Frederick Trevor Hill was one of the first Lincoln biographers to write a book exclusively about Lincoln’s legal career. His work, Lincoln the Lawyer, which was published in 1912, contains a chapter entitled “The Cross-Examiner,” in which Hill assesses Lincoln’s abilities. Hill had this to say:
Cross-examination makes greater demands upon a lawyer than any other phase of trial work, and it has been rightly termed an art. To succeed in it the practitioner must be versed in the rules of evidence; he must be familiar with all the facts in his case, and keep them continually in his mind; he must think logically, be far-sighted, tactful, and a keen judge of human nature. All these qualities Lincoln possessed to an unusual degree, and, in addition, he exerted a remarkable personal influence upon every one with whom he came into contact. Men who were openly opposed to him became fascinated when they met him, and few ever retained their hostility. This result was effected without any seeming effort on his part, and Lincoln was singularly free from all the arts and graces, natural or cultivated, which are usually associated with personal charm. He was direct, simple, and unaffectedly frank, and the conclusion is irresistible that he was endowed with psychic qualities of extraordinary power. Nothing except this can properly explain his wonderful control of witnesses and juries, and every experienced lawyer knows that strong individuality, commanding presence, and personal magnetism are essential factors in the equipment of all great cross-examiners. More than one man has described the effect of Lincoln’s eyes by saying that they appeared to look directly through whatever he concentrated his gaze upon, and it is well known that during his frequent fits of abstraction he became absolutely oblivious to the bustle and confusion of the court-room and saw nothing of the scene before him.
But although there was something mysterious in Lincoln’s personality which played an important part in his success as a cross-examiner, his mastery of the art was acquired in the only way it can be acquired, and that is by constant, daily practice in the courts. He was a natural logician, and by slow degrees he cultivated this gift until he could detect faulty reasoning, no matter how skillfully it was disguised. In almost every instance he saw the logical conclusion of an answer long before it dawned upon the witness, and was thus able to lead him without appearing to do so.
Hill’s book is still in print, but the Internet Archive has a free downloadable version at: http://archive.org/details/lincolnlawye00hill. Interestingly, Hill states that Lincoln’s greatest coup on cross-examination did not occur in a trial. It came during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and it quite likely changed the course of U.S. history. In a later post, we will discuss this cross-examination.