Book review: The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter

Now for a little bit different kind of book: alternate history. Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter asks, what if Abraham Lincoln had survived being shot by John Wilkes Booth on the night of April 14, 1865? If he had, his legacy might have been very different. Lincoln could have won the Civil War only to be impeached by his own party for his alleged “high crimes and misdemeanors”.

This is hardly a crazy idea. After all, in 1866, the Supreme Court ruled in Ex parte Milligan that the imposition of military courts in the South was unconstitutional, and this was not Lincoln’s only questionably constitutional act during the Civil War. Moreover, Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, was impeached for (among other things) attempting to usurp the power of Congress, a charge that could just as well have been leveled at Lincoln, and Johnson escaped being thrown out of office by only one vote.

In his latest novel, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, Stephen L. Carter plays with the historical events to push Lincoln down this path. While Lincoln survives the shooting, Booth’s conspirators succeed in killing Andrew Johnson. Meanwhile, Lincoln’s right-hand man, Secretary of State William Seward, who in real life recovered from being stabbed in the face and neck by Lewis Powell, here is rendered permanently bedridden by the ordeal. Finally, Mary Todd Lincoln dies in 1866, under mysterious circumstances. Thus isolated, President Lincoln is left with very little defense against the radical Republicans who think he is being too soft on the South, and will have no problem throwing him out of office to get their way.

Into this fray steps Abigail Canner, a young, northern black woman aiming to become the first female lawyer in America of any color. Fresh out of law school and eager to defy all expectations, Abigail takes a job as a clerk in the firm that will represent Lincoln in the impeachment trial. But then, Lincoln’s lead counsel is found brutally murdered. Sensing something suspicious about the killing, Abigail soon finds herself drawn ever-deeper into the world of conspiracies, lies, and intrigue lying just beneath the surface of Washington, as she fights to save the political career of the President she so admires.

In The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, Stephen L. Carter weaves together courtroom drama, political conspiracy, and Washington social life into a single, compelling story. The main characters are brilliantly written, and the many secondary characters drawn from the historical record–and their meticulously researched behavior–add an extra layer of richness for even a casual student of history. Carter also explores the political and legal questions surrounding the Civil War and Reconstruction in a very accessible, even personal way.

It is unfortunate that the ending of the story comes so abruptly, with the final reveal left feeling a little fuzzy, and the implications of what might have been not fully explored. Yet, for this unrealized potential, it more than carries its own weight. The drama remains to the end, and, like any good story of political intrigue, you’re never quite sure who you can trust.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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