The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln: A Novel

  • Stephen L. Carter
  • Alfred A. Knopf
  • 528 pp.

In his reimagining of the president’s fate, the author explores the relations of the races in postwar Washington — and creates a murder mystery.

What if Lincoln had lived?

Almost anyone who has studied the Civil War and Reconstruction has thought about the question, or rather, the questions. Would Lincoln have found a way to limit southern white aggression against southern blacks? Could he have done that without a prolonged military occupation? Could he have brought the southern states back into Congress more quickly? And if so, when and how would the Constitution have guaranteed equal protection and black voting rights? We often forget that only one southern state, Tennessee, was represented in Congress when the proposed Fourteenth Amendment received the two-thirds majority of the House and Senate needed for an amendment to be sent to the states for ratification. Had they all been represented, the amendment most likely would have perished.

Stephen L. Carter’s fine new novel touches on these questions only lightly, for his purpose, as his title suggests, is to imagine what would have happened if the Radical Republicans had impeached President Lincoln. In Carter’s novel, the House impeaches Lincoln in early 1867 for his actions both during the Civil War, in suspending habeas corpus, seizing telegrams and closing newspapers, and after the war’s end, in refusing to protect the southern freedmen and conspiring to put Washington, and Congress itself, under military rule.

The Senate impeachment trial is only one of the stories in this book, however. Carter uses his protagonist, Abigail Canner, a young black graduate of Oberlin College and part of the Lincoln defense team, as a means to explore the relations of the races in postwar Washington. And Carter, further, has created a murder mystery, for within the first few pages one of Lincoln’s defense lawyers is found dead outside a black brothel, and young Abigail starts her own informal murder investigation.

There are many finely drawn characters in the novel, both historical and fictional. Some are familiar: Abraham Lincoln; Secretary of War Edwin Stanton; and Senator Charles Sumner, “charming and elegant and cultured.” Less familiar, perhaps, but more interesting, are characters such as Dan Sickles, the rake who murdered the son of Francis Scott Key and was acquitted on an implausible insanity defense. Carter has transformed General Sickles, who lost a leg at Gettysburg, into one of Lincoln’s defense lawyers, and he steals every scene. Among the many historical women characters is Lucy “Bessie” Hale, daughter of the abolitionist senator John Parker Hale and lover of John Wilkes Booth. The best fictional character is the book’s heroine, Abigail, who is caught between the worlds of her black family and her new white friends.

Carter is a law professor, so it is not surprising that he is strong on the legal aspects of the impeachment. This part of the book, based heavily on the actual 1868 impeachment of Andrew Johnson, includes fine descriptions of late-night legal strategy sessions and sharp cross-examination of witnesses on the Senate floor. The book might have been better had Carter included more about Lincoln’s alleged crimes, perhaps having the president to explain why (in Carter’s version of the story) he disregarded provisions of the military reconstruction acts. One aspect of the impeachment process the book misses is the money trail. Money, raised quietly and disbursed widely, helped acquit Johnson, and the same men who raised the money for Johnson (led by William Henry Seward) surely would have raised it for their friend Lincoln.

Carter is not a historian, so there are minor historical errors. Seward’s house on the east side of Lafayette Square would not have been visible from 17th Street, for example. The average reader will probably be less troubled by these points than passages in which Carter has inserted too fully the fruits of his historical research. The New York financier August Belmont, one of the “real” characters, gives one of the fictional characters a lecture about the Morrill Tariff, a lecture closely based on Belmont’s actual views but probably too detailed to interest most readers.

The murder mystery is the weakest part of the book. Abigail’s investigation suggests that there is not just one murderer but a vast conspiracy against the president. The details, however, when revealed in the last few pages, are not very plausible. Moreover, Carter’s action scenes generally fall flat, except for the chilling scene that opens the novel, in which an unnamed black rider, bearing an important document, tries and fails to escape his white pursuers.

Overall, however, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln is a worthwhile read:  interesting, at times gripping, consistently thought-provoking. Perhaps Carter’s greatest accomplishment is to force us to see Lincoln’s less attractive side; to force us to think about the ways in which he bent or broke the Constitution during the Civil War in order, as he saw it, to save the Union and the Constitution, and the ways in which Lincoln would have bent or broken the rules if he (like Johnson) had been impeached by the House and tried by the Senate.

Carter throughout creates a very real Washington, especially a black Washington during the years immediately after the Civil War, in scenes that will linger in the mind after the storyline fades. This is a book to buy and take to the beach.

Walter Stahr is a Washington lawyer and the author of John Jay: Founding Father (2005) and Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man (September 2012).

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