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.

John Wilkes 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 H.

Seward is attacked but clings to life (true).

Vice President Andrew Johnson is targeted (true) and murdered (not true). And Lincoln hangs on.

“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.

Ex-Confederates and 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 book.

But Carter chooses to spend much of the time with his fictional heroine, Abigail Canner, 21, an Oberlin-educated black woman and aspiring attorney.

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.

Soon 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 boring.

For this there is no appeal.

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