The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln

Achieving her dream is a long shot and Abigail knows it. “There are only half a dozen colored lawyers practicing in American courts, and no women,” she’s reminded in a conversation with a Washington politico.

Abigail is performing miscellaneous tasks for the firm, hoping to be elevated to law clerk, when Lincoln’s lead counsel is murdered.
Refusing to accept the official version of events, Abigail works surreptitiously with a white male law clerk to find answers, plunging the pair into a web of intrigue and conspiracy.

Although black and female, Abigail is the dominant gumshoe in this murder mystery, playing Sherlock Holmes to the law clerk’s Dr. Watson. Examining the charred ruins of a house of prostitution, Abigail deduces that an accelerant has been used by distinguishing the pour patterns on the floor. Abigail’s mission is to find justice for a black woman murdered alongside Lincoln’s lawyer — a black woman that authorities are calling a prostitute.

Abigail, whose deceased parents were respectable freedmen, travels an arch of life beyond the reach of most of her black contemporaries. On an errand for the law firm, she refuses to use the back entrance to a posh white home, and gets a frosty reception from a black servant answering the front door. Gazing into the eyes of an ex-slave prosecution witness, Abigail sees the plantation field hand’s undiluted hatred of the uppity house servant.

Abigail was an entirely different species than most white women had been accustomed to. At a society soiree, a gaggle of Washington worthies shows towering ignorance of the burgeoning black elite by assuming Abigail had used the Underground Railroad to escape slavery and guessing her thinness is the residual effect of the starvation policy of her former master.

Though the novel is well researched, Carter never set out to write scholarly history. Rather, he is exploring history by storytelling — with dialogue as a tool. Using a resource uniquely available to the novelist to good advantage, Carter probes the thoughts and feelings of his characters. Characters, great and small, speak with voices that evoke the spirit of the times. Through their reflections and utterances history leaps off the page. Nanny Pork, Abigail’s great aunt tells her niece: “In Virginia, people made they’s slaves have chilluns, and more chilluns, but not to do any work. To sell them.” Nanny is telling the history of how the abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1808 help spawn the internal trade in slaves from the Upper- to the Deep South.

History novels work best when they go beyond chronicling what happened to show us how people really lived. A virtue of Carter’s story is his ability to capture post-Civil War Washington. Carter recreates the period in granular detail. Characters schmooze in gas lit homes, ride horse-drawn trolleys and patronize Madame Sophie’s cathouse, his fictional creation of one of the 450 real houses of prostitution in the capital in the 1860s.

Carter’s prodigious legal expertise is in full flower when he depicts the impeachment trial in the Senate. But the jousting between lawyers can leave the laymen confounded by the profession’s arcane rules of evidence and procedure.

Despite the book’s title, the narrative maintains a slight distance from Lincoln, who never appears at trial as is the right of any impeached president. Carter gives us White House glimpses of Lincoln conferring with his attorneys, an embattled politician
fighting to justify actions taken to hold the country together.

Despite subjecting Lincoln to the ignominy of impeachment, Carter’s high regard for the savvy and brilliance of the man shines through. Carter’s Lincoln is a leader of complexity, compassion and humanity who did what he thought was necessary to win the war. In reality, had he failed to reunite the country, democracy would have failed and, perhaps, for centuries to come, tyrants and dictators would have had an argument against self-rule.

And novelist Stephen Carter would today be reimagining the history of some other iconic American president.

About the Book Review Author

Gary Rawlinsis a Washington, D.C. area journalist and Civil War historian.

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