What if Abraham Lincoln had survived John Wilkes Booth’s
assassination attempt? Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter writes a
tale about the immediate post–Civil War period with Lincoln, in his
second term as president, being assailed by all sides. Southern whites
hate him. The radicals in his own party think he’s not punishing the
South enough. The House of Representatives impeaches him in early 1867
for crimes during and after the war, including suspending habeas
corpus, declaring martial law, not protecting freed slaves, and even,
the radicals claim, conspiring to overthrow Congress itself.
Though based on the fiction of Lincoln’s survival, the book hews close to the actual issues and mood of the Reconstruction era. The impeachment trial is based on the real 1868 impeachment trial in the Senate of President Andrew Johnson, with the same presiding judge and senators. Carter is commanding on political and legal issues; this is the strongest aspect of the book. The fictional plots that he weaves into the political story unfortunately are not so strong. He created a young, female, African American aspiring attorney who works for the law firm defending Lincoln. He involves her, along with a young, white, male attorney who is attracted to her, in the investigation of a double murder. The young woman’s role, her relationship with the young man, and the murder mystery are all implausible. Still, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln is worth reading for making us think about the Constitutional rights and rules that were violated in order to save the Union.
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