Three months after Lincoln’s murder, The Atlantic seeks to make sense of it.
When he shot President Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth was 26 years old, and one of the nation’s most famous actors. (Charles DeForest Fredericks/National Portrait Gallery)
John Wilkes Booth, a Maryland native, spent the war performing in theatrical productions. But the conflict was never far from his mind. In a letter to his mother, he expressed chagrin that he hadn’t joined the Confederate army, writing, “I have … begun to deem myself a coward, and to despise my own existence.” He was outraged by the reelection of Lincoln, whom he viewed as the instigator of all the country’s woes. The month after the inauguration, Booth learned that Lincoln would be attending a performance at Ford’s Theatre on April 14. That night, he crept into Lincoln’s theater box and shot him in the back of the head. It was the first time a president had been murdered. “Wanted” posters were issued for Booth, and on April 26, he was cornered in a tobacco barn and shot by a federal sergeant, acting against orders to bring him in alive.
Several months later, Charles Creighton Hazewell, a frequent contributor, sought to make sense of the assassination—speculating that the plot may have been hatched in Canada (where a number of secessionist schemes had originated) and hinting at evidence that the plan had been endorsed at the highest levels of the Confederate government.
The assassination of President Lincoln threw a whole nation into mourning … Of all our Presidents since Washington, Mr. Lincoln had excited the smallest amount of that feeling which places its object in personal danger. He was a man who made a singularly favorable impression on those who approached him, resembling in that respect President Jackson, who often made warm friends of bitter foes, when circumstances had forced them to seek his presence; and it is probable, that, if he and the honest chiefs of the Rebels could have been brought face to face, there never would have been civil war,—at least, any contest of grand proportions; for he would not have failed to convince them that all that they had any right to claim, and therefore all that they could expect their fellow-citizens to fight for, would be more secure under his government than it had been under the governments of such men as Pierce and Buchanan, who made use of sectionalism and slavery to promote the selfish interests of themselves and their party … Ignorance was the parent of the civil war, as it has been the parent of many other evils,—ignorance of the character and purpose of the man who was chosen President in 1860–61, and who entered upon official life with less animosity toward his opponents than ever before or since had been felt by a man elected to a great place after a bitter and exciting contest …
That one of the most insignificant of [the secessionists’] number should have murdered the man whose election they declared to be cause for war is nothing strange, being in perfect keeping with their whole course. The wretch who shot the chief magistrate of the Republic is of hardly more account than was the weapon which he used. The real murderers of Mr. Lincoln are the men whose action brought about the civil war. Booth’s deed was a logical proceeding, following strictly from the principles avowed by the Rebels, and in harmony with their course during the last five years. The fall of a public man by the hand of an assassin always affects the mind more strongly than it is affected by the fall of thousands of men in battle; but in strictness, Booth, vile as his deed was, can be held to have been no worse, morally, than was that old gentleman who insisted upon being allowed the privilege of firing the first shot at Fort Sumter. Ruffin’s act is not so disgusting as Booth’s; but of the two men, Booth exhibited the greater courage,—courage of the basest kind, indeed, but sure to be attended with the heaviest risks, as the hand of every man would be directed against its exhibitor. Had the Rebels succeeded, Ruffin would have been honored by his fellows; but even a successful Southern Confederacy would have been too hot a country for the abode of a wilful murderer. Such a man would have been no more pleasantly situated even in South Carolina than was Benedict Arnold in England. And as he chose to become an assassin after the event of the war had been decided, and when his victim was bent upon sparing Southern feeling so far as it could be spared without injustice being done to the country, Booth must have expected to find his act condemned by every rational Southern man as a worse than useless crime, as a blunder of the very first magnitude. Had he succeeded in getting abroad, Secession exiles would have shunned him, and have treated him as one who had brought an ineffaceable stain on their cause, and also had rendered their restoration to their homes impossible. The pistol-shot of Sergeant Corbett saved him from the gallows, and it saved him also from the denunciations of the men whom he thought to serve. He exhibited, therefore, a species of courage that is by no means common; for he not only risked his life, and rendered it impossible for honorable men to sympathize with him, but he ran the hazard of being denounced and cast off by his own party … All Secessionists who retain any self-respect must rejoice that one whose doings brought additional ignominy on a cause that could not well bear it has passed away and gone to his account. It would have been more satisfactory to loyal men, if he had been reserved for the gallows; but even they must admit that it is a terrible trial to any people who get possession of an odious criminal, because they may be led so to act as to disgrace themselves, and to turn sympathy in the direction of the evil-doer … Therefore the shot of Sergeant Corbett is not to be regretted, save that it gave too honorable a form of death to one who had earned all that there is of disgraceful in that mode of dying to which a peculiar stigma is attached by the common consent of mankind.
Whether Booth was the agent of a band of conspirators, or was one of a few vile men who sought an odious immortality, it is impossible to say. We have the authority of a high Government official for the statement that “the President’s murder was organized in Canada and approved at Richmond”; but the evidence in support of this extraordinary announcement is, doubtless for the best of reasons, withheld at the time we write. There is nothing improbable in the supposition that the assassination plot was formed in Canada, as some of the vilest miscreants of the Secession side have been allowed to live in that country … But it is not probable that British subjects had anything to do with any conspiracy of this kind. The Canadian error was in allowing the scum of Secession to abuse the “right of hospitality” through the pursuit of hostile action against us from the territory of a neutral …
That a plan to murder President Lincoln should have been approved at Richmond is nothing strange; and though such approval would have been supremely foolish, what but supreme folly is the chief characteristic of the whole Southern movement? If the seal of Richmond’s approval was placed on a plan formed in Canada, something more than the murder of Mr. Lincoln was intended. It must have been meant to kill every man who could legally take his place, either as President or as President pro tempore. The only persons who had any title to step into the Presidency on Mr. Lincoln’s death were Mr. Johnson, who became President on the 15th of April, and Mr. Foster, one of the Connecticut Senators, who is President of the Senate … It does not appear that any attempt was made on the life of Mr. Foster, though Mr. Johnson was on the list of those doomed by the assassins; and the savage attack made on Mr. Seward shows what those assassins were capable of. But had all the members of the Administration been struck down at the same time, it is not at all probable that “anarchy” would have been the effect, though to produce that must have been the object aimed at by the conspirators. Anarchy is not so easily brought about as persons of an anarchical turn of mind suppose. The training we have gone through since the close of 1860 has fitted us to bear many rude assaults on order without our becoming disorderly. Our conviction is, that, if every man who held high office at Washington had been killed on the 14th of April, things would have gone pretty much as we have seen them go, and that thus the American people would have vindicated their right to be considered a self-governing race. It would not be a very flattering thought, that the peace of the country is at the command of any dozen of hardened ruffians who should have the capacity to form an assassination plot, the discretion to keep silent respecting their purpose, and the boldness and the skill requisite to carry it out to its most minute details: for the neglect of one of those details might be fatal to the whole project. Society does not exist in such peril as that.
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