Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Had Lincoln survived

Imagine that Abraham Lincoln survived John Wilkes Booth's assassination attempt but that Vice President Andrew Johnson, also a target of the plot that night, had been killed. Further imagine that it was then Lincoln, not Johnson, who was impeached by Congress during the political struggle over Reconstruction following the Civil War. This is what Stephen L. Carter imagines in his terrific 2012 novel The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.

Carter goes on to imagine that a brilliant and beautiful young black woman, fresh out of Oberlin College, becomes a part of Lincoln's legal defense team, albeit a lowly clerk responsible more for sweeping floors than determining legal strategy. Still Abigail Canner becomes central to the story, and what an exciting story it is.

The author paints a Congress in 1867 not so different from Congress today, a group of individuals more interested in political gain than anything else. With Johnson dead, the president pro tempore of the Senate is next in line to be president, yet it is the Senate that must vote on removing the president from office. Meanwhile several others, including Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, who presides over the impeachment trial, also have political ambitions that might benefit from Lincoln's departure. Clearly the deck is stacked against the president.

Stephen L. Carter
Carter gives us a riveting political thriller, legal thriller and, after the head of the defense team is found murdered in front of a brothel in the company of a black woman, crime thriller. Yet there are flaws. The impeachment of Lincoln proves easier to believe than certain other parts of the plot, such as that other members of Abigail's family also play important roles in the story. And the author leaves too many questions unanswered.

The novel leaves us with at least two conclusions about history. One is that even if Lincoln had survived Booth's attempt on his life, the aftermath of the war would have proceeded pretty much as it did. The other is that one thing that might have been different is our perception of Abraham Lincoln. Had Lincoln been caught in the middle of the Reconstruction fight, perhaps his historical reputation would have suffered, just as President John F. Kennedy's standing in history might have suffered had he not been assassinated.

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