This character portrait of Lincoln the lawyer shows him handling a fictional murder trial.
At New Salem in 1832 Abraham Lincoln (Henry Fonda) runs for the legislature and extends credit to the arriving Clay family, delighted at getting old books. Lincoln reads Blackstone on law and talks with Ann Rutledge. In the snow at her grave Lincoln says he aims to be a lawyer, and he begins in Springfield with John T. Stuart. Lincoln settles a suit between two men, who have quarreled over money. At an Independence Day parade Lincoln meets Stephen Douglas (Milburn Stone) and Mary Todd (Marjorie Weaver). He wins a rail-splitting contest and uses a wagon to help his side win the tug of war. Carrie Sue (Judith Dickens) tells Adam Clay (Eddie Quillan) she wants to get married. Scrub White teases Sarah Clay (Arleen Whelan) and nearly fights with Adam and Matt Clay (Richard Cromwell). At night Scrub White pulls a gun as he fights with Adam and Matt. John Palmer Cass (Ward Bond) says White was killed by a knife and cries "Murder." Both brothers tell the sheriff they did it, and their mother Abigail Clay (Alice Brady) won't say. A mob tries to break into the jail to lynch them; but Lincoln stops them and says he can lick anyone. Lincoln says he needs his first case as a lawyer and argues against lynching until they leave.
Lincoln is invited to a dance by Mary Todd, and she makes him dance with her. Leaving town, Lincoln says his office is in his hat. He visits the Clay family and reads a letter from Adam and Matt, taking notes in an Almanac. Abigail Clay won't tell him which son killed White. Lincoln questions men for the jury and accepts the honest ones. Prosecutor John Felder (Donald Meek) says he will prove that Adam and Matt murdered. The sheriff identifies the knife and says the defendants drank. Lincoln shows that White had a pistol, and the sheriff heard a shot. Cass testifies that White quarreled with Adam and Matt, and he heard a shot. Lincoln asks Cass about his argument with White. Felder calls Abigail Clay and offers to save one son if she will say which one killed. Lincoln pleads for her. Cass says he saw the killing from a hundred yards by moonlight, and it was Matt who did it. At night the judge asks Lincoln to get help from Stephen Douglas. Lincoln recalls Cass and says he killed White, because the Almanac shows there was no moon. Lincoln says Cass fought with White and stabbed him with Matt's knife. Cass confesses. Mary Todd and Stephen Douglas congratulate Lincoln. The Clay family thanks him and leaves. Lincoln walks to a hill, and the Lincoln monument is shown.
This film directed by John Ford manages to capture much
of Lincoln's famous humor and his integrity as he demonstrates
his skill as a lawyer in a melodramatic murder trial.