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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."