Legal History

What if Lincoln Had Lived? And Faced Impeachment? Law Prof Imagines Possibility in Legal Thriller


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Yale Law School professor Stephen Carter imagines President Lincoln surviving an assassin’s bullet and facing impeachment in a new legal thriller.

The protagonist is not the president who ended slavery, but is instead an aspiring lawyer who is a law clerk on Lincoln’s legal team, according to the New York Daily News, NPR and the Washington Post (reg. req.).

The character Abigail Canner is a 21-year-old black woman who would like to be the nation’s first female lawyer. “Sleuthing her way through a maze of plots and counterplots,” the Post says, “the Oberlin-educated Abigail also provides a window onto the small but growing black middle class in the mid-19th century, which has rarely been treated in fiction.”

According to the Post, Canner shows a pragmatism similar to Carter’s when she recognizes that Lincoln’s victory over slavery outweighs his motivations. “My admiration for Lincoln is undiminished,” Carter tells the Post, “in part because I don’t try to judge him by the standards of the 21st century. He was not above telling the occasional racial joke, and he made it very clear more than once, leading up to the Civil War, that he thought black people were, as a group, inferior to white people. What’s striking about Lincoln isn’t so much that he was originally trapped in the racial attitudes of his day but, rather, that he was able to do so much to transcend those attitudes as time went on.”

Those attitudes weren’t Lincoln’s only flaw, Carter says. He also shut down opposition newspapers, locked up editors and ignored court orders, all with the aim of winning the war. “And that’s the question, that in my novel, that the Senate has to confront,” Carter tells NPR. “Did Lincoln have a justification for the various things he attempted to do that he said were necessary?”

Carter’s book is The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln. A separate review in the Washington Post calls Carter “a fantastic legal dramatist” and praises the “infectious” material. The reviewer, however, says the book has too many “melodramatic cliffhangers” and the mystery is “almost comically convoluted.”

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