospel as the editors of the Journal to decide, not only as to the making of the laws, but the manner of their execution by the courts.

We repeat that the Journal does injustice to Mr. Harrison. Its attorneyship can be of no benefit to him, and if its expressions effect anything, it can be only to his detriment, by creating the impression that such extraordinary means as the use of a partisan press, in a judicial investigation, is sought to further his interests, through party friends, in the absence of confidence in his innocence of the charge upon which he is arraigned.

We have full confidence that the court and jury will do its duty, and that justice will be done, upon thorough examination of the subject. In common with all good citizens, we deplore the causes which have led to the trial, and it is only cause of additional regret that anyone should be so foolish as to attempt to produce results in manner adopted by the Journal in its yesterday’s issue.

“The Harrison Case,” Springfield Evening Independent, August 31, 1859: The trial of Quinn Harrison, indicted by the Grand Jury for the murder of Greek Crafton, was reached today at about 11 o’clock. Many of the witnesses were not present, and the case was postponed till two o’clock thin afternoon. Messrs. White, McClernand, Broadwell, and B. S. Edwards are for the prosecution, and Messrs. Lincoln, Logan and Cullom are retained for the defense. The indisposition of Mr. Edwards may prevent his making an argument in the case. Mr. E. B. Hitt, of Chicago, has been engaged to report the trial. Up to 4 o’clock, only three jurymen had been empanelled.

“The Harrison Case,” Illinois State Journal, September 1, 1859, Edition 2: The trial of Quinn Harrison, indicted by. the Grand. Jury, for the’ murder of Greek Crafton, is set by agreement, for this morning. We presume it will not be disposed, of for several days, as there are a large number of witnesses to be examined. Messrs; White, and McClernand & Broadwell, and B. S. Edwards, are for the prosecution, and Messrs. Lincoln and Logan are retained for the defense. The indisposition of Mr. Edwards may prevent his taking any part in the trial.

“The Harrison Case,” Illinois State Journal, September 1, 1859: Owing to the interest which is felt in this case, now bofore the Circuit Court, and the further fact that the parties concerned are old and valued citizens of the county, we have made arrangements for reporting the testimony in full. For this purpose we have secured the services of Mr. it; R. Hitt, the well known law reporter of Chicago.

“The Register and the Grand Jury,” Illinois State Journal, September 1, 1859, Edition 2: Our paragraph in reference to the severe action of the Grand Jury in the Harrison case, affords occasion for a very affecting comment on the part of the Register. That sheet is wonderfully afraid that we are trying to give the case a political turn, which was as remote as possible from our intention. Upon what the Register predicates its fears, is not so apparent, unless it assumes that the acts of a Grand Jury are, forsooth, above all scrutiny or “censure,” which we would inform the editor, is not our nderstanding of the matter. We do not believe, as the Register seems to, that Grand Juries are omnipotent inquisitions, but we hold that they are just as responsible to public opinion for what they do as individuals. But it sounds rather laughable in the Register to talk about our lugging politics into the courts, when it is notorious that the very Grand Jury, which that sheet apologizes for, is a packed political machine, made up entirely of the very strongest Democratic partisans, for a particular purpose. If the Register is sincere in its deprecation of partisanism in judicial proceedings, let it begin by venting a small vial full of indignation at the composition of its present Grand Jury, before it presumes to arraign others on the charge. But aside from all this, and from the evident effort of the Register to call attention, politically, to the case of our Quinn Harrison, we trust that court and the traverso jury will act fairly and do their whole duty in the premises.

Untitled Article, Illinois State Register, September 1, 1859: The Journal makes a lame excuse for its paragraph prejudging the Harrison case, now pending in the circuit court, and charges us with what we condemned in its first paragraph. The justice of this we are willing to leave to public judgment, We repeat what we said on Tuesday—nobody can be benefitted by such attorneyship as that volunteered by the Journal. It is unjust to either side, and can result in no public good. We do not consider courts or juries immaculate, but there in a proper and improper time to discuss the correctness of their action. In the present instance we think the Journal has chosen the latter, to say nothing of the manner of its discussion. That’s all.

Untitled Article, Illinois State Journal, September 2, 1859: The counsel in the Harrison case being desirous of securing a full and verbatim report of the entire proceedings, it became necessary for Mr. Hitt, the law reporter, to devote his whole time to them. Consequently, we are unable to give as full a report as we intended we present however, a carefully prepared abstract, embracing every essential point, prepared by our own reporter.

“Trial of P. Quinn Harrison, Indicted for the Murder of Greek Crafton,” Illinois State Journal, September 2, 1859: [The paper gives a verbatim transcript of the testimony of the second day of the trial, ending with the defense offering Rev. Cartwright’s testimony concerning Greek Crafton’s deathbed statement.]

“The Harrison Case,” Illinois State Register, September 2, 1859: One of the jurymen empanelled on Wednesday being taken sick, most of the forenoon yesterday was occupied in completing the panel. The examination of the witnesses, on the part of the defense, was commenced, and some five or six were examined, when court adjourned for the day. The trial will occupy several days yet.

“The Harrison Trial,” Illinois State Journal, September 3, 1859: At the opening of Court, yesterday morning, Rev. Peter Cartwright was re-called for further examination. The Court decided, upon the previous” objection, that the evidence as to the dying declarations of Crafton must be heard while the jury were excluded; to which ruling the defendant’s counsel excepted.

The jury then retired, and Rev. Mr. Cartwright stated to the Court in a characteristic and forcible manner, the particulars of his visit to the bedside of the dying Crafton. The Court, after argument, decided that it was competent for the jury to hear the evidence; overruling the objection made by the prosecution. The jury were then brought in, and Rev. Mr. Cartwright in a voice tremulous with age and feeling, repeated his statement ***.

[T]he witness was [then]discharged from further attendance.

The Defense then renewed the question raised yesterday, offering to prove by witnesses, that at different times between the 4th and 16th of July, Greek Crafton made threats against Quinn Harrison, and to show that these threats were made within half an hour of the rencountre, so as to render it probable that he was in the same state of mind at the time of the struggle; though those threats had not been made known to the defendant. Mr. Broadwell for the prosecution, proceeded to argue against its admissibility. Mr. Logan and Mr. Lincoln followed, Mr. Palmer closing the argument, discussing the subject with learning and eloquence.

At the meeting of the Court after dinner, the Court decided the question, overruling the objections and admitting the testimony.

Madison Cartwright confirmed Rev. Peter Cartwright’s statement as to the declaration of Greek Crafton. P. M. Carier testified to threats made by Greek prior to the 16th. Dr. John Slater also confirmed Rev. Peter Cartwright. Thomas Turley, John Alien, John Purvians, Abijah Nottingham, James Zanes also testified as to various threats; when the defense rested.

The Prosecution called Jacob Epler to rebut Mr. Cartwright, or rather to add to his statement. Dr. Million was called for the same purpose; but Mr. Palmer withdrew his testimony and announced that the evidence was closed. Mr. Broadwell proceeded to sum up the case to the jury. At the conclusion of his argument, which was somewhat shortened owing to the feeble state of his health, Court took a recess until half past seven o’clock, P. M.

Eight o’clock,’ p. M.—Mr. Cullom, on behalf of the defense, proceeded to discuss the case; but had not gone far, when, owing to the great heat of the crowded court room, he became ill and was unable to proceed further. Judge Logan immediately entered upon his argument, which he continued for an hour and a quarter with great ability, discussing the facts with the most impressive earnestness and eloquence. Without concluding, he gave way, and court adjourned until nine o’clock to-morrow morning. Mr. Logan will continue and conclude his argument this morning, to be followed by Mr. Lincoln; after which Mr. Palmer will close the whole argument.

“The Harrison Case,” Illinois State Register, September 3, 1859: A motion having been made on Thursday afternoon, to exclude as evidence the threats made by Crafton, a warm debate sprung up between the counsel on yesterday morning. Judge Rice rendered his decision in favor of admitting the testimony. The evidence in the case closed late in the afternoon, when Mr. Broadwell addressed the jury on the part of the prosecution and court adjourned until half past seven in the evening. The other gentlemen in the case may probably conclude their arguments during the night session the case has not occupied as much time as was generally anticipated.

“The Harrison Trial—Verdict, Not Guilty,” Illinois State Journal, September 5, 1859: At the meeting of the Court on Saturday morning, Judge Logan resumed his argument and continued it for near two hours as ably as he had begun on Friday night. Mr. Lincoln, also on behalf of the prisoner followed him in a speech of two hours, examining the evidence with great skill and clearness, discussing the law and replying to the positions assumed by the counsel for the prosecution with a subtle and resistless logic, and frequent illustrations of singular fitness. It was delivered in an earnest, natural and energetic manner.

Court then took a recess for dinner.

Mr. Palmer proceeded at the meeting of the Court in the afternoon, to the closing argument for the prosecution. He spoke with marked ability for three hours, evincing great ingenuity in handling the testimony, interspersing many remarks upon human nature and human passions, the duties of the citizens and the spirit of the law.

At the conclusion of the argument the jury retired in charge of the officer—it then being eleven minutes after four o’clock. The crowd, which filled the court-room, hall and stairway densely, awaited their return with the most anxious expectation. At twenty one minutes after five o’clock, having been out one hour and ten minutes, the jury returned, and the foreman informed the Court that they had agreed upon a verdict at the same time handing it up upon a slip of paper. His Honor, Judge Rice, opened it, and while every sound in the densely packed room was hushed, and every face filled with anxiety, read: “We, the Jury, find the defendant Not Guilty as charged in the indictment.” The announcement was greeted with loud and prolonged applause in spite of the efforts of the officers to subdue the manifestation of feeling.

The prisoner, P. Quinn Harrison, was of course immediately discharged, whereupon he was surrounded by his friends and received their congratulations with a countenance beaming with joy, but with a grave and dignified reserve, well befitting the occasion.

“Harrison Acquitted,” Illinois State Register, September 5, 1859: The trial of P.Q. Harrison for the killing of Greek Crafton, terminated on Saturday, in his acquittal. The whole day was occupied by counsel in the argument of the case, and great legal ability was evinced on either side. The argument closed about 4 o’clock and the jury retired. At 6 they returned a verdict of “not guilty.” The courtroom was densely crowded to hear the verdict, which was received with loud manifestations of applause.

The deepest interest has been excited by this trial, which has occupied four days, during which time the courthouse has been crowded with people, to hear the testimony and arguments of counsel.

Thursday, November 5, 2015


Irving Younger, a professor of law at Cornell Law School, used to teach a continuing legal education class on cross-examination. As part of that class, he almost always told the story of Abraham Lincoln’s dramatic cross-examination of a perjured witness in the famous Almanac Trial. According to Younger, a murder had occurred at nighttime in a wooded area near a Methodist camp meeting. The star witness for the prosecution testified he saw clearly that Lincoln’s client had committed the murder. When Lincoln’s turn came to cross-examine, he completely destroyed the witness with this line of questioning:

Q: Did you actually see the fight?

A: Yes.

Q: And you stood very near to them?

A: No, it was one hundred and fifty feet or more.

Q: In the open field?

A: No, in the timber.

Q: What kind of timber?

A: Beech timber.

Q: Leaves are rather thick in August?

A: It looks like it.

Q: What time did all this occur?

A: Eleven o’clock at night.

Q: Did you have a candle there?

A: No, what would I want a candle for?

Q: How could you see from a distance of one hundred and fifty feet or more without a candle, at eleven o’clock at night?

A: The moon was shining real bright.

Q: Full moon?

A: Yes, a full moon.

[Lincoln produces the almanac.]

Q: Does not the almanac say that on August 29 the moon was barely past the first quarter instead of being full?

A: (No answer).

Q: Does not the almanac also say that the moon had disappeared by eleven o’clock?

A: (No answer).

Q: Is it not a fact that it was too dark to see anything from fifty feet, let alone one hundred and fifty feet?

A: (No answer).[1]

Younger told a dramatic story and used it to illustrate an important point about the art of cross-examination. Unfortunately, however, as I showed in The Almanac Trial, the story is not true.[2] We must look elsewhere for evidence of Lincoln’s abilities as a cross-examiner. If the testimonials of his contemporaries have worth as evidence, he must have been very good. His colleagues at the bar all praised his abilities.

Isaac Newton Arnold, who wrote three books about his friend and colleague, had this to say: “His examination and cross-examination of witnesses were very happy and effective. He always treated those who were disposed to be truthful with respect.[3]

“He had the ability to perceive with almost intuitive quickness the decisive point in the case. In the examination and cross-examination of a witness he had no equal. He could compel a witness to tell the truth when he meant to lie, and if a witness lied he rarely escaped exposure under Lincoln's cross-examination.”[4] Judge David Davis, whom Lincoln appointed to the Supreme Court, said Lincoln could compel a witness to tell the whole truth, and seldom sought to overpower the witness by browbeating him. According to Davis, Lincoln always treated a witness with such kindness that he could disarm the witness of any hostile intention.[5]

At the 1912 convention of the Illinois State’s Attorneys Association, Joseph Benjamin Oakleaf gave a speech in which he said that in “the art of cross-examination … he had no equal.” Oakleaf went on to describe Lincoln’s method of cross-examining: “If any obstinate witness appeared and was determined to conceal facts which Lincoln desired brought out, Lincoln would neither show resentment nor attempt to coerce the witness but would go after him in a nice, friendly way, questioning about things which were foreign to the point desired, thus placing him at ease, making him forget his antagonistic ideas, and, before he was aware of the harm he was doing his side, the whole story would be laid bare, and then Lincoln would compliment the witness on his fairness and the witness would consider himself a hero.”[6] We have a description of this style of cross-examination from Lincoln’s own lips:

I was retained in the defense of a man charged before a justice of the peace with assault and battery. It was in the country, and when I got to the place of trial I found the whole neighborhood excited, and the feeling was strong against my client. I saw the only way was to get up a laugh and get the people in good humor. It turned out that the prosecuting witness was talkative; he described the fight at great length; how they had fought over a field, now by the barn, again down to the creek, and over it, and so on. I asked him on cross-examination how large that field was; he said it was ten acres; he knew it was, for he and someone else had stepped it off with a pole. “Well, then,” I inquired, “was not that the smallest crop of a fight you have ever seen raised off of ten acres?” The hit took. The laughter was uproarious, and in half an hour the prosecuting witness was retreating amid the jeers of the crowd. [7]

We even have a testimonial to Lincoln’s success in this style of cross-examination from the lips of a young man who was inveigled, against his will, to tell the truth in a lawsuit. Upon being interviewed by Frederick Trevor Hill for his book Lincoln as a Lawyer, James Hoblit had this to say:

I shall never forget my experience with him. I was subpoenaed in a case brought by one Paullin against my uncle, and I knew too much about the matter in dispute for my uncle's good. The case was not of vital importance, but it seemed very serious to me, for I was a mere boy at the time. Mr. Paullin had owned a bull which was continually raiding his neighbor's corn, and one day my uncle ordered his boys to drive the animal out of his fields, and not to use it too gently, either. Well, the boys obeyed the orders only too literally, for one of them harpooned the bull with a pitchfork, injuring it permanently, and I saw enough of the occurrence to make me a dangerous witness.

The result was that Paullin sued my uncle, the boys were indicted for malicious mischief, Mr. Lincoln was retained by the plaintiff, who was determined to make an example of somebody, and I was subpoenaed as a witness. My testimony was, of course, of the highest possible importance, because the plaintiff couldn't make my cousins testify, and I had every reason to want to forget what I had seen, and though pretty frightened, I determined, when I took the stand, to say as little as possible. Well, as soon as I told Mr. Lincoln my full name he became very much interested, asking me if I wasn't some relative of his old friend John Hoblit who kept the house between Springfield and Bloomington; and when I answered that he was my grandfather, Mr. Lincoln grew very friendly, plying me with all sorts of questions about family matters, which put me completely at my ease, and before I knew what was happening, I had forgotten to be hostile and he had the whole story. After the trial he met me outside the courtroom and stopped to tell me that he knew I hadn't wanted to say anything against my people, but that though he sympathized with me, I had acted rightly and no one could criticize me for what I had done. The whole matter was afterward adjusted, but I never forgot his friendly and encouraging words at a time when I needed sympathy and consolation.[8]

If corkscrewing the truth out of an adverse witness would not help his client’s case, Lincoln had other techniques that he could employ to blunt the force of the witness’s testimony. Vice President Adlai E. Stevenson, as a young man, once saw Lincoln use such a technique:

I once heard Mr. Lincoln defend a man in Bloomington against a charge of passing counterfeit money. There was a pretty clear case against the accused, but when the chief witness for the people took the stand, he stated that his name was J. Parker Green, and Lincoln reverted to this the moment he rose to cross-examine:

Q: Why J. Parker Green?

Q: What did the J. stand for?

Q: John?

Q: Well, why didn't the witness call himself John P. Green?

Q: That was his name, wasn't it?

Q: Well, what was the reason he did not wish to be known by his right name?

Q: Did J. Parker Green have anything to conceal?

Q: [I]f not, why did J. Parker Green part his name in that way?

And so on. Of course the whole examination was farcical, but there was something irresistibly funny in the varying tones and inflections of Mr. Lincoln's voice as he rang the changes upon the man's name; and at the recess the very boys in the street took it up as a slogan and shouted “J. Parker Green!” all over the town. Moreover, there was something in Lincoln's way of intoning his questions which made me suspicious of the witness, and to this day I have never been able to rid my mind of the absurd impression that there was something not quite right about J. Parker Green. It was all nonsense, of course; but the jury must have been affected as I was, for Green was discredited and the defendant went free.[9]

Irving Younger had ten commandments for cross-examination, which included the admonitions never to ask a question if you didn’t already know the answer and never to ask a question beginning with the word “why.” These rules of thumb have probably been repeated at least since Cicero was defending murder trials in ancient Rome. Good lawyers follow them; great lawyers know when to break them, as shown by an anecdote Lincoln once related to General Ambrose Burnside. It seems that Lincoln had asked General George B. McClellan to attend a cabinet meeting. When McClellan appeared for the meeting an hour and a half late, he excused his tardiness by saying he had forgotten. This prompted Lincoln to tell Burnside:

When I was practicing law in Illinois a bad fellow in our town was charged with moral delinquency or in other words rape. He was accused of having committed two outrages on the woman—one in the afternoon and the other the next day; everybody believed him guilty and when he applied to me to defend him, I refused; but he pled so hard and assured me so positively that the woman was a willing party that I consented to defend him and took up his cause. My friends remonstrated; but I was so convinced of the man’s innocence that I determined to go on. At the trial, the woman gave in excellent direct testimony. I saw its effect on the jury and that it must be overcome; and in the cross-examination I led her off to other topics and then suddenly returned to the charge.

“Did you sleep with your husband after the first outrage?”

She said “Yes.”

“Did you tell him about it?”

“No—I forgot.”[10]

Because shorthand reporters were rare in antebellum Illinois, we have very few transcripts of Lincoln actually conducting a cross-examination, and we are thus reduced to assessing his skill largely from anecdotes and testimonials. Anecdotes suffer from the natural human tendency to remember one’s deeds as better than they actually were and remember events as being more dramatic than they actually were. Testimonials suffer from another natural tendency, the desire to embellish and put things in the best light possible. We might therefore dismiss these sources as no evidence at all except for the fact that we have good records of three incidents in Lincoln’s political career which demonstrate his ability.

The first piece of evidence comes from correspondence between Lincoln and General George B. McClellan. At an early stage of the Civil War it became apparent that President Lincoln and General George B. McClellan did not see eye to eye on the conduct of the war. Lincoln wanted McClellan to take his army (the largest in the world at that time) and make a direct attack upon Richmond. McClellan wanted to take his time to prepare for a roundabout attack. On February 3, 1863 Lincoln sent McClellan a letter summarizing their differences and asking five questions. In accordance with the cross-examination maxim to never ask a question when you don’t know the answer, Lincoln believed that he already knew the short answers to each of these questions. He hoped by his letter to cause McClellan to shake off his lethargy and get moving directly at the enemy. Lincoln wrote:

My dear Sir: You and I have distinct, and different plans for a movement of the Army of the Potomac---yours to be down the Chesapeake, up the Rappahannock to Urbana, and across land to the terminus of the Railroad on the York River---, mine to move directly to a point on the Railroad South West of Manassas.

If you will give me satisfactory answers to the following questions, I shall gladly yield my plan to yours.

1st. Does not your plan involve a greatly larger expenditure of time, and money than mine?

2nd. Wherein is a victory more certain by your plan than mine?

3rd. Wherein is a victory more valuable by your plan than mine?

4th. In fact, would it not be less valuable, in this, that it would break no great line of the enemie's communications, while mine would?

5th. In case of disaster, would not a safe retreat be more difficult by your plan than by mine?[11]

The elephant in the room was the fact that McClellan’s plan would strip Washington of its defenses and expose it to a direct attack from the Confederates.

When a witness under cross-examination believes that the short answer to a question will be harmful, the witness will engage in any number of evasive techniques, one of which is to give a long, self-serving dissertation which camouflages the lack of a direct response in a torrent of words. This may or may not have been McClellan’s objective when he answered the questions, but his lengthy response[12] did fail to give succinct answers to the questions.

Unfortunately for Lincoln’s plan, he was in the war room, not in the courtroom. Although he probably would have been able to get a jury to agree with him he was unable to goad McClellan into direct action. The upshot of the disagreement was that McClellan got his roundabout attack and launched the disastrous Peninsular Campaign, which ended when Robert E. Lee defeated him in the Seven Days Battle. The point, however, is not the strategic competence of Lincoln, but the way in which he organized his questions to forcefully drive home his point that he believed the direct assault on Richmond was not only easier to carry off, it was safer than McClellan’s plan.

Lincoln would probably not have ever become commander in chief of the Union Army had he not displayed his skill at cross-examination in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Modern presidential debates are really quite laughable affairs when compared to the prototypical series of campaign debates. The Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 were actual debates and not carefully stage-managed opportunities to disgorge prefabricated talking points. The two men made arguments to their audiences in courtroom fashion with one party getting to open and close the argument. The format of the debates allowed for the candidates to ask each other questions about the positions taken on various issues. Allowing the candidates to ask each other questions gave both Lincoln and Douglas a chance to exercise their skills as cross-examiners.

Isaac N. Arnold, a friend and colleague of both men, in comparing the advocacy skills of Lincoln and Douglas, had this to say: “[T]hey were both strong jury lawyers; Lincoln, on the whole, one of the strongest we ever had in Illinois. Both were distinguished for their ability in seizing and bringing out distinctly and clearly the real point in a case. Both were happy in the examination of witnesses, but Lincoln was the stronger of the two in cross-examination. Lincoln was the stronger in a case when he believed he was on the right side. On the wrong side Douglas was the stronger.”[13] Arnold’s assessment of the two men was confirmed by their performance in the debates, where Lincoln clearly displayed his superiority to Douglas as a cross-examiner

One of the hotly contested issues of the Lincoln-Douglas debates was the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott opinion. Douglas correctly believed Lincoln’s opposition to slavery would render him vulnerable on this issue. Douglas therefore composed seven questions which he challenged Lincoln to answer. When Douglas asked these questions at the first debate held in Ottawa Lincoln ignored them, and Douglas made political hay from Lincoln’s silence. Lincoln decided to take up Douglas’s challenge at the debate held in Freeport, and Lincoln’s response changed the course of American history. Frederick Trevor Hill, in his book Lincoln the Lawyer, gives a concise account of the Freeport debate:

I will answer these interrogatories upon condition that he [Judge Douglas] will answer questions from me not exceeding the same number. I give him an opportunity to respond. [pause]. The judge remains silent. I now say I will answer his interrogatories whether he answers mine or not; [applause] but after I have done so, I shall propound mine to him. [applause.]

Lincoln then answered Douglas’s questions, and the answers sounded like the typical political waffling that is so prevalent in modern day political debate.

Question 1. “I desire to know whether Lincoln to-day stands, as he did in 1854, in favor of the unconditional repeal of the Fugitive Slave law?”

Answer. I do not now, nor ever did, stand in favor of the unconditional repeal of the Fugitive Slave law. [Cries of “Good,” “Good.”]

Q. 2. “I desire him to answer whether he stands pledged to-day, as he did in 1854, against the admission of any more slave States into the Union, even if the people want them?”

A. I do not now, or ever did, stand pledged against the admission of any more slave States into the Union.

Q. 3. “1 want to know whether he stands pledged against the admission of a new State into the Union with such a Constitution as the people of that State may see fit to make?”

A. I do not stand pledged against the admission of a new State into the Union, with such a Constitution as the people of that State may see fit to make. [Cries of “good,” “good.”]

Q. 4. “I want to know whether he stands to-day pledged to the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia?”

A. I do not stand to-day pledged to the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia.

Q. 5. “I desire him to answer whether he stands pledged to the prohibition of the slave-trade between the different States?”

A. I do not stand pledged to the prohibition of the slave-trade between the different States.

Q. 6. “I desire to know whether he stands pledged to prohibit slavery in all the Territories of the United States, North as well as South of the Missouri Compromise line?”

A. I am impliedly, if not expressly, pledged to a belief in the right and duty of Congress to prohibit slavery in all the United States Territories.

Q. 7. “I desire him to answer whether he is opposed to the acquisition of any new territory unless slavery is first prohibited therein?”

A. I am not generally opposed to honest acquisition of territory; and, in any given case, I would or would not oppose such acquisition, accordingly as I might think such acquisition would or would not aggravate the slavery question among ourselves. [Cries of good, good.][14]

Lincoln then told the crowd that his rigidly responsive answers to Douglas’s questions might give them a false impression of how he really felt on the issue of slavery.

Now, my friends, it will be perceived upon an examination of these questions and answers, that so far I have only answered that I was not pledged to this, that or the other. The Judge has not framed his interrogatories to ask me anything more than this, and I have answered in strict accordance with the interrogatories, and have answered truly that I am not pledged at all upon any of the points to which I have answered. But I am not disposed to hang upon the exact form of his interrogatory. I am rather disposed to take up at least some of these questions, and state what I really think upon them.[15]

In other words, Douglas had worded his questions so restrictively that he had given Lincoln a chance to evade him by giving truthful-but-misleading answers. Lincoln then went on to say that although he had not pledged opposition to any of the propositions advanced by Douglas, he certainly wasn’t in favor of any of them. Lincoln’s handlers had urged him not to take this tack. They felt that Lincoln would sabotage his campaign. One of his handlers is reputed to have said “If you do this, you’ll never be senator.” To which Lincoln replied, “If Douglas answers, he will never be President.” After answering Douglas’s questions, Lincoln turned to his own:

I now proceed to propound to the Judge the interrogatories, so far as I have framed them. I will bring forward a new installment when I get them ready. [Laughter.] I will bring them forward now, only reaching to number four.

The first one is:

Question 1. If the people of Kansas shall, by means entirely unobjectionable in all other respects, adopt a State Constitution, and ask admission into the Union under it, before they have the requisite number of inhabitants according to the English bill-some ninety-three thousand-will you vote to admit them? [Applause.]

Q. 2. Can the people of a United States Territory, in any lawful way, against the wish of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution? [Renewed applause.]

Q. 3. If the Supreme Court of the United States shall decide that States cannot exclude slavery from their limits, are you in favor of acquiescing in, adopting and following such decision as a rule of political action? [Loud applause.]

Q. 4. Are you in favor of acquiring additional territory, in disregard of how such acquisition may affect the nation on the slavery question? [Cries of “good,” “good.”][16]

The answer to Lincoln’s second question required Douglas to interpret the Dred Scott decision. If he replied in the negative, the people of Illinois would repudiate him, because they would not countenance the idea that the mischief had been done and that slavery had already been forced upon the Territories. If, on the other hand, he answered that the Territories were still free to choose or reject slavery, he would have to explain away the Dred Scott decision, which guaranteed protection to slave property in the Territories as a constitutional right; and this would displease the Southern Democrats who were then listening to his every word to determine whether he was or was not a safe Presidential candidate.

At his earliest opportunity, Douglas answered the question by saying that the Territories could outlaw slavery. Lincoln then pointed out how Douglas’s answer flew in the face of the Dred Scott decision, embarrassing Douglas but not derailing his candidacy for the Senate. As for his presidential aspirations, that was another story. Judah P. Benjamin, a prominent Southern Democrat, voiced the feelings of his constituents when he said:

We accuse him [Douglas] for this: that having bargained with us upon a point upon which we were at issue, that it should be considered a judicial point; that he would abide the decision; that he would act under the decision, and consider it a doctrine of the party; that having said that to us here in the Senate, he went home, and, under the stress of a local election, his knees gave way; his whole person trembled. His adversary stood upon principle and was beaten; and lo, he is the candidate of a mighty party for the Presidency of the United States. The senator from Illinois faltered. He got the prize for which he faltered; but the grand prize of his ambition to-day slips from his grasp because of his faltering in his former contest, and his success in the canvass for the Senate, purchased for an ignoble price, has cost him the loss of the Presidency of the United States![17]

Had Douglas stood by his vow to the Southern Democrats, he might have lost the Senate seat to Lincoln, but he would most likely have won the Presidency two years later, and the Civil War might never have happened. Thus, one could argue convincingly that Lincoln’s superior skill as a cross-examiner changed the course of U.S. history. It is certain that in 1858, Lincoln’s skill as a cross-examiner helped to turn him from an unknown into a presidential candidate. In 1847, his skill as a cross-examiner almost wrecked his political career. President Polk had fomented war with Mexico and had advanced some rather flimsy arguments to justify it. Lincoln opposed the war, thinking it a land-grab designed to increase the number of slave states admitted into the Union. Lincoln voiced his opposition to the war by introducing what history remembers as his “Spot Resolutions.” These resolutions consisted of a series of questions designed to demonstrate the falsity of Polk’s arguments. They read as follows:

Whereas the President of the United States, in his message of May 11th, 1846, has declared that ``The Mexican Government not only refused to receive him'' (the envoy of the U.S.) ``or listen to his propositions, but, after a long continued series of menaces, have at last invaded our territory, and shed the blood of our fellow citizens on our own soil''

And again, in his message of December 8, 1846 that ``We had ample cause of war against Mexico, long before the breaking out of hostilities. But even then we forbore to take redress into our own hands, until Mexico herself became the aggressor by invading our soil in hostile array, and shedding the blood of our citizens''

And yet again, in his message of December 7, 1847 that ``The Mexican Government refused even to hear the terms of adjustment which he'' (our minister of peace) ``was authorized to propose; and finally, under wholly unjustifiable pretexts, involved the two countries in war, by invading the territory of the State of Texas, striking the first blow, and shedding the blood of our citizens on our own soil''

And whereas this House desires to obtain a full knowledge of all the facts which go to establish whether the particular spot of soil on which the blood of our citizens was so shed, was, or was not, our own soil, at that time; therefore

Resolved by the House of Representatives, that the President of the United States be respectfully requested to inform this House---

First: Whether the spot of soil on which the blood of our citizens was shed, as in his messages declared, was, or was not, within the territories of Spain, at least from the treaty of 1819 until the Mexican revolution

Second: Whether that spot is, or is not, within the territory which was wrested from Spain, by the Mexican revolution.

Third: Whether that spot is, or is not, within a settlement of people, which settlement had existed ever since long before the Texas revolution, until its inhabitants fled from the approach of the U.S. Army.

Fourth: Whether that settlement is, or is not, isolated from any and all other settlements, by the Gulf of Mexico, and the Rio Grande, on the South and West, and by wide uninhabited regions on the North and East.

Fifth: Whether the People of that settlement, or a majority of them, or any of them, had ever, previous to the bloodshed, mentioned in his messages, submitted themselves to the government or laws of Texas, or of the United States, by consent, or by compulsion, either by accepting office, or voting at elections, or paying taxes, or serving on juries, or having process served upon them, or in any other way.

Sixth: Whether the People of that settlement, did, or did not, flee from the approach of the United States Army, leaving unprotected their homes and their growing crops, before the blood was shed, as in his messages stated; and whether the first blood so shed, was, or was not shed, within the inclosure of the People, or some of them, who had thus fled from it.

Seventh: Whether our citizens, whose blood was shed, as in his messages declared, were, or were not, at that time, armed officers, and soldiers, sent into that settlement, by the military order of the President through the Secretary of War---and

Eighth: Whether the military force of the United States, including those citizens, was, or was not, so sent into that settlement, after Genl. Taylor had, more than once, intimated to the War Department that, in his opinion, no such movement was necessary to the defense or protection of Texas.[18]

Of the Spot Resolutions, Frederick Trevor Hill said, “No interpellation of a government was ever phrased in more telling questions. They were unanswerable, and the administration sought safety in silence.”[19] Lincoln’s constituents, however, were not silent, and they let him know in no uncertain terms that they were not happy about how he had exposed the President’s disingenuous excuse for going to war. Realizing that he could not possibly win a second term in Congress, Lincoln declined to run for re-election and returned to his law practice in Springfield thinking that his career as a politician was over. Upon arriving back in Illinois, Lincoln discovered that he had acquired a new nickname as a result of his resolutions—he had become known as “Spotty” Lincoln.[20]