…this novel by Stephen L. Carter sounds horrendous.
. . . Carter, now a best-selling novelist, nonfiction author and professor at Yale Law School, has his own shelf of [Lincoln] books (including the [Carl] Sandburg tome, which remains a favorite) about Lincoln, whom he still regards as America’s greatest president. This week, that shelf will get a new addition: “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln,” an alternate-history legal thriller in which the president survives the attack at Ford’s Theatre only to face reprisals in Congress for what his political enemies describe as high crimes in his handling of the war: suspending habeas corpus (the principle that someone under arrest can’t be held for long without being brought before a judge), shutting down opposition newspapers and, most ominous of all, conspiring to establish a military government in the District of Columbia.
Perhaps I’m just not a fan of counter-factual historical fiction, but if you’re going to do it, you might as well start with a premise that’s even remotely plausible. I don’t know who exactly Carter has numbered among Lincoln’s “political enemies,” but it was almost universally the case that no one except Confederates and Northern Copperheads groaned for more than a moment about the extra-constitutionality of Lincoln’s policies; whether or not the limited, temporary suspension of habeas rights was a good idea, the fact remains that Congress later gave Lincoln precisely the authority he had sought at the war’s outset. And that Congress — which approved the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act by overwhelming majorities in 1863 — would be succeeded by an even more predominantly Republican assembly following the elections of 1864. This, Carter seems to want his readers to believe, would have been the Congress to initiate impeachment proceedings against a President recuperating from a pistol shot to the head. Weird.
It sounds as if at least a few of Carter’s villains are also drawn from the radical wing of Lincoln’s own party — folks like Benjamin Wade and Henry Davis, whose reconstruction bill Lincoln had pocket-vetoed in the summer of 1864 and who supported the third-party candidacy of John Frémont because they believed Lincoln was insufficiently aggressive along a variety of fronts — but that would make even less sense. About all Lincoln needed to do to bring the dissenters around was to boot Montgomery Blair from the Post Office in September 1864. Though it’s certainly true that many fellow Republicans viewed his preliminary thoughts on Reconstruction to be overly gentle toward the South, it’s also pretty clear that Lincoln was, at the time of his death, well to the left of the party median on crucial issues like black civil rights (including suffrage). The fantasy that Lincoln, had he lived, would have been “generous” and “friendly” toward the South eventually became a staple of Confederate and New South mythology before seeping into the mainstream of Lincoln memory, where it continues to reside. Given the trajectory of his philosophy and policy toward slavery and racial justice, I think it’s more likely that Lincoln would have followed a course similar to Ulysses S. Grant, whose rather quickly gave up his naive faith that Southern whites would acquiesce to the postwar order. By 1870, he was using the newly-created Department of Justice to chase down the Klan in South Carolina, and I’m sure Lincoln would have been cheering him along. (It sounds as if Carter in fact understands this about Lincoln, but it also doesn’t sound like this keeps him from imagining that the radicals would have hated him anyway.)
Likewise, the image of Lincoln as a solitary figure, a voice of nobility and unappreciated bipartisan reason surrounded by idiots, purchased men and conspirators, is also boring and absurd. Lincoln was an ingenious politician who had been a devoted Whig and a devoted Republican, and he valued unity enough that I can’t imagine a scenario in which he’d lose influence over the various factions within his own party. But for some reason, Americans have always loved Sad Lincoln, eating a sandwich on a lonely park bench, abandoned by everyone but a grateful posterity. Carter’s novel seems to be animated by this same narrative, which (like Gentle Lincoln) also has its roots in early-20th century reconciliationist bullshit, which had everything to do with pretending that the war had nothing to do with emancipating black people and redrafting the terms of citizenship in a world without slaves. By surrounding Lincoln with enemies of every party affiliation and every ideological orientation, Americans allowed themselves to pretend that everyone but Lincoln — and certainly not the slave-holding and slavery-supporting South alone — shared blame for the war. Perversely enough, Lincoln memory eventually became an alibi for national amnesia about the war’s origins, costs and consequences.
Now, I obviously have no idea whether Carter’s portrayal of Lincoln is as bad as I’m imagining it is. (I recently finished an essay on Lincoln in the imagination of Southern white supremacists like Thomas Dixon, so I’m certain that I’ve read worse.) But he seems to be relying on some pretty obvious, durable cliches about Lincoln, which makes me think the book doesn’t deserve the attention it’s receiving this week. Then again, since Lincoln in literature is apparently my thing now, I suppose I’ll have to read it and find out. If I’m wrong, you’ll hear back from me in, like, six months. Or whatever.