Having prompted myself to ponder the politics of the American Civil War, I thought that for my next book I should pick something that fit with these events. After reading Back Channel, about a year-and-a-half ago, I looked forward to reading more from Stephen L. Carter when I got the chance. At this point, one of his books seemed themely and so I embarked upon The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln. This book was written two years before, and two books before*, Back Channel.
The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln imagines that it is Lincoln, not his vice-president Andrew Johnson, who survives the assassination attempts on the night of April 14th, 1865. Having survived the war and the assassination, Lincoln now becomes bogged down in both personal tragedy and the politics of reconstruction. Having so recently celebrated the New Year of 1967, I transport myself back to the beginning of an 1867 where radical elements within the Republican party are bringing articles of impeachment against the president.
Reading the book, I had to go back and check the date that it was published. If Carter hadn’t written this novel ten years ago then he surely should be writing it today. The story seems to speak directly to current effects but does so, not just behind 150 years of distance but using historical fiction so as to free Carter from needing to compromise with his storytelling in order to adhere to historical accuracy.
The impeachment proceedings of Andrew Johnson created much of the precedent that we will be presumably be seeing this week, guiding the current Senate’s impeachment trial. For example, I was entirely unaware of the term “Managers” until the one-month delay between the House vote and the transmittal of the articles of impeachment to the Senate. I now understand it was the 1868 trial the created this structure, where so-named Managers from the House act as prosecutors for the Senate’s trial.
Stephen Carter’s writing combines some of the best traits of legal thrillers (e.g. John Grisham) and historical fiction. When I read Back Channel, I commented at some length about the marketing of Carter as an “African-American author.” While I further commented that such a distinction is entirely unnecessary (his work easily stands on its own merit and requires no affirmative action nor special category), it is also true that Impeachment (even more than Back Channel) is about the social and political aspects of the racial divide in post-war Washington DC. That facet of the story is also excellent and engaging. In fact, given my concern about the fictional account of slavery in Class of ’61, Carter’s background and ethnicity only add to the strength of his portrayal of a free black woman trying to make a career in Lincoln’s Washington.
I also previously indicated that Carter shows no sign of political affiliation. I’m not so sure about that after reading The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln. Certain elements of the story, such as the rights of black Americans to own firearms for their own self-defense, would only go over well with one half of the body politic in today’s environment. In fact, had this book actually been written now, in 2019 or 2020, Carter would almost certainly be accused of a pro-Trump bias. Lincoln’s fictional impeachment has too many parallels to today’s headlines. Such parallels equate the heroic figure of Lincoln with Donald Trump – and we know that doesn’t go over so well.
Besides the gun stuff and yet another discussion about the welfare of slaves – is it better to be well cared for and in chains or free to suffer? – there is plenty of wisdom concerning the process of impeachment. Several of the characters (and those who should know at that) inform our heroine that impeachment is not about the law and it is not about guilt or innocence – it is about politics. The story starts (an intro bit about the April 14th assassinations aside) with the articles of impeachment being sent from the House and the preparations for the Senate trial. The politics are, I should think, more convoluted than those of today. The fictional Andrew Johnson being dead, a conviction of the President will place Senate President Pro Tempore Benjamin Wade into the oval office. But Senator Wade also leads the body which will be the jury. Because, as in the real trial of Johnson, it was Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase who presided over the trail, Wade also gets a vote. If you are familiar with the actual impeachment trial of Johnson you may know that Johnson was acquitted for lack of one additional vote against him.
The extent of Carter’s prescience in having this book available for us now can be explored by looking the deviations from the historical impeachment of Johnson. Johnson was, one may or may not recall, a Democrat. He joined the Lincoln/Republican ticket as a rejection of the secessionist leanings of so much of his party, forming a combination ticket of “War Democrats” and Republicans called the National Union Party. Recall further that, in the first few years following the end of the Civil War, the Republicans, despite being a newly-formed party, had an overwhelming majority in Congress – not least because the Southern States remained ineligible to send representation. After Lincoln’s assassination, the political situation was that an overwhelmingly Republican congress now faced an unexpected and unelected (at least, to the office of president) chief executive. The impeachment vote in the House fell along party lines and the Democrats didn’t have enough Senators to acquit at trial. Similar to the Articles of Impeachment from Carter’s story, the actual charge against Johnson (that he replaced Stanton with Grant as Secretary of War without Congressional approval) was considered dubious at the time and was not-too-much later declared unconstitutional. Carter, of course, has removed the “party lines” angle, necessarily, given that all the fictional players were Republicans.
Last Friday, the Wall St. Journal printed an editorial piece by our sitting Vice President who references John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage. Among the men that Kennedy admires is Senator Edmund G. Ross of Kansas. Ross was one of the six Republicans who did not vote to convict Johnson, thus failing to achieve the 2/3rds required. Ross (in a role filled by Bostonian Charles Sumner via Carter) was an ardent abolitionist and political opponent of Johnson. In voting, he declared that he would consider only the facts in the trial itself, not the politics. Vice President Pence, in writing his piece, urged Democrats to break with their party as did Ross** and vote on the greater Constitutional principles; that impeachment should not be taken likely or hinge on matters of party politics.
One part of Carter’s book that I particular enjoy (and I was expecting it, because a similar afterword completes Back Channel) is how, after his story completes, he details the points where he knowingly altered historical fact in service to his story. Such an exercise is at least as educational, and probably more so, than a work of historical fiction that meticulously sticks to the known facts. He also includes an interesting conversation between (fictional) characters at the very end. They wonder, to each other, what the impact of the great events they have witness will have upon history. The answer, it is suggested, is that the progress of history is too momentous to hinge upon a single individual. In other words, we readers are to assume that after the historical deviations which took place over the course of The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, the world would simply return to it course as we have learned about it in our history books.
This fits in quite well here, on my own page.
*Sort of. Carter also writes under the name A. L. Shields. He published a book so authored in 2013.
**Some suggest that Ross may have been bribed, although is is certainly not proven.