Thursday, March 12, 2015

Book Review: Lincoln's Greatest Case

Lincoln's Greatest Case: The River, the Bridge, and the Making of America
Brian McGinty
History, biography

This is the first half of an excellent book combined with the second half of a decent book.

The "Greatest Case" monicker is not mere hyperbole. In 1856, the Rock Island Railroad opened the first bridge across the Mississippi. Two weeks later, the steamboat Effie Afton collided with one of its piers. The boat sank; the bridge was damaged. The steamboat owners sued for damages. Had they won, they might have halted bridge construction across navigable waterways--an outcome that would have pleased, among others, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis: river transport favored the South, and in any case Davis wanted a southern railroad rather than a northern one (to promote the spread of slavery).

These are the big issues that the first half of Lincoln's Greatest Case brings up, and a fine job it does therein. It also gives an excellent portrait of Lincoln as a lawyer (one of the best in Illinois) and as a soon-to-be-famous man.

The second half of the book is the story of the trial. It's interesting, readably told, and perfectly clear, but:

  • It wasn't primarily Lincoln's case; he was one of three lawyers, and not the leading one. His role in the case wasn't minor, but neither was it the starring part--and much of it consisted of preparing documents and doing research.
  • It's a courtroom drama without the drama. Real life is seldom as satisfying as fiction, and real lawsuits aren't John Grisham territory. McGinty does a good job narrating the course of the trial, but he can't disguise the fact that it was kind of ... routine. Neither the verdict nor the journey getting there contains any surprises.
  • McGinty also has a slight tendency to lose himself in lawyerly byways. For example, there's a solid page-and-a-half of text on pp. 104-105 that could have been replaced with the single sentence "Lincoln almost certainly visited the bridge in person before the trial."
Lincoln's Greatest Case is a good read for anyone who's specifically interested in Lincoln himself, the 1850s, or trials for their own sake. If you want an introduction to the period, Bruce Catton's classic The Coming Fury (volume 1 of his Centennial History of the Civil War trilogy) is a better place to start; if you're interested in Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals deserves the praise it's received.

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