January 9, 2013
Vol: 20 No: 2

Arts & Entertainment

Not-so-honest Abe

By Joe Martin / Contributing Writer

Book Review: The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln: A Novel by Stephen L. Carter

Illustration by Maia Brown

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Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, and he died the following day. Others, including Secretary of State William Seward, were also targets of Booth’s conspiracy, but they would all survive. Only days before, Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the ferocious Civil War. The country was in the process of establishing what course the United States would follow in the wake of the war’s prodigious bloodletting. Lincoln’s assassination was a staggering blow to a nation still reeling from the internecine conflict.

But what if Lincoln had lived? What if he survived the assassination attempt and recovered to serve his second term? Would he have been subjected to rabid animosity from the radicals of his own Republican Party for not treating the defeated South with an iron fist? Would Lincoln have considered imposing martial law in Washington, D.C., in the face of a hostile Congress?

These and other speculations permeate the charged atmosphere of Stephen L. Carter’s finely wrought fictional work “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.”

In an author’s note, Carter writes that the accusations against Lincoln in his story “are nearly all matters of historical record. Lincoln did shut down newspapers he believed were impeding the war effort. He did arrest opposition spokesmen. He did suspend habeas corpus and ignore court orders demanding the release of prisoners. He did place Northern cities under martial law. He did shut down the Maryland legislature by force. Are these impeachable offenses?”

He states further “that no recent Chief Executive, no matter how controversial, has any similar litany to his credit.” 

It is the winter of 1867, and things are chaotic. Outrageous rumors promulgated by newspapers — such as American troops invading Mexico or an imminent threat of a fresh Confederate insurrection — are commonplace, adding to the pervasive confusion in the country.

Enter Abigail Canner, an exceptionally bright and savvy young woman who is “smarter than any five reporters put together” and unimpressed by the media’s hysterical canards purporting to be legitimate journalism. She is a beautiful black woman with a soft brown complexion.

It is a time when women do not have the vote and are expected to keep their place. “Colored” women are especially limited by the social order of the day.

Despite the official end of slavery, with few exceptions black people live in slavery’s nefarious shadow and endure the condescending or outright malicious racism of whites. Abigail, however, aspires to be a lawyer: “She had her college degree and her letter of employment and the stony conviction, learned from her late mother, that, whatever limitations the society might place on ordinary negroes, they would never apply to her.”

The D.C. law firm of Dennard and McShane has been retained to defend the embattled Lincoln in the upcoming impeachment trial.

The impeachment resolution comprises several counts. Charges include the accusation that the president has not provided sufficient protection to the recently freed slaves or freedmen. And there is the charge that Lincoln has a “secret plan to establish the Department of the Atlantic,” which would place Washington and Congress under martial law. There are many powerful men who resent and distrust the president. He could very well be removed from office.

Abigail steps into this political imbroglio that crackles with intrigue, rumor and violence. She has been hired as a law clerk by attorney Dennard, who happens to be out of town upon her arrival. His partner, Arthur McShane, is unaware that Dennard has hired anybody. He makes it clear that until the absent lawyer returns, Abigail will perform prosaic tasks of taking notes, making copies and delivering documents. The ambitious woman is mortified. McShane tells her, “You should be proud of yourself, Miss Canner. I do not believe that there are five female clerks in the entire city working for lawyers. And none of them are colored.”

Abigail retorts, “But it is 1867!” to which McShane replies, “Perhaps in 1967 things will be different. What I have told you is the way things are now.” McShane’s own law clerk, Jonathan Hilliman, is witness to this exchange.

Jonathan comes from a successful New England family. He will soon have a profound admiration for the attractive Abigail and her astute mind.

The trial is only days away when McShane and a black woman purported to be a prostitute are brutally murdered.

As in any good thriller, things are not what they seem. A fascinating array of historical and fictional characters keeps the intricate plot moving briskly in unexpected directions.

Politics and jurisprudence intertwine in this captivating tale replete with action, mystery and crisp dialogue that immerses the reader in a vibrant 19th-century setting.

This is historical speculation at its best.



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