On the Night Stand

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter


Dubious historians have often attempted to rewrite history, but I prefer when novelists undertake this artful task. Philip Roth in The Plot Against America imagines a United States circa 1940 led by President Charles Lindbergh, a notorious anti-Semite, who will align with Reich Chancellor Hitler. The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon speculates on what would have happened  if the fledgling state of Israel had collapsed in 1948. Stephen L. Carter delivers us seventy years earlier than these examples into a time of great national healing in America: the post Civil War era. In Carter's retelling, Abraham Lincoln has survived Booth's bullet. However, on the author's splintered tributary of history, Honest Abe is not quite as popular as, on the effluence of time, his corpse had become. In this version, a radical wing of his own party brings impeachment proceedings for the Great Emancipator.

Carter works in much cleverness and mystery to his alt-history, which stars America's first potential female African-American lawyer Abigail Canner as a law clerk working in defense of Lincoln; her love interest, Jonathan Hilliman also a law clerk at the same firm; and various historic figures like: Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, Senator Charles Sumner, War Secretary Edwin Stanton, and Abraham Lincoln himself. The fact that the author has a superior grasp on the political and social affairs of the day, makes this book very readable, and raises many questions that were laid to rest along with the16th President. For instance, would the Radical Republicans who in fact were behind the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, impeach Lincoln if he lived? Carter seems to think so. The Radical's aggressive Reconstruction policy wishes, which included more protective legislation for former slaves and more punitive measures for the secessionist states, were bound to carry the day in any scenario. Although in Carter's rewriting, the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton is not removed from office by a second term Lincoln, an act imposed by Johnson which, in fact, precipitated his impeachment.

But Carter spends more time walking his readers through the treacherous labyrinth of his contrived plot. There is plenty of literary tension throughout; not only between the heroes and villains, but sexual tension between the two leads (Abigail and Jonathan) as well, where race and class compete for the blame. Stereotypes are abolished and there are blindsides aplenty as Carter keeps the reader guessing and reading to the end.