Author and Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter's novel "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln" turns history on its head, imagining what might have happened if Lincoln had recovered from the assassination attempt at Ford's Theatre.
‘The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln’
by Stephen L. Carter
Knopf, 516 pp., $26.95
It is April 14, 1865, and the president who freed the slaves and won the Civil War has just been shot while attending a performance at Ford’s Theatre in the nation’s capital.
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The rest is history, but Yale law professor and author Stephen L. Carter has offered up a tantalizing alternate version of the events of that fateful night and the aftermath in his new novel, “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.”
On Lincoln’s supposed death bed, “a miracle was occurring,” Carter writes in the opening pages of a novel that is as epic and full of turns as the Civil War itself. In this fictional retelling, the president recovers from his injuries but Vice President Andrew Johnson (who actually was impeached after succeeding the assassinated Lincoln) is killed.
In the wicked twist of fate Carter has concocted, Lincoln is impeached two years later over the “broader powers” he exercised to prosecute the war against the Confederacy and pursue Reconstruction afterward.
Did Lincoln overstep his constitutional authority by suspending habeas corpus and persecuting critical newspapers, journalists and political opponents, among other things? Lincoln’s foes, and there are many on all sides, believe so, but it is up to his legal defense team to show that his actions were justified.
During the impeachment proceedings, Lincoln’s foes “searched and searched for a way to drive home the dangers of leaving such a man in office.”
“A trial is war,” a partner on Lincoln’s legal team says.
The weapon of battle for both sides is the U.S. Constitution.
Carter writes with a gentle elegance of the trauma in the streets and parlors of Washington as Americans grapple with the lingering tragedy of the war, the assassination attempt and the impeachment. Still, the level of panicky friction in society and in the halls of power is almost palpable.
There are really two interesting and parallel stories here: One is a meticulously laid-out courtroom drama revolving around a folksy but shrewd president who is hated, both by fellow abolitionist Republicans for not acting forcefully enough to end slavery and fight the South, and by Southerners for trying to do either in the first place. The other story is a Grisham-style caper involving the improbable ascension of a gung-ho, young, middle-class black woman named Abigail Canner, an aspiring lawyer who graduates from Oberlin, lands a job at the law firm representing the president and gets wrapped up in a mystery/romance stemming from the case. Carter previously mined the suspense genre in works such as 2009’s “Jericho’s Fall” and his debut 2003 novel “The Emperor of Ocean Park.”
Carter has fleshed out his latest effort with enough supporting characters and alternate-history “mayhem,” to borrow his word, to stretch the book’s length to a whopping 516 pages. But his cool style gives the novel a breezy accessibility, even as he delves into the socially and politically troublesome aspects of a war that pitted “brother against brother,” as the saying goes.
Carter, also author of last year’s “The Violence of Peace” about President Obama’s views on this country’s role in conflicts, obviously realizes that questions regarding executive authority and the right way to fight wars are as relevant today as they were in Lincoln’s time.
The nation’s greatest president is having a bit of revival in interest, it seems.
Witness also the summer movie “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” based on the book of the same name, which casts Honest Abe as a vanquisher of Confederates and the undead who’ve aligned with them.
But all of these juicy what-ifs should remind us that our actual history is as thrilling as any work of fiction.
Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine.