The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln
By Stephen L. Carter
Alfred A. Knopf
517 pages, $26.95
What if Abraham Lincoln had lived? What would have happened? Stephen L. Carter’s
new novel suggests one answer.
The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln recasts
tragedy as thriller with the living Lincoln on trial for his political life. A
bestselling author (The Emperor of Ocean Park, Jericho’s Fall), Carter hews to
the historical record more than the reader might expect.
Booth’s motives and actions and those of his conspirators remain the same. The
surgical strike against the Union’s top leadership is intended to serve the
Confederate cause. Only the results are changed. Secretary of State William
Seward is attacked but clings to life (true).
Andrew Johnson is targeted (true) and murdered (not true). And Lincoln hangs
“He had been shot on Good Friday,” Carter writes, accurately; “On
Easter Sunday, he had risen,” half-accurately.
In the end, surviving
turns out to be less of a miracle than a bad career move. Radicals in Lincoln’s
own party, led by Thaddeus Stevens, see the president’s failure to punish the
South or protect its freed slaves as akin to treason.
Democrats, embittered and spoiling for revenge, continue as they had before and
during the Civil War to despise Lincoln as a tyrant, imposing his will in
violation of the Constitution.
Together, this coalition of the
disappointed and the defeated tries to overthrow the president, not through
assassination but through the political process.
Far from lauding him as
a conquering hero, they accuse the president of wartime crimes for suspending
habeas corpus, taking millions from the Treasury without congressional approval,
declaring martial law and conspiring to overthrow Congress itself. The House
votes to impeach him.
This would seem like more than enough plot for one
But Carter chooses to spend much of the time with his fictional
heroine, Abigail Canner, 21, an Oberlin-educated black woman and aspiring
Canner is hired to assist the team of lawyers defending Lincoln
in his impeachment trial before the US Senate. When one of those lawyers is
found stabbed to death, along with a woman of possibly questionable morals,
“outside a colored brothel,” Canner is drawn into the investigation.
she finds herself untangling webs of complex conspiracies involving all manner
of corruption, including racial strife, family secrets, bribery and political
graft. Meanwhile, the process of impeachment grinds along with Canner sitting
through enough strategy sessions, delays and floor debates to please the most
devoted fans of parliamentary procedural.
That Carter handles the
material deftly is to be expected. No one can deny the audacity of his
intellectual scope. A Yale Law School professor, he has produced an impressive
body of academic work and an impressive amount of fiction that prove his ability
to construct a compelling story.
The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln
shares many worthy attributes of his previous novels.
Carter never writes
down to his readers.
This book presents the neglected Reconstruction era
in all its moral ambiguity and disappointment, a useful reminder that the end of
combat did not end the hostilities.
Far from the first or worst effort to
reimagine Lincoln (vampire slayer, indeed), Carter is hardly original to suggest
that Abraham Lincoln was worth more dead than alive.
Walt Whitman, as
devout as any Lincoln worshiper, saw the “Chief Martyr’s” murder as a “poetic,
single, central, pictorial denouement.” Reflecting on the 15th anniversary of
the assassination, Whitman recognized that the murder had worked a political
miracle, binding a nation ripped apart by war, providing a “cement to the whole
people, subtler, more underlying, than any thing in written constitution, or
courts, or armies... the cement of a death identified thoroughly with that
people, and for its sake.”
Beyond the apotheosis of one extraordinary
life, Lincoln’s death – how and when it happened – proved the “sharp culmination
[and] solution of so many bloody and angry problems.”
In delaying such a
denouement, Carter is not guilty of heresy but of a far more serious charge that
can be leveled against a writer: He takes a great story and makes it
For this there is no appeal.