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NewCityNet Lincoln Log

By Ben Winters

JULY 3, 2000: 

Moonlight: Abraham Lincoln and the Almanac Trial by John Evangelist Walsh (St. Martin's Press), $22.95, 166 pages

Once upon a time, American presidents were decent, God-fearing men who acted impeccably in word and deed, who crossed the Delaware and freed slaves and limited public appearances to the faces of coins and the sides of mountains. Then one of them got shot in Dallas, and the whole enterprise went to shit: Suddenly they were stealing documents from Washington hotels, funding fascist insurgencies in Spanish-speaking nations and besmirching interns after hours.

As if that weren't disheartening enough, it now comes out that those presidents, the dutiful ones whose birthdays are celebrated with a paid holiday, were never who we thought. Just when we'd forgiven George Washington for his wooden teeth and Thomas Jefferson for dalliances in the slave quarters, along comes John Evangelist Walsh with yet another presidential stain on the blue dress of our collective consciousness: Honest Abe wasn't so honest after all.

In "Moonlight: Abraham Lincoln and the Almanac Trial," Walsh dips into the days before the presidency to detail Lincoln the lawyer's most famous courtroom adventure. On the cusp of national fame, indeed scant months before the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Abe received an imploring letter from an old friend: Hannah Armstrong wrote that her son, Duff, was facing murder charges and things didn't look good. Could Abe come to the rescue?

Of course he could, and did, using a famous bit of courtroom maneuvering to undermine the credibility of the prosecution's eyewitness and tear down the whole case; though Charles Allen was dead sure that the moon was directly overhead, our man produced an almanac proving otherwise. Walsh re-creates the scene, like most of this historical drama, with a certain flatness, having promised in the introduction that he will avoid all speculation. Still, it's a fine moment, and patriotic pride in its brilliance is dampened only slightly by Walsh's observation (borne out, he claims, by numerous nighttime experiments) that it didn't matter where the moon was, it would have been bright enough for Allen to witness the murder anyway.

Walsh's is not a book of psychological history--I found it chiefly interesting as a document of the justice system in action, a system somewhat antique but recognizably our own--but he dips deep enough into Lincoln's psyche to discover a man torn between his commitment to justice and his loyalty to an old friend.

I say we keep him on the penny.

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