The battleground of alternate history about the Civil War is so crowded there’s barely room to wield a cavalry sword, let alone a pen. Long before Mr. Lincoln started hunting vampires, we had Harry Turtledove and his army of astute novels; Ward Moore, Harry Harrison and Peter Tsouras have all fought on this field, along with Winston Churchill’s essay “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg” and even James Thurber’s story “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox.”
But rather than shifting the outcome of some crucial battle, try nudging a single bullet. Just an inch. That’s what Stephen L. Carter does in his thoughtful new thriller: Abraham Lincoln didn’t die in the hours after John Wilkes Booth shot him. Oh, the president came close to the grave, to be sure, but then his indomitable will asserted itself. “The damage to his brain appeared less severe than first thought. . . . On Easter Sunday, he rose.”
So begins “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln,” Carter’s fifth novel. The Yale law professor has enlisted real figures before in his best-selling tales of intrigue, but this is his deepest foray into the slippery world of alternate history. With an encyclopedic command of period detail and the courage to alter it whenever he wants, Carter has created an entertaining story rooted in the legal, political and racial conflicts of 19th-century America.
A brisk prologue gallops through the failed assassination in 1865 and a mysterious confrontation with a spy several months later. Then the novel opens in earnest nearly two years after the South has been dragged back into the Union. Compromise is poison, the parties can agree on nothing, and political brinksmanship has ground Washington to a halt. Things were so different back then. “If Johnson were President now,” newspapers whine, “the nation would be in considerably better shape.”
Yes, the assassins got Vice President Andrew Johnson in this version of history, but other famous characters strut through these pages fully animated, especially Lincoln, so conflicted, so deceptively rustic, with those drooping eyes that can look sleepy or piercing. Nowadays, in the shadow of that 120-ton statue and the Christ mythology that has coalesced around the Great Emancipator, it’s jarring to be reminded of what a political animal our 16th president was — and how varied were his enemies.
When alive, Lincoln faced not just the hatred of the Confederacy, but the condescension and disapproval of the abolitionist wing of his own party. By sparing his life that night at Ford’s Theatre, Carter has subjected him to a thousand cuts from assassins on all sides. The South wants revenge; radicals can’t stomach his beneficent Reconstruction; and defenders of liberty are still aghast at his imperial actions during the war: arresting political opponents, suspending habeas corpus, ignoring court orders to release prisoners, closing the Maryland legislature, shutting down newspapers. In high dudgeon, the House votes to impeach the president. The stage is set for drama.
But not nearly enough drama for Carter. Although he creates a smart, tense version of the Senate trial (based partially on the real-life impeachment of Andrew Johnson), most of the novel pursues bloodier intrigue in the darkest corners of the capital: spies, conspirators, prostitutes and disemboweled witnesses! “Mr. Lincoln’s opponents will stop at nothing” to turn him out of the White House.
In every novel he’s written, starting with his multimillion-dollar debut, “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” Carter has proposed — not subtly — that a few African Americans have always possessed more money and power than most white Americans realize. While Edward P. Jones exposed the weird exception of black slaveholders, Carter has pulled back the satin curtains on well-heeled black families who summer on Martha’s Vineyard, teach at Ivy League schools and control the White House.
“The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln” offers similar revelations. In an author’s note, Carter writes, “Our shared notion that the entire darker nation in the middle years of the nineteenth century was just out of slavery and grindingly poor is the sort of racist nonsense that continues nowadays to provide a peculiar comfort to black and white alike.” He confronts that misimpression here by placing a brilliant young black woman named Abigail Canner at the center of his story. The daughter of middle-class parents, Abigail graduated from Oberlin Institute, where she impressed a well-connected law professor. As the novel opens, she gets a job in Washington at the firm that Lincoln has engaged to represent him during his impeachment trial.
Will this highly unusual — not to mention unlikely — 21-year-old black female clerk play a crucial role in American history?
I’ll bet you a crisp new $5 bill she does.
Abigail is intellectual, tenacious and poised, which makes her all the more irresistible to a number of men in Washington, especially her fellow clerk, Jonathan Hilliman, who is thoughtful, honorable and already engaged. (Details, details.) Together this black-and-white crime-fighting duo sift through legal tomes and burned buildings, dodging assassins’ blades and social scandal.
Indeed, it’s hard to take your eyes off Abigail as she becomes a minor celebrity in Washington society. Some of her suitors are moved by genuine affection, others by lust and still others by political calculation. One of the provocative moves Carter makes in this novel is to remind us that mid-19th-century liberals could be just as cynical in their cultivation of impressive black people as their modern-day counterparts. Her suitors and enemies are difficult to tell apart in such a miasma of insincerity as Washington. Even Lincoln’s chief lawyer wants to parade Abigail around, a compromising position she negotiates as best she can. “Rejection, exclusion, condescension,” she thinks, “these were the price the nation daily exacted from the colored race, like a special tax on darkness.”
You can enjoy this as an intelligent summer lark, or you can fuss over the touches of corniness that a writer of Carter’s talent should have abandoned by now. Despite her poise, Abigail sometimes scurries around like a black Nancy Drew, collecting clues with derring-do and always noticing what everybody else missed. Melodramatic cliffhangers mar the endings of too many chapters, and the Great Reveal drags on for far too many pages only because the mystery that Abigail must solve is ridiculously — almost comically — convoluted.
But Carter’s delight in all this material is infectious. He’s a fantastic legal dramatist, and there’s the constant pleasure of seeing his creation of Washington City in 1867, alive with sounds and smells, and seven — seven! — healthy newspapers. The story moves through the viperous gossip of Fanny Eames’s salon, “the retreating forests of Tennally Town,”the Seventh Street Wharf and “on into the dangerous slums of George Town, where no sane Washingtonian ventured after dark.” (Invest, great-great-great-grandpa!) History buffs can test their mettle by trying to unwind Carter’s entangling of fact and fiction, but anyone should enjoy this rich political thriller that dares to imagine how events might have ricocheted in a different direction after the Civil War.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
On July 16, Stephen Carter will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
THE IMPEACHMENT OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN
By Stephen L. Carter
Knopf. 516 pp. $26.95