Such an inquiry as, “What if Abraham Lincoln had survived the assassination,” is the driving force of Stephen L. Carter’s latest novel, “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln” (Knopf, $26.95).
In this thrilling courtroom drama, the 16th president is entangled in an Impeachment trail, charged with several counts of violating his Constitutional authority during the Civil War. The story is fictional, yet Carter uses real life political players of that time who interact with the book’s young, Black female heroine, Abigail Canner. The firm defending Lincoln hires Canner, but the lead counsel is murdered. Canner ambitiously defies racial assumptions and sifts through conspiracies to discover the truth in a divided post-war government.
“My story is told through the eyes of an outsider who wants to be a lawyer,” Carter said. “At this time, there are no female lawyers in America, no more than 10 Black lawyers. I wanted to tell a story in addition of being a thriller and a mystery and in addition to introducing us to these big historical figures, but also to tell us something about how Black people lived in that era. Free Black people, middle class in her case.”
As a professor of law at Yale University and as a bestselling novelist of “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” “New England White” and “Palace Council,” creating Canner’s character was critical to illustrated the existence of a Black middle class and their important perspective on American history.
“It’s funny isn’t it that when we think of the 1860s, we tend to assume that every Black person in America had been a slave just a couple of years ago,” Carter said. “And of course, for most Black people that was the true horrific history, but there were some people who had been free and made lives in freedom. Difficult lives to be sure, but they raised their family, they provided for them, and I wanted to look at it through the eyes of someone like [Abigail]—a real outsider in society. Those are the characters that are more interesting to write about.
“There are a lot of novels you can find about Lincoln where the main character is a senator or cabinet secretary, but I really, in all of my novels, am interested in the outsiders. I’m interested in the people whose lives we don’t know much about. That for me is the fun of writing.”
Carter has written four novels and nine nonfiction books. He acknowledge that this—his fifth novel—was the most challenging.
“The more research I did, the more I realized how complex Lincoln was and how complex his challenges were and how complex his decisions were,” Carter said. “For example, you had someone who is willing to shut down opposition newspapers when he thought they were hurting the war effort. Now someone of today might think that was outrageous, but in the context of time, when Lincoln believed that the survival of the United States was threatened, I think it’s perfectly reasonable that he came to that conclusion. I may have not reached that conclusion, but with the challenges he faced, it was certainly a plausible and interesting conclusion to reach.
Carter is an enthusiast of the president, having four bookshelves full of Lincoln books.
“I’ve always been a big Lincoln fan,” Carter said. “Even as a child, I was always fascinated by his life. I think he’s our greatest president. I’m a great admirer of Lincoln. I’ve always read everything I could get my hands on about him. He really did some things that are really questionable, [but] through all of that my admiration of him only grew.”
Regardless of asking tough questions and thinking of the complexity of post Civil War politics, Cater said he wants to entertain his readers.
“Now, I want to make clear,” Carter said. “I write for fun. I write books that people will enjoy. But, at the same time, I’m quite interested in history and its lessons. On the other hand, I am not saying that I think Lincoln should’ve been impeached. I’m not saying Lincoln would’ve been impeached. I’m just saying it’s an interesting question to wonder what might have happened.”
Carter’s book tour comes to the Philadelphia Free Library, 1901 Vine Street, July 17.