“The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln” by Stephen L. Varter. Knopf, 516 pages, $26.95.
In Stephen L. Carter’s latest novel, a spy thriller/murder mystery/courtroom drama/political potboiler set in 1860s Washington, the 16th U.S. president survives the shooting in Ford’s Theatre only to face removal from office by a cabal of Radical Republicans.
Vice President Andrew Johnson dies and Mary Todd Lincoln drowns shortly thereafter.
In “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln,” the Yale University law professor casts an eye on the nation at the ragged end of the Civil War.
The political debate cloaks a conspiracy of industrialists and corrupt officeholders seeking to protect their own interests.
But this isn’t “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” Carter, even in rewriting history, hews close to the realities of the time, in all their complexity.
The hero of the tale is Abigail Canner, a middle-class Washingtonian of immense intelligence (just ask her) whose family is three generations removed from slavery. After graduating from Oberlin College, she takes a job as a clerk for the law firm hired to defend the president.
Carter revels in the ambiguities of post-bellum America, where abolitionists smugly presume that every black person they meet is a former slave, where Lincoln is hated as much by his own party as by disgruntled white Southerners and where a wealthy black family hires former Confederate soldiers as bodyguards “because we won, dear.”
Carter sometimes bogs down in details — he can’t resist explaining rules of evidence — but the streets come alive in his vision of Washington: a muddy conglomeration of mansions and brothels and staid brick homes. The weather is relentlessly terrible, the people eloquently rude.
Lincoln, no saint, turns people into set dressing for his political ends. He speaks in tedious, homespun parables.
“Mr. Lincoln’s countrymen saw him, according to their several prejudices, as a monster or a giant, the tyrant who had crushed the Southern way of life or the demigod who had saved the union,” Carter writes.
Carter’s tale comes to a conclusion as thrilling and untidy as the actual events that unfolded during the turbulent postwar years. The professor deploys alternative history to instruct the reader on how much and how little impact individuals, political movements and random accidents have on the course of momentous events.