Judging Lincoln

Judging Lincoln

Judging Lincoln

Judging Lincoln


Judging Lincoln collects nine of the most insightful essays on the topic of the sixteenth president as written over the past twenty years by Frank J. Williams, chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court and one of the nation's leading authorities on Abraham Lincoln. For Judge Williams, Lincoln remains the central figure of the American experience- past, present, and future. With this collection, he boldly reassesses Lincoln's legacy as we enter the twenty-first century.

Williams begins with a survey of the interest in- and influence of- Lincoln both at home and abroad and then moves into an analysis of Lincoln's personal character with respect to his ability to foster relationships of equality among his intimates. Collectively, these first two sections demonstrate that the president's international legacy as the Great Emancipator is well deserved.

The third section addresses Lincoln's leadership abilities during the span of his career, with particular emphasis on the Civil War. Classifying Lincoln's leadership has been difficult, as he could at times adopt the stance of autocrat or democrat, conservative or liberal, idealist or Machiavellian. Williams defends the value of each stance within its historical context. Next, Williams enters into a qualitative comparison between Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill to explain why Lincoln not only ranks as America's greatest leader but also holds that same position among the pantheon of all the world's democratic leaders.

Williams concludes this volume with an essay (written with Mark E. Neely Jr.) on collecting Lincoln artifacts as another means of preserving and fostering the Lincoln legacy. The quality of Williams's own extensive collection is evidenced by the forty-nine illustrations included in this book from the Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana.


During the famous Illinois senatorial debates of 1858, challenger Abraham Lincoln liked to goad his opponent incumbent, Stephen A. Douglas, by referring to him by a name clearly meant in those days to disparage him: judge. With Lincoln, it was never “Senator Douglas.” It was always “Judge Douglas.” the old debate transcripts still fairly crackle with the subtle but disparaging inflection that Lincoln must have brought to the task of so teasing “the Little Giant.”

It was not that Lincoln held the entire judiciary in disregard. in fact, he counted several judges as friends and political allies, among them David W. Davis, whom he would one day name to the United States Supreme Court. and Lincoln himself had served as a judge from time to time, presiding over the occasional case on the Illinois Eighth Judicial Circuit when preassigned jurists became unavailable.

But in 1858, Lincoln was also deep in a war of criticism against the Supreme Court's recent Dred Scott decision, which he believed emblematic of a Democratic Party conspiracy to nationalize slavery. Douglas huffed in reply that his rival was doing nothing less than “making war” on a decision made by the nation's highest tribunal. Lincoln disagreed.

In a stinging reply at the Quincy debate on October 13, Lincoln reminded his audience that Douglas himself had years earlier worked “to reverse a decision” of Illinois's own state supreme court, in the bargain winning the judge- ship that Lincoln now enjoyed ridiculing. “Did he not go and make speeches in the lobby and show how it was villainous, ” Lincoln asked, “and did he not succeed in procuring the reorganizing of the court, and did he not succeed in sitting on the bench, getting his name of Judge in that way?” Clearly, being a judge was no certain avenue to respect where Lincoln was concerned.

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