What if Abraham Lincoln had survived the assassination attempt on his life? Would he still have been considered the great statesman and hero that he is today?
Maybe not, writes Stephen Carter, the William Nelson Cromwell professor of law at Yale, in his latest book The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln: A Novel (Knopf 2012; $26.95).
Carter, a long time fan of the 16th president who has read an immense amount of books about Lincoln, notes that highly educated abolitionists in Lincoln’s day, though vehemently against slavery were also resentful of the president. Many considered Lincoln, who had very little formal schooling and hailed from deep poverty in both rural Kentucky and Indiana, as not having the intellectual heft for the job as president. Some also thought he was moving too slowly in freeing the slaves. Besides that, Lincoln was playing to win the war, no matter what and rules were often broken.
“I think Lincoln was our greatest president; I have no question about that,” says Carter, author of four other novels including the best selling The Emperor of Ocean Park. “ But at the same time, there were a lot of things that Lincoln did during his presidency, in order to win the Civil War, which could be called into question. And so my idea was to write a courtroom drama that was crafted around that possibility. The path I sketch in my fiction is one possible path history might have taken.”
The list of what the Lincoln administration was egregious. Opposition newspapers were shuttered, editors locked up, reporters at the front who wrote unfavorable stories were subject to court martial, habeas corpus was suspended and Lincoln both ignored court orders and declared martial law.
“For Lincoln, all of this was justified by his need to win the war,” says Carter. “And that’s the question in my novel that the Senate has to confront — did Lincoln have a justification for the various things he attempted to do that he said were necessary?”
Asked if he thinks Lincoln could get elected today, Carter has a quick answer.
“Not a chance,” he says. “Lincoln would been dismissed as uneducated and too folksy. He also wasn’t very telegenic and had a funny voice.”