Synopses & Reviews
From the best-selling author of The Emperor of Ocean Park
and New England White,
a daring reimagining of one of the most tumultuous moments in our nation’s past.
Stephen L. Carter’s thrilling new novel takes as its starting point an alternate history: President Abraham Lincoln survives the assassination attempt at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. Two years later he is charged with overstepping his constitutional authority, both during and after the Civil War, and faces an impeachment trial . . .
Twenty-one-year-old Abigail Canner is a young black woman with a degree from Oberlin, a letter of employment from the law firm that has undertaken Lincoln’s defense, and the iron-strong conviction, learned from her late mother, that “whatever limitations society might place on ordinary negroes, they would never apply to her.” And so Abigail embarks on a life that defies the norms of every stratum of Washington society: working side by side with a white clerk, meeting the great and powerful of the nation, including the president himself. But when Lincoln’s lead counsel is found brutally murdered on the eve of the trial, Abigail is plunged into a treacherous web of intrigue and conspiracy reaching the highest levels of the divided government.
Here is a vividly imagined work of historical fiction that captures the emotional tenor of post–Civil War America, a brilliantly realized courtroom drama that explores the always contentious question of the nature of presidential authority, and a galvanizing story of political suspense.
“With an encyclopedic command of period detail...Carter has created an entertaining story rooted in the legal, political and racial conflicts of 19th-century America...Carter’s delight in all this material is infectious. He’s a fantastic legal dramatist, and there’s the constant pleasure of seeing his creation of Washington City in 1867, alive with sounds and smells....History buffs can test their mettle by trying to unwind Carter’s entangling of fact and fiction, but anyone should enjoy this rich political thriller that dares to imagine how events might have ricocheted in a different direction after the Civil War.” Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“[T]he best legal thriller so far this year...I’ve liked Carter’s four previous forays into fiction. This one, I loved.” Patrik Henry Bass, Essence Magazine
“Washington readers will get a kick out of comparing Carter’s vivid portrait of late-19th-century DC with the city they know today....But the best thing about sitting down with this rich, often thrilling novel is watching its alternative history unfold.”John Wilwol, The Washingtonian
“[T]he streets come alive in his vision of Washington...Carter’s tale comes to a conclusion as thrilling and untidy as the actual events that unfolded during the turbulent postwar years.” Andrew Dunn, Bloomberg.com
“A smart and engaging what-if that has the virtue of being plausible...Abigail makes for a grandly entertaining sleuth.” Kirkus Reviews
“This novel has all the juicy stew of post–Civil War Washington, with the complexities of race, class, and sex mixed in. Carter draws on historical documents and a vivid imagination to render a fascinating mix of murder mystery, political thriller, and courtroom drama....Imaginatively conceived.” Booklist (starred)
From the author of the bestsellers The Emperor of Ocean Park and New England White, an electrifying and provocative historical novel set in an alternate history in which Abraham Lincoln survives assassination at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. In this gripping legal and political thriller, Stephen L. Carter imagines what might have happened if Lincoln had lived to face the tumultuous post-war politics of 1865 Washington, D.C., including an impeachment trial for overstepping his Constitutional authority during the Civil War. At the novel’s center is Abigail Canner, a young black woman recently graduated from Oberlin, who is hired by the D.C. law firm that is working on Lincoln’s defense. When one of Lincoln’s lead lawyers is found brutally murdered, Abigail is plunged into a web of intrigue, politics, and conspiracy.
About the Author
Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University, where he has taught since 1982. He is the author of eight books of nonfiction, writes a column for Bloomberg View, and is a frequent contributor to The Daily Beast and Newsweek. The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln is his fifth novel.
Reading Group Guide
What if Abraham Lincoln had survived Booth’s bullet?
In The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, Stephen L. Carter, the best-selling author of The Emperor of Ocean Park, travels back to Washington, D. C. (then known as Washington City) in April 1865 and imagines what might have happened had Lincoln survived the assassination attempt. The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading in this guide are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of this fascinating work of alternative history.
1. Abigail “learned from her late mother, that, whatever limitations society might place on ordinary negroes, they would never apply to her” [p. 14]. Is she arrogant? Naïve? What is the significance of her making a distinction between herself and “ordinary negroes”? Does her frustration with the presumption “that if you were black you must have been a slave until the Emancipation Proclamation; or, if you had been born free, then your parents surely scrubbed kitchens or waited tables” [p. 35] explain her attitude? In addition to her mother’s lesson, what inspires her determination to challenge society’s customs and rules?
2. How would you characterize the relationships between Abigail and the men she works with? How do her race and gender affect the way she is treated by Jonathan Hilliman, Dan Sickles, and Rufus Dennard? What part do their personal histories and biases play? What light does this shed on the racial and sexual mores of the period? Are there parallels to the interactions between men and women and among various racial groups in the workplace today?
3. Abigail said that “whatever wrongs Mr. Lincoln may or may not have committed, he has also committed the two greatest and most important acts any President has done, or is likely to do. He won the war to restore the Union. In the process, he forced an end to slavery” [p. 117]. Using this quotation as a starting point, discuss the variety of opinions presented in the novel about Lincoln and the actions he took during and after the war, including the views expressed by Dinah Berryhill [pp. 36–37]; Abigail’s brother, Michael [pp. 30, 88]; Police Inspector Varak [p. 60]; General Felix [pp. 79–81]; August Belmont [p. 184]; and other secondary characters. What insights do they offer into the roles of wealth, class, and race, as well as personal morality, interests, and fears, in the shaping of political opinion?
4. The meeting between Judith and Abigail [pp. 143–45] and Judith’s subsequent revelations [pp. 223–26] provide invaluable keys to the puzzle Abigail is trying to solve. What does Judith’s situation reveal about the African American community, and particularly about African American women, during the period? In what ways do her actions represent the hidden or neglected contributions of African Americans to American history? What aspects of Judith’s life serve as an example and inspiration to Abigail?
5. “Rejection, exclusion, condescension—these were the price the nation daily exacted from the colored race, like a special tax on darkness” [p. 148]. How does Abigail deal with the prejudices she encounters? In what circumstances does she demonstrate courage? When does she seem most vulnerable? Do you think her behavior is ever rash or unreasonable?
6. How do their ambitions, expectations, and current situations (Jonathan’s engagement to Meg and Abigail’s to Aaron) influence Abigail and Jonathan’s relationship? When does each of them become aware of the romantic attraction that exists between them? Who is more willing to accept and explore the possibility of a more personal commitment, and why? To what extent do their interactions reflect the larger story of the relations between blacks and whites during this period of history?
7. At the impeachment hearing, Abigail finds herself sitting with Jonathan’s fiancée, Meg Felix, who “was broad and tough and deliberate. Every movement of her soft body exuded a winning confidence: you knew at first glance that she would accomplish whatever she set her mind to” [p. 65], and Kate Sprague, Salmon P. Chase’s daughter, “married to the wealthiest man in the Senate,” and “said to be puzzling constantly over how to manipulate her ambitious father into the White House” [p. 256]. In addition to their prominent fathers, what accounts for the power and prestige they enjoy? To what extent do they, along with Abigail herself, embody qualities you associate with feminism?
8. Refer to the scenes in which Lincoln appears [pp. 41–45; 90–93; 157–62; 206–10; 229–33; 240]. What particular qualities in Lincoln do these vignettes focus on? In what ways do they humanize him? Do they support the image of Lincoln as a great visionary and humanitarian, a pragmatic politician intent on saving the nation—or as a manipulative, perhaps ruthless, wartime leader?
9. How do the events of the novel and the secrets Abigail uncovered affect her? What do you imagine will happen to her? Will she realize her ambition of becoming a lawyer? Will she and Jonathan meet again?
10. In what ways does The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln conform to the conventions of a political thriller? What does it share with traditional historical novels? Are the events and characters Carter creates plausible and well integrated into the historical framework of the novel?
11. Carter brings history to life through such real-life characters as Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s Secretary of War; Salmon P. Chase, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; Dan Sickles, the colorful, controversial former Union general; Charles Sumner, Benjamin Wade, Thaddeus Stevens, and other congressional leaders; and the notorious flirt Bessie Hale. Does the inclusion of actual historical figures add to your engagement with the story? Is it helpful to have previous knowledge about these people to get the most out of the book?
12. A major theme of the novel is a tangled web of motives and maneuverings stirring in postwar Washington, from questions of power and loyalty within Lincoln’s inner circle to the conflicts between Democrats and Republicans and the divergent viewpoints within the Republican Party, to the clashes between the executive and legislative branches of government. Discuss how such matters as presidential authority, partisan politics, and personal ambitions propel the narrative. Do you see similarities to the political situation in America today?
13. Abraham Lincoln has been portrayed in countless biographies, novels, movies, and plays. Discuss the different depictions of Lincoln you have encountered and how they compare with Carter’s version.
14. Historical novels often help clarify the issues that shape our beliefs about the past. What aspects of The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln best illustrate your understanding of the political ideologies and social realities of post–Civil War America? Does the novel change your views about the North and the South after the Civil War?
15. Does the desire to make history relevant to today’s readers color the way a writer perceives and portrays events and people in the past? To what extent do you think Carter is influenced by twenty-first-century sensibilities and by his personal experience as an eminent African American lawyer and professor?