In the refurbished Ford’s Theater in downtown Washington, where Abraham Lincoln was killed 147 years ago, tourists marvel at a three-story tower of books — about 15,000 tomes — that looms as a testament to our endless fascination with the Civil War president.
There are books just on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, his second inaugural speech, his military leadership, his assassination, whether he was clinically depressed or whether he was gay. One wonderfully absurd title has spawned a new movie: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Stephen L. Carter, Yale law professor and popular novelist, jumps in with something different on the Lincoln front, a work of alternative history that asks the provocative question: What if the 16th president had survived the assassin’s bullet at the beginning of his second term?
The notion that the radical Republicans in Congress who wanted a harsh occupation of the defeated Confederacy would try to remove Lincoln from office just as they did Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s weak successor, may seem a stretch. Lincoln, after all, had superb political and negotiating skills that helped win the war and save the Union.
But Carter speculates that in the vicious politics of post-war Washington City, as it was called then, the zeal of congressional leaders might have motivated them to oust Lincoln. “They could have, not would have,” the author explains in a lengthy note at the end. In the richly imagined trial, the president’s foes argue that he has tried to overthrow the authority of Congress and failed to protect freed slaves.
Carter spins out this tale not as a legal treatise or political tract. True to his earlier works, such as the Emperor of Ocean Park and Jericho’s Fall, this tale is a rich blend of murder mystery, legal thriller, courtroom drama and period piece featuring some of the historical figures of the time. Edwin Stanton, the imperious secretary of war, plays a key role. So does Salmon P. Chase, the chief justice of the Supreme Court who wants to be president, and Dan Sickles, one of Lincoln’s lawyers and “the most elegant scoundrel of the age” who once gunned down his wife’s lover before many witnesses and was acquitted.
What elevates Impeachment above most alternative history is how Carter charts the cross currents of race, class and society in the raucous capital consumed by “breathless rumoresque” and intrigue. Some readers may find the plot too convoluted, but that’s balanced by the careful details of the period and a varied cast of the real and the imagined.
One main character is Abigail Canner, a sharp young law clerk from a well-off African-American family hired by the lawyers defending Lincoln. Canner may be a rarity, but she’s a reminder that not all black Americans of the mid-19th century were hopelessly poor, uneducated former slaves — “the sort of racist nonsense that continues to provide a peculiar comfort to black and white alike,” Carter writes in his final note.
For history buffs, Carter also provides a detailed explanation of what else he changed in his tale and why. The first lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, dies in a possible suicide soon after the assassination attempt in this story. In reality, she lived until 1882.
The author also explains how he put certain words in the president’s mouth. His portrait of a complex, all-too-human Lincoln, fighting for his political life, energizes this book and even adds to Lincoln lore. “He managed to convey awkwardness and vigor at once,” with “the eyes of a sleepy but cunning predator,” notes Jonathan Hilliman, a young law clerk on Lincoln’s defense team.
What makes Lincoln so endlessly compelling? Hilliman offers us a clue: “The more time he spent in his company, the more he saw a deeply conflicted man, certain that his course was right, uncertain that the means required to achieve it were honorable.”
Frank Davies is a writer in the Washington, D.C., area.