'The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln': Stephen L. Carter's vivid historical mind game

Stephen L. Carter imagines an America with a longer Lincoln presidency. It's complicated. But it makes for a rich and vivid novel.

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Appreciation of this delightful novel requires the acceptance of two major, initially difficult hypotheses of author Stephen L. Carter.

The first is that Abraham Lincoln survived the assassination attempt by John Wilkes Booth at Ford Theater on April 14, 1865. The second is that the law firm that represented Mr. Lincoln in a subsequent attempt by the Congress to impeach him would have accepted a young African-American woman as a member of the defense team.

By Stephen L. Carter
Alfred A. Knopf ($26.95).

I gulped hard and accepted both, to my eventual great satisfaction, even though I couldn't stop referring events and people in the novel to my own knowledge of U.S. history and society in the post-Civil War era. I hope that what I read does not leave as a byproduct a confused understanding of Mr. Lincoln's actual life and its historical context.

Mr. Carter's story runs that Mr. Lincoln survived the assassination attempt and that his vice president, Andrew Johnson, who actually did survive, died -- thus leaving accession to the presidency if Mr. Lincoln could be impeached open to the president pro tempore of the Senate, Benjamin Wade. He and other Radicals in the Congress were more eager to punish the defeated South than Mr. Lincoln was. He wanted to bind up the wounds and restore the Union.

Others seeking impeachment included ambitious politicians, businessmen with axes to grind in terms of higher or lower tariffs and harder or softer money, and diehard, sometimes undercover closet Confederates. All wanted desperately to get rid of Honest Abe and pursued his impeachment to try to achieve that goal.

His defense team came to be an odd lot. One of them was murdered early in the game. That one had earlier accepted as a law clerk a young African-American woman from a middle-class family with no slave background, educated at Oberlin. Her name was Abigail Canner. (She was absolutely fictional.) In the book she rapidly became very involved in the defense. Washington society swirled around her, partly because of and partly in spite of her race. She became key to the increasingly vital investigation into the background to the conspiracy to get rid of Mr. Lincoln through impeachment.

Love interests, including across racial lines, play an important part in the story. There is also considerable drama, including murder and nighttime chases, to the extent that I found myself mentally casting what I consider would be a super movie based on Mr. Carter's novel.

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There are three areas, at least, where one's knowledge is considerably enhanced by reading "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln."

The first, without becoming maudlin, is the basic goodness of Abraham Lincoln. His motives in the events of his presidency, including the war and Reconstruction, were sound, and his strategy and tactics in pursuit of them were carefully reasoned and -- heaven help us -- basically moral at their base, even though he, too, was fully capable of crafty deeds if he considered them necessary.

The second is in the politics and personalities, and the intragovernmental machinations of Washington and the federal apparatus in 1865-67. (Shades of 2012.) The people come to life in a very human, albeit sometimes ugly, way. Edwin Stanton, August Belmont, Salmon Chase, Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Mary Lincoln, Horace Greeley, Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, the whole lot. Mr. Carter doesn't make them lovable, but he makes them understandable.

Finally, the third area, probably largely unknown, is the world of African-Americans in Washington in the immediate post-Civil War era. Abigail Canner becomes for the most part an honorary white, to the point that being seen with her becomes a point of prestige.

But Mr. Carter, through showing the reader also the lives of her brother, her sisters, and her aunt, Nanny Pork, as well as making Canner the protagonist through whose eyes one sees much of the story, shows us life in the nation's capital, the epicenter of the victorious North, as lived by its black population. That perspective is rich, rare and almost certainly well-researched by the author, a Yale law professor who's a successful novelist (starting with his 2002 "Emperor of Ocean Park").

The book kept me up late, reading as fast as I can, for 516 pages.


Dan Simpson is a Post-Gazette associate editor (dsimpson@post-gazette.com). First Published August 19, 2012 4:00 AM


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