Lincoln Shows How to Respect Opponents

For those of us who live in one of the most divisive periods in history, we would do well to follow the example of Abraham Lincoln. He is rightly remembered as the man who saved the Union. He was guided by a core belief that you can oppose a person’s political position without denigrating the person.

In 1859, Lincoln was the attorney for Simeon Quinn “Peachy” Harrison. Harrison was on trial for his life, having been charged with murder. The case garnered national attention because Lincoln was increasingly considered a contender for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination. It would be the final murder trial of Lincoln’s 25-year career as a trial attorney.

Opposing Lincoln was Sangamon County State’s Attorney John M. Palmer. He was the one who decided to bring first-degree murder charges against Harrison. He had the power to drop the charges or reduce them, but he zealously prosecuted the case on behalf of the people of the State of Illinois.

Lincoln represented Harrison well. He argued that his client acted in self-defense and was justified in his actions. The jury agreed, and Harrison was acquitted.

Palmer had political aspirations that would not be derailed because of his defeat in the trial. He would eventually become governor of Illinois. For that reason, Harrison found himself sitting in judgment of the man who prosecuted him. Instead of a courtroom, this trial would take plate at the ballot box.

Harrison wrote to his former attorney, asking his opinion on the upcoming election. In a letter dated November 3, 1859, Lincoln responded. Although he had fought tooth-and-nail with Palmer in a life-or-death dispute, he was able to look at the character of the man.

Lincoln’s last bit of advice to his former client was that he should certainly vote for Palmer. He wrote, “he is good and true, and deserves the best vote we can give him.”

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