By Alexander Wallace
Abraham Lincoln is now widely revered as the savior of the American republic, second only to George Washington in how he defined the country in his wake. But, as happens to all leaders revered after their time, there is some mythologization at play. As one anonymous snark said when Elvis Presley died, it was a “good career move.” In a sense, Lincoln’s legacy was greatly aided by that bloody night at Ford’s Theater, being granted an expedited apotheosis that few leaders ever get. The legend of Lincoln, from his birth in a log cabin to his preservation of the Union to his martyrdom, is one that does not usually allow for discussion of things like the suspensions of habeas corpus.
Many leaders are said to have lived too long for a good legacy; Mao Zedong is often said to be such. In his book The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Carter asks: what if Lincoln had never been allowed to become a legend? What if he were made to be remembered as, first and foremost, another politician?
The story begins in an America that is reeling from the Civil War and is trying to rebuild itself. The Radical Republicans have opened impeachment proceedings against the wartime president. The District of Columbia brims with uncertainty during this first impeachment trial in the nation’s history.
The bulk of the plot concerns Abigail Canner, a young black woman with a degree from Oberlin, who has been hired by the legal team mounting President Lincoln’s defense. As she walks into this morass, she needs to fight both the forces that try to remove Lincoln from office, and the bigotry that emanates from a deeply racist society.
There are two subject matters that intertwine themselves through this book: race and law. The Civil War was, ultimately, about slavery, a peculiar institution for which race was concocted to justify; therefore, it is only natural that race would hang unnervingly over any spectacle of this sort. Likewise, impeachment is fundamentally a legal proceeding, with a trial and a jury. Much space is given to the legal maneuvers that the legal teams take to influence the impeachment one way or another.
It is fortunate for both the book and the reader that such a story is written by Stephen Carter. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell professor at Yale Law School; such a man knows the law very well. He is also African-American, so he knows how to navigate such issues with a sensitivity that many white authors lack. In this novel, Carter gives himself free rein to explore two things that he knows very well, and he is a good enough writer to make such an exploration worthwhile to those who do not know either.
I must mention the way Stephen Carter discusses the city of Washington: long story short, he brings it to vivid life. Carter takes care to avoid the pitfalls that many fictional portrayals of the city make (and I say this as a lifelong resident of the region) as turning it into a mere backdrop rather than a land of the living and not just the dead. In this, he gets my beltway native seal of approval.
Stephen Carter has created that which is relatively rare in the alternate history genre: a legal thriller. Most of us are more concerned with war and high politics rather than the maneuvering in the legal sphere. Carter has shown us that this field of political activity is one that can lead to compelling drama, and us writers should take note of what he has accomplished.