THEGRIO: In one sentence, what is The Impeachment of Abraham Linclon about?
STEPHEN CARTER: Let me first say, I’m a big Lincoln fan. Abe Lincoln is our greatest president, but if he had survived Booth’s bullet, would we have still looked at him that way?
Principally, the book is entertainment, but it raises important questions. I think all of us have wars worth fighting, but what are the rules? Are there points beyond which you won’t go? When are you willing to compromise your values? In the case of Lincoln, yes, the war was right. But I wanted to explore the lines he crossed and the lines he felt were necessary to ignore.
So much of Civil War history gets lost in discussions over slavery and freedom. What did Lincoln do that the average person doesn’t know?
First he suspended habeus corpus — which makes today’s Guantanamo Bay prison seem uncontroversial. Lincoln sent federal troops to Maryland to stop the legislature from meeting and prevent a vote on secession. So many people forget that Maryland was a slave state. His administration shut down opposition newspapers and arrested journalists. He even locked up the mayor of Baltimore to avoid insurrection, and Lincoln took millions from the U.S. Treasury — without asking Congress — in order to fund the war. We’ve never had a president, before or since, who exercised so much power on his own authority. If these things were done by a sitting president today they might be considered treason. But in hindsight it is viewed through a moral lens, and Lincoln was on the right side.
How did Lincoln justify his actions?And how did he ensure the support of the American people?
Well, of course, the ideology of presidential power was still being worked out, but Lincoln still ran into trouble with various advisers. It took him a lot of time to come up with a cabinet he could work with and trust. The key to Lincoln’s success is that the Army adored him. This is significant, considering he led the country in the bloodiest war in its history. But Lincoln took the reins as top military strategist. This was partly because the best generals had defected to fight for the South, so Lincoln was left with generals who weren’t competent. West Point at the time was largely training people to be engineers — not warriors. So Lincoln read books about military history and educated himself on the strategy of warfare. Until Ulysses S. Grant, who came on board relatively late, Lincoln remained the top military mind of the Union Army. That alone garnered him the loyalty of soldiers and the people.
But you also uncover the challenges and betrayal he faced as well.
Yes. One of the important things to know is that even radical abolitionists in his own party opposed him. They thought Lincoln wasn’t being hard enough on the South or aggressive enough in favor of the black man. Of course, Southerners hated him, especially when he decided to give arms to the slaves in 1864. But the thing to remember is that he wasn’t popular. Many fellow Republicans thought he was beneath them because of his lack of education. And in the book it is these dark forces in his own party that push for his impeachment.
In the novel, Lincoln’s wife Mary dies. But in real life she lived. Why did you change that historical fact?
It helped to create the atmospherics of the story. I was sketching a very lonely man and her death gives a sense of the isolation I believe he felt.
Abigail Canner is the central character. Why?
I thought it was important to tell the story of the black middle class. Especially at the time of slavery. These people weren’t rich — they owned small businesses or had studied a trade, but their influence was immeasurable. Abigail’s character not only challenges norms about blackness at the time, but also ideas about a woman’s place in society. She becomes involved in Lincoln’s impeachment and faces opposition at every level. Even “the good guys”– white abolitionists — still see her as an outsider. It’s important to note that many white abolitionists still thought black people weren’t their equal.
And was that true of Lincoln himself?
Yes and no. Lincoln evolved over the course of the war. The President Lincoln of 1861 would have thought President Barack Obama’s ascendency unthinkable. But the Lincoln of 1864 would have applauded it.
In 1862 Lincoln thought blacks should be freed and sent back to Africa. What he proposed was much like modern-day Liberia. He even had a meeting with freed blacks asking if they thought the slaves should go to Africa or South America. They thought he was nuts. But by the time he armed the slaves in 1864 he realizes he “needed” them. He could end the war more quickly with their help, but it also gives him a sense of their “American-ness.” He realizes that this great work wasn’t being done for them but with them.
What is Lincoln’s greatest legacy? And what does that mean for President Obama in particular?
Lincoln had a divided country. And perhaps a part of his legacy, which is being borne out in the era of Obama, is an increasingly polarized body politic. But this is not just unique to Obama. It has been happening for decades.
But aren’t Obama’s challenges unique? Consider the obstruction he’s faced or the fact that House Republicans voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt. Aren’t these attacks racially motivated? Isn’t Obama fighting an intellectual civil war?
President Obama certainly has unique problems because he’s black. The fact that there are groups and individuals so viscerally committed to his failure show that. But he also has gifts. And Obama’s greatest legacy will be whether he has the right set of gifts to overcome his challenges.
Lincoln has always been a burden to his successors because of the greatness of what he did — saving the Union and freeing the slaves. All presidents want an equally memorable legacy. Obama is no different. But part of what I explore in the book are the limits of presidential power, and how far one is willing to go to achieve what they consider necessary. These men are not shaped only by their ambition, but by the times in which they live. This is true for Lincoln, Obama and the rest.
I’m not particularly political. I’m a historian and a student of the law; so I didn’t write this book as political commentary. But I believe, and I hope, that President Obama — like Lincoln — has the right set of gifts.
The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln is published by Alfred A. Knopf — a division of Random House.