Abraham Lincoln’s death from an assassin’s bullet on 15 April 1865 is cause for reflection on his very real achievements as well as the making of a secular martyr – unique in American politics. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
In the feverish language of the journalism of the day, the headlines, the all-caps layout, and introductory paragraphs in the New York Times, published two days after Abraham Lincoln had perished after being shot by sometime-actor John Wilkes Booth at a performance of the comedy, Our American Cousin, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, was just the first wave of a great national lamentation of loss. And it was the springboard for Abraham Lincoln’s apotheosis as a national secular martyr.
The Times’ coverage began with the words, “OUR GREAT LOSS; The Assassination of President Lincoln. DETAILS OF THE FEARFUL CRIME. Closing Moments and Death of the President. Probable Recovery of Secretary Seward. Rumors of the Arrest of the Assassins. The Funeral of President Lincoln to Take Place Next Wednesday. Expressions of Deep Sorrow Through-out the Land. OFFICIAL DISPATCHES. THE ASSASSINATION. Further Details of the Murder Narrow Escape of Secretary Stanton Measures. Taken is Prevent the Escape of the Assassin of the President. LAST MOMENTS OF THE PRESIDENT.”
It continued, “…It is now ascertained with reasonable certainty that two assassins were engaged in the horrible crime, WILKES BOOTH being the one that shot the President, and the other, a companion of his, whose name is not known, but whose description is so clear that he can hardly escape. It appears from a letter found in BOOTH’s trunk that the murder was planned before the 4th of March, but fell through then because the accomplice backed out until ‘Richmond could be heard from.’ BOOTH and his accomplice were at the livery stable at 6 o’clock last evening, and left there with their horses about 10 o’clock, or shortly before that hour. It would seem that they had for several days been seeking their chance, but for some unknown reason it was not carried into effect until last night.”
The Times then delivered the actual news of Lincoln’s death by citing the War Department’s terse telegram of 15 April, “ABRAHAM LINCOLN died this morning at twenty-two minutes after seven o’clock.” A follow-up War Department cable went further, “Official notice of the death of the late President ABRAHAM LINCOLN, was given by the heads of departments this morning to ANDREW JOHNSON, Vice-President, upon whom the constitution devolved the office of President. Mr. JOHNSON, upon receiving this notice, appeared before the Hon. SALMON P. CHASE, Chief-Justice of the United States, and took the oath of office, as President of the United States, assumed its duties and functions…”
The Times then quoted from a local Washington paper’s story on the president’s assassination, saying, “As it is suspected that this conspiracy originated in Maryland, the telegraph flashed the mournful news to Baltimore, and all the cavalry was immediately put upon active duty. Every road was picketed and every precaution taken to prevent the escape of the assassin…. The murderer of President LINCOLN was JOHN WILKES BOOTH. His hat was found in the private box, and identified by several persons who had seen him within the last two days, and the spur which he dropped by accident, after he jumped to the stage, was identified as one of those which he had obtained from the stable where he hired his horse. This man BOOTH has played more than once at Ford’s Theatre, and is, of course, acquainted with its exits and entrances, and the facility with which he escaped behind the scenes is well understood.”
And all of this happened less than a week after Confederate General Robert E Lee’s surrender to the Union commander, Ulysses S Grant, at the Virginia crossroads village of Appomattox Court House. In losing his life so quickly after his army’s victory, Lincoln was catapulted into the role of a secular martyr. The killer, actor John Wilkes Booth was a Maryland native who had remained in the North during the Civil War, despite his southern sympathies and as the war approached its final months, came together with friends to kidnap the president and take him South as a bargaining token. There was no Secret Service in those days and the president often travelled with minimum security, often just a small military detachment or a Pinkerton’s bodyguard or two, despite the fighting that was sometimes only a few miles away from the Potomac River in Virginia.
Lincoln unaccountably failed to be where the conspirators were lying in wait for him to appear, but, in the meantime, the Confederate capital fell to Union forces, two weeks after Booth’s first plot was supposed to have been accomplished. As a result, Booth and his co-conspirators evolved a second, even more desperate plan to save the dying Confederacy. This time around, the plan was to decapitate the federal government of its leadership via simultaneous assassinations of the president, vice president and secretary of state.
When Booth discovered the president would attend the play, Our American Cousin on April 14, Booth masterminded simultaneous assassination attempts on Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. By murdering the president and two of his possible successors, Booth and his co-conspirators hoped to throw the U.S. government into total disarray and snatch victory from the jaws of final defeat.
On that night, Lincoln and his wife were in the presidential box, together with army officer Henry Rathbone and Rathbone’s fiancé, Clara Harris. Although the Lincolns arrived fashionably late and missed the opening, the president was, according to witnesses, in a cheerful mood, laughing at funny bits in the play. Just after ten in the evening, Booth quietly slipped into the box and fired a bullet from his single-shot derringer pistol into the back of Lincoln’s head, stabbed Rathbone and then leapt onto the stage from the box, breaking his leg in the process. As he leapt, he infamously shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis” – thus ever to tyrants. Despite his injury, Booth escaped from the city on horseback. Within hours after Booth had shot the president, some ten thousand police, marshals and military personnel were pulled into the search for the assassin.
Meanwhile, the president was carried to a bed in a house across the street from the theatre and after the military’s surgeon general arrived at the bedside, he determined there was nothing further they could do for Lincoln. While members of the cabinet assembled near the president, he was pronounced dead at 7:22 AM on 15 April. At that moment, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was reported to have exclaimed, “Now he belongs to the ages”. Although some witnesses later claimed he had really said “angels”, instead of ages, the phrase has stuck as the moment’s epitaph.
The nation, or at least the northern half of it, had just begun to savour the victory in the Civil War, when it was plunged into a paroxysm of grief over the loss of the man who had rallied the nation to victory and led it through the war. The president’s body was taken first to the White House, then on to the rotunda in the Capitol Building, and then placed on a train bound for Springfield, Illinois (where he had lived prior to becoming president). Lining the route of the train’s progress across the nation, many tens of thousands of sombre onlookers gathered to pay their final respects.
Meanwhile, as the national mourning continued, the hunt for Booth was underway. He and an accomplice had fled into southern Maryland where an unsuspecting country doctor, Samuel Mudd, treated Booth’s injury. Eventually the two made their way into Virginia, until Union troops on the lookout for the two men surrounded them in a barn. The barn was set alight and Booth was shot inside the barn after refusing to surrender. Three of his co-conspirators, plus the owner of the Washington, DC boarding place Booth had been staying in while planning his attack, were tried, convicted and executed by hanging.
By this point, the virtual canonisation of Abraham Lincoln was already underway, despite the fact a triumphant – and frequently vengeful – Republican-led Congress was eager to impose harsh conditions upon a defeated South – in part for having started that terrible war in the first place, and, further, to ensure that, after all that fighting and death, the newly manumitted ex-slaves would be accorded their rights under the newly passed 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the US Constitution. These were the amendments that abolished slavery, ensured that the former slaves’ rights to citizenship would not be abridged and that race would not serve as a bar to the right to vote – amendments that clearly conveyed the larger purpose of the war. (Lost in all the sharp dealing, perhaps, was Lincoln’s magnanimous pledge, as contained in his Second Inaugural Address delivered in 1865, that the national government would carry out its tasks of reconstruction “with malice towards none, with charity for all”.)
Lincoln had been a uniquely American politician. As a child he had grown up along a continually westward-moving frontier of settlement – from Kentucky to Indiana, and then on to Illinois. Barely educated in school, he had virtually taught himself from the few books available in such rural frontier circumstances, imbibing the language of The Bible, Shakespeare’s plays, Bracton’s On the Laws and Customs of England, and a small, Spartan collection of a few other volumes of ancient and modern history and English literature. As a young man, he had worked at various menial jobs, had become a skilled lawyer (eventually serving as corporate counsel for one of the country’s rapidly expanding, new railroads), and then become an extraordinarily talented, even gifted, politician, despite having served only one term in the US Congress. Along the way, he became a shrewd analyst of human behaviour and motivation.
By the time his supporters and allies had managed to gain him the nomination for president as the new Republican Party’s standard bearer in 1860, he had already achieved a national reputation for eloquence in framing the issue of slavery as the public policy issue that was tearing the nation in two. Most especially this had come in a series of debates with an opposing candidate, Stephen Douglas, in an election campaign for a seat in the US Senate from Illinois in 1856. The two men’s debates were followed nationally, as people read full transcripts of the debates in their local newspapers across the country. Lincoln lost the election, but captured the attention of the country with rhetoric that encapsulated the existential challenge slavery presented to the nation.
When president, as the war proceeded, Lincoln increasingly gained traction for the war and stature for himself as he progressively reshaped the Union’s goal of the war into both a fight to preserve the nation – and to cleanse it of the moral taint of slavery. In perhaps his most remembered phrase of political language, the final words of his Gettysburg Address, delivered at the consecration of a cemetery at that battle site, Lincoln had, in one sentence, encapsulated the very nature, purpose, essence, and meaning of democratic governments everywhere. He told the vast crowd, and eventually an entire world beyond those who had heard him in that small town, “…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
As historian Gary Wills so persuasively explored, yes, Lincoln had absorbed the rhetorical tasks of commemorating sacrifice, as with his inspiration and model for his speech – Pericles’ Oration over the Athenian Dead. But, crucially, too, he had sussed out how to make use of this occasion to recalibrate the very purpose of government – well beyond political philosophers like Locke, Rousseau or America’s “founding fathers” who had written a constitution and the country’s Declaration of Independence. In Lincoln’s voice, government became something that comes organically out of the will and consent of the people as a whole, and it does their bidding responsibly and responsively. And he did this in a succinct phrase that continues to echo on down to the present. (Just incidentally, we might call the latter element in that sentence, “service delivery”.)
But while it is relatively easy to recognise his genius as a wartime leader who found good subordinates and then largely gave them the freedom to carry out their baleful military and diplomatic tasks with minimum interference, fewer people recognise his vision in putting into place some of the key building blocks for national success, rather than merely survival. Despite the demands of a vast, resource-consuming war being waged on continental scale, Lincoln’s vision of government included the Homestead Act that opened up farm land to immigrants who could take possession of up to 160 acres, upon a promise to settle and farm it. And then there was the legislation that authorised the building of a transcontinental railroad to hold the nation together – East to West – as well as new government support for education under the Morrill Act to establish colleges and universities that would offer inexpensive tertiary education to many thousands of ordinary citizens. Moreover, despite a war being waged just miles from the national capital city, Lincoln’s insisted that work on the major rebuild of the US Capitol Building (home of Congress) would continue throughout the war – as a symbol that the republic would endure. In 1864, he supported the first effort to preserve such natural wonders as the land that eventually became Yosemite National Park – a precursor of the nation’s environmental protection and regulations. And, of course, there was that “small matter” of the end of slavery and the consequent expansion of human freedom and dignity.
One wonders just what Lincoln would make of today’s Republican Party in comparison to the one he had led to its first national victory in 1860. The current version has its crabbed positions on national infrastructure building, expansion of educational opportunity and funding, and an angry, suspicious glare over protecting the rights of all the inhabitants of the nation. Instead, sadly, as Timothy Egan had written on 10 April in the New York Times, “…what unites the Republican Party, on this 150th anniversary of the murder of Lincoln, is that they are against the type of progressive legislation that gave rise to their party. Lincoln is an oil painting in the parlor, to be dusted off while Republican leaders plot new ways to kill things that he would have approved of.”
It is easy to limit the memory of Abraham Lincoln as the president who saved the union and abolished slavery, although that is already an astonishing legacy. It is also crucial, however, to recall him as a politician, dead one hundred fifty years today at the age of 56, who continued to maintain a larger vision for the nation and hewed to it, despite the vicissitudes of that all-encompassing Civil War. Or as Lincoln himself had said in his annual message to Congress at the end of 1862, “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.” DM
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