Discovering and accepting Lincoln’s flaws

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As a little boy growing up in Washington, Stephen L. Carter spent many happy hours in a room upstairs, poring over his father's trove of books about Abraham Lincoln. Of special interest was Carl Sandburg's massive biography of his fellow Illinoisan, full of stories about the 16th president, his folksy ways and, later, his conduct of the Civil War. Stephen couldn't read the books at first — he was too young and they too heavy and too long — but he looked at the pictures. In time he began to read seriously about Lincoln, who won the war and ended the enslavement of people who looked (as Stephen, an African American, couldn't fail to notice) like him. Lincoln was his hero.

Half a century later, Carter, now a best-selling novelist, nonfiction author and professor at Yale Law School, has his own shelf of books (including the Sandburg tome, which remains a favorite) about Lincoln, whom he still regards as America's greatest president. This week, that shelf will get a new addition: "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln" (Knopf, $ 26.95), an alternate-history legal thriller in which the president survives the attack at Ford's Theatre only to face reprisals in Congress for what his political enemies describe as high crimes in his handling of the war: suspending habeas corpus (the principle that someone under arrest can't be held for long without being brought before a judge), shutting down opposition newspapers and, most ominous of all, conspiring to establish a military government in the District of Columbia.

(Michael Lionstar) - Author Stephen L. Carter.

(Courtesy Random House) - ‘The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln’ by Stephen L. Carter.

"When I've been asked to vote in historians' polls of presidents, I've always ranked Lincoln No. 1, because he faced challenges no other president has faced and met them successfully," says Carter, 56. "That said, the fact remains that in his prosecution of the war, he did a lot of things that people don't really talk about, even though there's a lot of interest in Lincoln these days. But I don't think we should pretend that because he was heroic, and because we admire him so, nothing he did can be questioned. It's a fact that he suspended habeas corpus and ignored court orders. It's a fact that he jailed editors. It's a fact that he used military force to keep the Maryland legislature from meeting so that it couldn't vote on secession. Lincoln believed these things were justified as military necessities, and maybe they were. But in my book, some of the characters get the opportunity to argue that point."

In "The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln," Carter finds the president encircled not by Confederates — though there are still one or two of those lurking about — but by radicals in his own Republican Party who mount a furious campaign to remove him from office by quasi-legal means, in part because they believe him to be too soft on the conquered South. Behind the scenes, power-hungry politicians and money-grubbing capitalists who want to influence White House policy on tariffs also are pulling strings. Even members of the president's administration — possibly including the most feared man in Washington, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton — may be conspiring against him. As the Senate impeachment trial looms, one of Lincoln's lawyers is brutally murdered ("sliced up," in the picturesque phrase of the police) in the company of an alleged prostitute in the city's notorious red-light district.

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