Lincoln and the Court

By Brian McGinty | Harvard University Press | $27.95 | 384 pages | 2008

Lincoln and the Court is a worthy addition to the body of Lincoln scholarship. While other works have focused on Lincoln's own career as an attorney, Mr. McGinty studies in depth the Lincoln administration's relationship with the United States Supreme Court. He examines that relationship in every major aspect, including the nomination process; the relationship among the justices themselves and between the Court and Lincoln, his attorney general, and major players in the Lincoln administration; and biographical information about each justice pertinent to the crucial decisions before them.

McGinty does his best work bringing back to life the series of decisions by the United States Supreme Court that led to the Civil War and were crucial to the outcome of that war. Dred Scott, indeed, had much to do with the Lincoln-Douglas debates and Lincoln's ascension to the national spotlight. The Court's rulings in the Dred Scott case, the habeas corpus decisions, the Legal Tender cases and the Prize cases were instrumental in causing the war, determining how it was waged, and influencing its outcome. The issues raised in these cases, particularly the power of the president in wartime, have enduring interest.

McGinty also reminds us that the decisions of courts, even at the highest levels, are animated by personalities, politics and luck. The bare majority on the Court that sustained important aspects of Lincoln's conduct of the
war emerged from the death of one justice and the return to the South of another, leaving a Court that included strong southern sympathizers and resolute unionists.

McGinty writes clearly and succinctly, and explains the complex legal and factual scenarios presented to the Court. The prominent role the Court played in Lincoln's career makes this study an appropriate and cogent one. Lincoln and the Court is a must-read for Lincoln scholars and students of our highest court, but also has much to offer those with interest in great men and momentous times.


JIM DELANIS is with the Nashville office of Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell and Berkowitz P.C. He does primarily commercial and intellectual property litigation.