NPR

Abraham Lincoln 'Impeached.' Wait, What?

Abraham Lincoln is not just America's greatest president. To many, his very face is an emblem of America: honest, homespun, strong and sad, haunted, brooding and humorous.

So where does some famous Yale Law School professor get off writing a novel in which President Lincoln is accused of subverting the Constitution?

In Stephen Carter's new novel, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, the man we know as the Great Emancipator imprisons critics, invokes martial law, suspends the writ of habeus corpus, and throttles the press — all to win the Civil War.

Carter takes all kinds of liberties with history, beginning with that fateful night at Ford's Theatre, when John Wilkes Booth shoots Lincoln, and Lincoln ... survives? "I should begin by explaining that I am a big Lincoln fan," Carter says, laughing. "I think Lincoln was our greatest president; I have no question about that. But at the same time, there were a lot of things that Lincoln did during his presidency, in order to win the Civil War, that could be called into question. And so my idea was to write a courtroom drama that was crafted around that possibility. The path I sketch in my fiction is one possible path history might have taken."

At the center of Carter's story is a young woman named Abigail Canner, an Oberlin graduate who comes to the nation's capital intending to become a lawyer. Canner is African-American — at a time when there are just a few black lawyers in the entire country, and no women. "But she conceives this idea of wanting to be a lawyer, wanting to be involved in great events," Carter says.

He adds he developed Abigail's character to appeal to "that part in all of us, when we're young, that's ambitious and fresh and innocent and excited, and thinks the world's a just and fair place. And of course she goes out into that world and finds it's much more complex and dangerous than she imagined."

And the danger to President Lincoln in this book comes not from the cranky, mossbacked conservatives, but from the people who considered themselves progressive. Carter points out that the Republican Party of that era was the center of abolitionist activism, led by highly educated men who'd fought slavery all their lives and who resented Lincoln as an unlettered Western hick who wasn't moving fast enough to free the slaves.

"Even as the war progressed, and even as the Union began to win, he remained deeply unpopular," Carter says. "There were a lot of people, the leaders of his own party, who simply thought he was not morally as good as they were."

Carter says he doesn't think Lincoln should have been impeached — though his opponents in the book make a pretty good case. "If you look at the things Lincoln actually did, his administration shuttered opposition newspapers, locked up editors, court-martialed reporters at the front who wrote unfavorable stories, suspended habeas corpus, ignored court orders, declared martial law," Carter says.

"And for Lincoln, all of this was justified by his need to win the war. And that's the question, that in my novel, that the Senate has to confront. Did Lincoln have a justification for the various things he attempted to do that he said were necessary?"

Lincoln, of course, is a central character in the book — but he doesn't appear very often. Carter says it was both intimidating and enormously difficult to write dialogue for such an iconic figure. "One of the reasons that he ends up being in only about five scenes in the novel is precisely that I didn't want to stray too far from the record and bring the whole legion of Lincoln aficionados down on my head."

Carter's version of Lincoln tells a few funny stories that the real 16th president is known to have told. "Where he has to talk about other things, I tried to use the cadences that so far as I can tell were accurate," Carter says, adding that he learned those cadences by studying Lincoln's letters, speeches and accounts of conversations people had with him.

Fantastical depictions of Lincoln seem to be popular this summer; Carter says that while he hasn't seen the movie Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, he's planning to. "I think it might be fun. And the truth is, anything that gets people to take a real interest in Lincoln, I think is a good thing."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

More Photos
Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Abraham Lincoln is not just America's greatest president. To many, his very face is an emblem of America: honest, homespun, strong and sad, haunted, brooding - and humorous. So where does some famous Yale Law School professor get off writing a novel in which President Lincoln is accused of subverting the U.S. Constitution?

The Great Emancipator imprisoned critics, invoked martial law, suspend the writ of habeus corpus, and throttled the press to win the Civil War - you got a problem with that? That professor is Stephen Carter of the Yale Law School, author of the best-selling novels "The Emperor of Ocean Park" and "Palace Council." His new novel is "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln," and Professor Carter joins us from Yale. Thanks so much for being with us.

STEPHEN CARTER: It's my pleasure. I appreciate it.

SIMON: As you note, you take an awful lot of license with history in this novel, beginning with the fact that John Wilkes Booth shoots Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre - but Lincoln lives.

(LAUGHTER)

CARTER: I should begin by explaining that I am a great Lincoln fan. I've been a Lincoln fan since I was a kid. When I was a little boy, I used to read some of my father's books about Lincoln, that he kept in his study. I think Lincoln was our greatest president; I have no question about that.

But at the same time, there were a lot of things that Lincoln did during his presidency in order to win the Civil War, that could be called into question. And so my idea was to write a courtroom drama that was crafted around that possibility. The path I sketch in my fiction is one possible path history might have taken.

SIMON: The center of your narrative is a young woman named Abigail Canner. An Oberlin graduate, she wants to be a lawyer; she comes to the nation's capital. Maybe I left out, until now, that she's African-American. How unusual would that storyline be in this period of time we're talking about - after the Civil War?

CARTER: It's a remarkable story. Here's Abigail; she's 21 years old when the story begins - this young, black woman who grew up in Washington; and she does want to be a lawyer. At that time, there are no female lawyers in the United States - not one. And there are maybe five or six lawyers who are black.

But she conceives this idea of wanting to be a lawyer, wanting to be involved in great events. And in developing Abigail's character, part of what I had in mind is appealing to that part in all of us, when we're young, that's ambitious and fresh and innocent and excited, and thinks the world's a just and fair place.

And of course, she goes out into that world and finds it's much more complex and dangerous than she imagined.

SIMON: Let's make this clear, too - in your storyline, the president's accusers were not the mossback conservatives of the time, but certainly considered themselves the most progressive.

CARTER: One of the things that we often forget about Lincoln is that he was not popular within his own party. The Republican Party of that day was the center of anti-slavery activism, and was led by highly educated men who'd fought slavery all their lives. And they saw Lincoln as this unlettered Westerner. He had no formal education. He told funny stories. He had a funny accent.

And they saw him as not sufficiently bold in freeing the slaves and prosecuting the South. And even as the war progressed, and even as the Union began to win, the leaders of his own party - who simply thought he was not morally as good as they were.

SIMON: The case for impeachment against President Lincoln, that his critics make - I think will strike a lot of readers as pretty convincing. Could you, Professor, review it for us?

CARTER: Well, let me first make clear that I, myself, don't think that Lincoln should have been impeached, but if you look at the things Lincoln actually did; his administration shuttered opposition newspapers, locked up editors, court-martialed reporters at the front who wrote unfavorable stories, suspended habeas corpus, ignored court orders, declared martial law.

And for Lincoln, all of this was justified by his belief that it was necessary to win the war. And that's the question, that in my novel, that the Senate has to confront. Did Lincoln have a justification for the various things he attempted to do that he said were necessary in order to win the war? I think it's a fascinating question.

SIMON: You've got a number of scenes where we see and hear President Lincoln. You know, and I think to Americans, even people around the world, Abraham Lincoln will never be just another character. I mean, whole books have been made of jokes that he's alleged to have told people and little remarks attributed to him. Was it intimidating to write dialogue for Abraham Lincoln?

CARTER: Not only was it intimidating to write dialogue for Lincoln, it was enormously difficult. And I think one of the reasons that he ends up being only in about five scenes in the whole novel is precisely that I didn't want to stray too far from the record and bring the whole legion of Lincoln aficionados down on my head.

What I've tried to do with Lincoln is this: He tells a number of his funny stories in the book as he did in real life and the stories he tells in the book are all stories that were pretty well attributed to him. Where he has to talk about other things, I tried to use the cadences that so far as I can tell, were accurate.

And I did that two ways. One, was by reading accounts that other people had written over the years of their own conversations with Lincoln; the other is by reading very heavily in Lincoln's correspondence and of course his speeches to try to get the rhythm right even when I was inventing words.

SIMON: Professor Carter, may I ask, have you read or seen "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter?"

CARTER: I have not seen "Abraham Lincoln: The Vampire Hunter" yet, but everybody keeps asking me about it and I think I'm going to go see it. You know, I think it sounds like it might be fun. And the truth is, anything that gets people to take a real interest in Lincoln I think is a good thing.

SIMON: Stephen Carter, Yale law professor and novelist. His new book is: "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln," speaking with us from Yale. Thanks so much for being with us.

CARTER: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Most Popular