Wednesday, July 25, 2012

One More Contribution to the Season of Lincoln

Stephen L. Carter, The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln: A Novel

Though 11th Grade History extols Lincoln as the President who won America’s Civil War, in his time, Americans regarded him as a moderate. He refused to punish Southerners who surrendered, balked at Sherman’s “total war” tactics, and greeted Lee’s surrender by ordering the band to play “Dixie.” This made him popular with the masses, but the extremists who always get elected to office couldn’t stand him, and didn’t flinch to say so.

Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter imagines a world in which Lincoln survived Booth’s 1865 assassination attempt. In 1867, the Old Rail-splitter dangles between the Radical Republicans, who want a harsh, military-based Reconstruction, and a loose affiliation of moderates, Democrats, moneyed interests, and wealthy deal-makers, who want... something. With feuding conspiracies at his heels, Lincoln has to go outside the government for his defense.

Abigail Canner has just started clerking for a Washington law firm. She hopes to be America’s first black woman lawyer, but she has to earn her stripes from the bottom up. When her boss, Lincoln’s personal attorney, is gruesomely murdered with a black prostitute, and the police show no interest in the investigation, Abigail grabs a spade and starts digging. What she uncovers shakes her faith in Lincoln, law, and the American system to her core.

Carter accomplishes a remarkable feat, creating a setting that is remarkably gripping and energetic, yet primarily cerebral. His world rides on the strength of legal argument and testing evidence. Many stereotypical components of legal thrillers put in only brief appearances: this setting is rich in harsh words, yet remarkably nonviolent. Romance is subdued, constrained by the etiquette of its day, and courtship happens from the neck up.

Yet it’s also a world in which much is at stake. America’s first-ever Presidential impeachment will inevitably have lingering consequences for the nation: executive power or parliamentary? Hard money or soft? Military payback or careful forgiveness? Most important, how will voters take what amounts to a legalized coup d’etat? These questions permit no easy answers, and Carter keeps readers guessing remarkably late in the book.

This story takes remarkably few liberties. Much of Carter’s “case” against Lincoln comes from the impeachment of his Vice President, Andrew Johnson. But Johnson was regarded as a lucky drunk, foisted into the Presidency by blind chance and someone else’s politics. When the same sectarian divides attack a popular war President, the stakes increase exponentially. A case that actually turned on one vote now spills blood and threatens to restart the war.

Carter has published several legal thrillers in which past secrets collide with present exigencies. To date, he has mostly used contemporary settings, and where he has ventured into history, he has kept it within living memory. His decision to go back nearly 150 years sets a new standard for his own work. His level of ambition comes across in his prose, which is dense and slow-moving, but well worth the investment.

We seem to be in some kind of “Season of Lincoln” right now. Considering media lead times, it can’t be collusion that caused this book to appear so close to the movie version of Seth Graeme-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Sometimes a cultural moment occurs when we all turn to face the same icon at the same time. Right now, that seems to be Abraham Lincoln.

Remember, Lincoln did more than just win the war. He held America together when Diamondbacks, Radicals, night riders, and others wanted to pull it apart. Regions of the nation were permanently at each other’s throats. Election days could often end in fistfights, and so could Congressional debates. Language we wouldn’t use on our worst enemies became the lingua franca of political discourse.

The parallel with today’s America couldn’t be any more blatant.

Maybe the nation needs a new Lincoln. Obama voters thought their candidate could fill that role, which explains the messianic tone surrounding his inauguration. But it’s hard to imagine a candidate of such restraint and discretion getting elected today, when name-calling and bald lies dominate political ads. Instead of making false promises, Carter conjures our need for a new Lincoln by reminding us who the first Lincoln really was.

This book could easily descend into either hero worship or extended silliness. It’s a testament to Carter’s legal acumen and storytelling prowess that this remains a gripping, thoughtful, exciting read. And it rewards readers by resisting easy answers and proffering food for thought which will linger long after you close the cover for the last time.

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