'Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln' author Stephen Carter on fictional Abe, real Obama

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Would African-American history — and indeed American history — have been different if Abraham Lincoln had lived?

That is the thrilling question at the heart of The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, a new novel by Yale University professor Stephen L. Carter. It’s a courtroom drama set in the months following the end of the Civil War, when a nation torn apart over its “original sin” of slavery comes together to consider whether its president abused his authority by waging a moral battle.

The premise will intrigue some and make others uncomfortable, but it’s a fascinating read with broad historical implications and lessons for contemporary politics in the era of the nation’s first African-American president.

Carter, 57, has taught at Yale Law School since 1982 and has written eight non-fiction books, the most recent being The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama. 

The idea of writing a “what if” about the nation’s 16th president appealed to Carter because so many Americans don’t realize that the revered Lincoln did things that “in the light of history, don’t look very good.” He suspended habeus corpus (the right of prisoners to petition for their own release); shut down newspapers, and imprisoned journalists who failed to promote his perspective on the moral justification for the war. He placed many northern cities under martial law.

The professor explores these issues through the eyes of an unlikely heroine: Abigail Canner, a female lawyer. Abigail is young, educated and black, living in Washington, D.C., and experiences first-hand the impeachment proceedings against Lincoln. Her character challenges the conventional wisdom about African-American life in the era of slavery; offering a unique glimpse into the oft-forgotten black middle-class which existed in the 19th century — and setting the stage for a whirlwind of mystery and intrigue worthy of comparisons to a Shakespearean drama.

Carter takes more than poetic license — altering historical facts like the premature death of Abe Lincoln’s wife Mary — in order to shape the story. Yet the author relies on historical documents to inform as well as entertain. Race and class remain at the forefront of the drama surrounding the political circumstances that freed African-American slaves. But this story is complicated by its central premise: whether Lincoln’s actions were, in fact, legal. As such, the book challenges its reader to wonder to which lengths one must be willing to go in order to achieve what is right and just.

The fact that Carter has chosen to explore these issues in the midst of Barack Obama’s first term is not lost on the reader. This first black president — hailing from Abe Lincoln’s home state of Illinois – could almost be the book’s ghost writer. Questions of presidential authority and legitimacy are central to the plot and appear curiously analogous to Obama’s path to the Oval Office. The stark division between 19th century Republicans and Southern Democrats could easily be confused for a 21st Century Tea Party debate — with all its sound and fury. The opposition that Barack Obama and his black attorney general, Eric Holder, have experienced is embedded in the nuanced texture of Carter’s well-woven pages.

The most fascinating aspect is the rarely discussed challenges that President Lincoln faced from within his own party. Carter is able to shed light on the factions most closely aligned to Lincoln, many of whom either sought to undermine his efforts or simply did not believe in his cause. The enemy within is revealed in near cinematic vision. Freedom came at a cost; and the African-American struggle is brought to life in a lyrical way. Much like Victor Hugo wrote in his masterpiece Les Miserables: “It is a music of a people who will not be slaves again.”

But Carter sings a different song. By raising Abraham Lincoln from the dead, The Impeachment leaves the reader wondering: if this were 1861, what would you do?

Stephen Carter spoke to theGrio to discuss the inspiration behind his seminal novel, his thoughts on Abe Lincoln’s historical significance, and both the burden and legacy of President Barack Obama.