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In New Salem, Illinois, in 1832, young Abraham Lincoln, a candidate for the state legislature, addresses his constituents. Introducing himself as "plain Abe Lincoln," he promises that "if elected, I shall be thankful...if not...it will all be the same." After he finishes his speech, Abe trades a pioneer family named Clay some drygoods for a copy of Blackstone's Commentaries , an act that will come to fruition years later when Abe defends the sons of that family, Matt and Adam, against murder charges. Abe studies the book by the river and is inspired by its notion of law and right and wrong. He is encouraged in his studies by Ann Rutledge, who urges him to have confidence in himself and follow the path of the law.
After Ann's untimely death, Abe gives up tending store and leaves for Springfield, where he establishes a law practice with his old friend John Stuart. While at the Independence Day parade, Abe meets Mary Todd, his future wife, and Stephen Douglas, his future political opponent. Later that night, he is faced with his first major case when Scrub White is stabbed during a fight with Matt and Adam Clay, and J. Palmer Cass accuses the brothers of murder. When both brothers claim guilt, and the only eyewitness, their mother Abigail, refuses to testify, the crowd of onlookers is transformed into a surly lynch mob. Abe then steps in to uphold the law by appointing himself the brothers' attorney.
Inspired by Abe's courageous act, Mary Todd invites him to a party at the elegant house of her sister and her husband, Ninian Edwards. At the party, Mary shuns the attentions of Stephen Douglas to seek out Abe. Later, Abe rides to the Clay's log cabin, where he tells Mrs. Clay, her daughter-in-law Kate and Carrie Sue, Adam's fiancé, that he feels like they are his family. At the trial, Abe appeals to the jury with his homespun logic, based on the principle that law is a simple matter of right and wrong. His opponent, prosecuting attorney John Felder, calls Abigail to the stand and offers her the life of one of her sons in exchange for the name of Scrub's killer, but she refuses to answer. When Felder continues to brow beat Abigail, Abe protests his tactics and Felder invokes Abe's lack of knowledge of the law, to which Abe replies that he knows right from wrong. Felder then calls J. Palmer Cass to the stand as a surprise eye witness, and Cass testifies that he saw Matt stab Scrub by the light of the moon.
That night, the judge visits Abe and advises him to consult Douglas, a more experienced attorney, for help. Even though his case looks hopeless, Abe refuses the judge's advice and the next day, he turns to the Farmer's Almanac to prove that the moon had already set when Scrub was stabbed, and therefore, Cass could not have witnessed the murder. Abe then forces Cass to confess that he murdered Scrub. After his victory, Abe is congratulated by Mary and Douglas, who now recognizes Abe as a worthy opponent. The boys are freed, and as the Clay family drives off in their wagon, Abe climbs a distant hill, beginning his ascension into history.