The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln

Gary Rawlins, Black Books and

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln
by Stephen L. Carter
Knopf, Hardcover, 528 pp., $26.95

What if Abraham Lincoln had never been assassinated? It’s a pointless supposition. History is history — it is a progression of events chiseled into the granite of time. Historians can only piece together events and say as little about them as is needed to avoid inaccuracies. The writer can adorn and embellish.

Stephen Carter is both scholar and fiction writer, thus able to expertly trod the factual ground before crossing the frontier into fiction. Carter, a Yale University law professor, is the author of 11 books of fiction and nonfiction. In his latest novel, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, Carter spins a tale for which he is well-suited as a legal scholar.

Lincoln is probably the most admired of all American presidents. But his cult status did not emerge until after his assassination. Indeed, Lincoln might never have been re-elected had Union General William Tecumseh Sherman failed to take Atlanta in the summer of 1864. In winning the war, Lincoln kept the country whole, securing a place in the presidential pantheon. Had it not been for him, perhaps the United States would be two, possibly three, nations.

By keeping the 16th president alive after John Wilkes Booth, Carter imagines a country in which Lincoln is no longer looked upon as a martyr for the cause of abolition and union. Carter extrapolates from the historical record, extending truths about the Lincoln presidency into the realm of alternate history.

What is true about Lincoln is that his enemies were not all Confederates. Hatred of Lincoln was not confined to the South. Animus ran deep in the North as well, particularly among opposition Democrats inflamed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Making slave liberation a war aim ignited an anti-war movement.

Lincoln’s way of prosecuting the war prompted accusations that he was a tyrant perverting the Constitution. Accusations set forth in Carter’s novel are nearly all matters of history. Lincoln arrested opposition spokesmen. He suspended habeas corpus and ignored court orders demanding the release of prisoners. He placed Northern cities under martial law.

Hard as Lincoln fought to knock out the Confederacy, zealous anti-slavery members of his own party accused him of pulling his punches. Waving the flag of abolition, Radical Republicans decried what they viewed as Lincoln’s timidity. To crusading abolitionists like Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner and Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (background characters in Carter’s book), Lincoln was no friend of the black man, slave or free. His early policy initiatives would almost invite this conclusion.

During the first year of the war, several generals with abolitionist sympathies advocated black enlistment. A few of them actually exceeded their authority and organized army regiments composed of African-Americans. Each time, Lincoln rebuffed their efforts. At a meeting with black leaders on August 14, 1862, Lincoln tried to persuade his listeners to establish a colony of free black people in Central America.

Lincoln’s hesitancy on racial matters and his apparent disregard for the Constitution forms the basis of Carter’s fictional foray into impeachment.

As the story begins, the year is 1867. Lincoln has returned to office, fully recovered from the assassination attempt by Booth. His legal team is preparing a defense of their client against a Radical Republican attempt to remove him from office. Included on the team is the fictional Abigail Canter, a 21-year-old black woman whose ambition is to be a lawyer. Abigail, a recent graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio, has been recommended to the firm by her college mentor.

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