On April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln became the first US President to fall to an assassin. Five days after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, with the bloody Civil War drawing to a close and bringing a victory for the Union, Lincoln was shot by actor John Wilkes Booth while attending a play at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. It was part of a larger conspiracy whereby the Secretary of State and the Vice President would also be eliminated. Secretary of State Seward was savagely attacked and wounded, but Vice President Johnson was never confronted. Lincoln would die from his wound the following morning, and it has been a scar on the psyche of the nation ever since.
"THE IMPEACHMENT OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN is a gripping thriller and a very satisfying dose of historical fiction.... Carter does a praiseworthy job of asking questions, twisting history while grounding it in the real world, and seeing where the path leads."
Author Stephen L. Carter moves history in another direction. In THE IMPEACHMENT OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN, the President is shot, but this time he miraculously survives the attack. Andrew Johnson, however, is not so lucky. Mary Todd Lincoln drowned during an extended stay in Illinois. And though he survived the assassin's bullet, Lincoln faces the toughest fight of his political career.
Radicals within his own party are moving to impeach him, claiming that he has done nothing to properly protect the now-freed slaves and that he has not done nearly enough to punish the South for their transgressions. This group finds their ends mirrored in those of the Democrats and the former Confederates --- losers of the war who now seek political retribution against a perceived tyrant who ignored the restrictions of the Constitution in order to flex his own imperial designs on the country. The House moves to impeach.
Enter 21-year-old Abigail Canner, a black woman educated at Oberlin College who has taken a position at the law firm selected to represent the President during his impeachment trial. She is determined to become a lawyer and to play a worthwhile role in the trial, but as she expected, her race has shunted her to the fringes of the circle, working as an office clerk. She hits the books at night, on her own time, seeking to further her education and climb the ranks.
Things take a serious turn into a deluge of complexities when one of the lawyers is murdered outside of a colored brothel. Abigail plunges into the investigation and finds herself treading water in a sea of corruption, scandal, conspiracy and shady politics.
THE IMPEACHMENT OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN is a gripping thriller and a very satisfying dose of historical fiction. Many of the facts and persons reflected in Carter's novel are true to life, and some of them are involved in the actual impeachment of Johnson in our true timeline. The plot and design of the story are deftly written, and Carter continues to show a remarkable style seen in his previous works. The novel is engaging and intelligent, and aside from Lincoln surviving the shooting, it’s wholly credible as a possible result of history had he not actually died.
Abigail and the rest of the cast of characters are all interesting enough, but they never seem to come to life on the page. If the story had been weak or poorly written, then it may have been enough to hinder the enjoyment of the book. As it is, though, Carter's story is striking and does an admirable job of pulling the characters through the winding plot. At times it seems a tad overly weighted, but on the whole it’s a fascinating supposition on an altered history.
In a current world dominated by polar opposite political views on display 24 hours a day, and shared in the most caustic ways, THE IMPEACHMENT OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN is a stark reminder that the viciousness of the post-Civil War era was far more troublesome and brutal than even our current state of affairs. A nation torn in two and reunified by bloody combat suffered in incalculable ways, both physically and politically. Carter does a praiseworthy job of asking questions, twisting history while grounding it in the real world, and seeing where the path leads.
Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on July 26, 2012