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.
Incensed by Lincoln’s conciliatory policies in the South, radical Republicans in Congress are determined to impeach him. They charge him with misusing presidential power during the Civil War, failing to protect freedmen in the South, and, most seriously, with the intent to overthrow the authority of Congress. One month before the trial is scheduled to begin, Abigail Canner, a young black woman, appears at the offices of the President’s lawyers. She possesses a degree from Oberlin, a letter from one of the partners promising her employment, and the strong conviction that her gender and race will not prevent her from realizing her ambition to become a lawyer. As the case against Lincoln heats up, Abigail’s contributions to the defense are hardly noticed—until she uncovers a conspiracy that could undermine the congressional case and destroy the reputations of prominent politicians and some of America’s wealthiest families.
Carter blends concrete facts, wholly credible fictional events, and beautifully realized characters both real and invented into a tantalizing tale of what might have been. The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln offers fresh and provocative insights into an extraordinary time in American history and its enduring impact on our politics and society.
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?
Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale University. He is the author of the national best-selling novels The Emperor of Ocean Park, New England White, Palace Council, and Jericho’s Fall. His acclaimed nonfiction books include God’s Name in Vain and Civility. He lives in Connecticut.