Although it’s set a century and a half ago, this thriller by veteran NR writer and first-time novelist John J. Miller deals with a problem that still bedevils us today: how a liberal society can protect itself from determined enemies without undermining its basic values.
Miller tells a compelling fictional story of an attempted assassination and other contemplated atrocities in the early days of the Lincoln administration. Assigned to ensure President Lincoln’s safety, the book’s protagonist, U.S. Army Col. Charles Rook, begins to uncover what appears to him to be a conspiracy to kill the president. After the fall of Fort Sumter, off the coast of South Carolina, marks the opening of actual warfare between North and South, Rook is assigned to defend the nation’s capital from attack and is told to suspend his efforts to expose the conspiracy. “For the sake of the president,” however, Rook disobeys orders and sets up spies to watch people he considers potential subversives, and he spends a good deal of time investigating suspects himself.
Rook is correct about the conspiracy. South Carolina plantation owner and slaveholder Langston Bennett has hired a ruthless, enigmatic hitman from Latin America named Mazorca to assassinate Lincoln. Mazorca is both highly skilled at his trade and entirely disinterested as to the politics of the matter: “You must understand that I do not care about your ultimate ends. . . . I care only about the job I am given. That’s why I’m effective.” However, Bennett’s house slave, Lucius, overhears the plot, engineers the taking of a photograph of Mazorca without the latter’s knowledge, and sends his granddaughter, Portia, to Washington to warn Lincoln and give him the photo of the intended assassin.
Bennett finds out about Portia’s escape, however, and he sends a couple of men to capture her and a fellow slave who is helping her. Meanwhile, in Washington, beautiful society woman Violet Grenier works to advance the Southern cause and help the conspiracy by seducing powerful people in D.C. society in order to pry secrets from them. As Mazorca prepares his attack and Portia makes her way to Washington, multiple instances of betrayal push the story forward to a dramatic conclusion on the lawn outside the unfinished Capitol building.
Miller has a political journalist’s interest in explaining why and how political movements take hold, and he explores the deeper philosophical assumptions behind the characters’ political positions and the choices they make. Appropriately, he gives slavery a prominent role in the story, but he doesn’t neglect the other important issues of the time. For Lincoln and many other Republicans of the era, the central issue was not slavery but the preservation of the national union, which — they believed — must be accomplished whatever the cost. Miller writes: “Rook regarded all abolitionists with suspicion. In his mind, too many of them were radicals who placed the interest of their cause above national unity.” Similarly, Miller correctly intimates that Lincoln was no abolitionist and would likely have been content to let slavery come to a natural end on its own timetable had the Southern states not chosen to secede.
The move to secede forced Lincoln’s hand, however. With the abolitionists making it clear that they would create a significant majority of non-slave states through westward expansion and then end slavery throughout the nation, Southerners saw membership in the United States as leading inevitably to economic and social devastation for their region. Here we see the inevitable tensions within liberal societies at their most extreme. The North finds secession and slavery equally intolerable, and it is willing to use force to ensure that the South remains in a union increasingly hostile to its interests. The Southern states assert the right to self-determination, but they deny that right to a great part of their own population. Each side is willing to destroy liberty in order to save it. Miller’s story does an excellent job of showing the total irreconcilability of the two sides and the inevitability of the eventual war.