Discovering and Accepting Abraham Lincoln Weaknesses

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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.

“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.

It falls to the sharp-eyed Abigail Canner, a young black Washingtonian who aspires to become the nation’s first female lawyer and is working as a clerk for Lincoln’s legal team, to piece together what’s really going on. Sleuthing her way through a maze of plots and counterplots — some of which may involve the president, whose backcountry accent and penchant for telling homespun stories tend to mask his skills as a master conspirator in his own right — 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.

“I always knew there was a black middle class in America, but I didn’t know how significant it was, even before the Civil War,” says Phyllis Grann, Carter’s veteran editor at Knopf. “Stephen’s research is so impeccable, and he knows so much about the era, that it opens up a whole world that most readers aren’t going to know about.”

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Although Abigail is under no illusions about a president whose racial attitudes were largely typical of a white man born and raised in Kentucky and southern Illinois in his time, she recognizes that his motivations matter a good deal less than his actual accomplishments. He ended slavery in the United States — reason enough, for Abigail, to fight to keep him in the White House. “Why should the one whose yoke is broken,” she tells a questioner, “care whether it was broken out of the proper motive? It would be far worse to wait another generation for a president whose motives are pure.”

Abigail’s pragmatism mirrors Carter’s own. “My admiration for Lincoln is undiminished, in part because I don’t try to judge him by the standards of the 21st century,” Carter says. “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. He went on quite an intellectual and, I suppose one could say, moral journey over those years in the White House, and evolved enormously. But the key thing is what he did, not why he did it.”

Did Lincoln conspire to place the city of Washington under military control during the war? Carter admits that of all the charges leveled against the president in the novel, this has the shakiest basis in fact. But as the author notes, there were rumors to that effect in Lincoln’s lifetime, and it was one of the charges in President Andrew Johnson’s real-life impeachment trial in 1868. (In Carter’s novel, Vice President Johnson was assassinated by an accomplice of John Wilkes Booth, leaving that office unoccupied and the president pro tempore of the Senate, Benjamin Wade, first in line of presidential succession.)

Tyrant or not, Lincoln did assume extraordinary executive powers during the war and wielded them, expansively and unilaterally, in ways that presaged the wartime conduct of latter-day presidents from John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon to George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

It’s a subject of particular interest to Carter, a constitutional law expert whose most recent nonfiction book was “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama” (Beast Books, 2011) and who gave a lecture last month on Obama’s much-discussed use of drone bombings against terrorist targets in Pakistan and elsewhere. “You cannot point to a war, at least not a big war, without pointing to a president who’s used the fact of that war to justify various kinds of uses or abuses of executive authority,” Carter says. “I don’t think they do it because they’re power-hungry. They don’t do it because they’re evil. They do it because they see a threat, and they’re trying to figure out to meet it. Nowadays, we tend to threaten impeachment of any president who does things we don’t like. And one of the things we can learn from the Lincoln experience is that the things presidents do today that we get so upset about pale beside things that several presidents — not Lincoln alone — did in the 19th century.”

In real life as in fiction, then, one man’s villain can legitimately be someone else’s hero, even to little boys leafing through history books.

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