Friday, August 17, 2012

Book review: The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln

Ever play "what if?"

Sure you have. What if the referee had ruled that Mike Renfro caught that ball in the end zone against the Steelers? What if the Astros hadn't blown a three run lead in the ninth inning against the Mets in the 1986 NLCS? What if the Trojans had punted on 4th and short late in the fourth quarter of the Rose Bowl against Texas? What if I hadn't broken up with that boy/girl back in college? What if Abraham Lincoln had survived John Wilkes Booth's assassination attempt?

That is the idea behind Steven L. Carter's historical novel The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln. In Mr. Carter's alternative world, Abraham Lincoln doesn't die from the gunshot wound he received in Ford's Theater. Andrew Johnson, on the other hand, was murdered and Secretary of State William Seward is injured so badly he never again appears in public.

President Lincoln becomes the target of the Radical Republicans as they attempt to remove him from office over policy disagreements and an alleged plan to stage a military coup in Washington. The House passes the Articles of Impeachment and the President's lawyers are preparing to defend him in the Senate.

Into this mix comes one Miss Abigail Canner, a young black woman who graduated from Oberlin College and was put in touch with one of Washington's most prominent law firms, Dennard & McShane. As fate would have it, Mr. McShane soon meets his demise and Mr. Dennard, who didn't want the case in the first place, is handling Mr. Lincoln's defense on his own.

Meanwhile Ms. Canner and Jonathan Hilliman, Mr. McShane's law clerk, go out sleuthing trying to piece together the conspiracy to bring down the president all against the backdrop of the Trial of the Century. Using speeches and documents used to impeach President Johnson, Mr. Carter serves up reasons both for removing the President and for keeping him in office.

The book raises the question of whether the ends justified the means in bring the Civil War to a close. It also asks whether impeachment is a remedy for major policy differences between the executive and legislative branches.

My only complaint is the way in which Mr. Carter brings his story to a conclusion. It seems like a cop out. Though, I suppose, it was the only way the book could end. All in all it's an excellent read and one that presents a new portrait of the man viewed by many as America's greatest President.

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