Brown, Booth, and Lincoln all appealed to a higher cause to justify taking up arms against what they viewed as a great social evil. Brown, a devout Calvinist, considered himself God’s chosen instrument for eradicating slavery. In 1856, he and several followers murdered five proslavery settlers in Kansas Territory to preserve that area for freedom. Three years later he invaded Harpers Ferry, Virginia with a band of 21 in a bold but futile effort to spark slave insurrections throughout the South that he hoped would lead to the fall of slavery. Instead, he was captured in Harpers Ferry, brought to trial, convicted of treason, and, on December 2, 1859, hanged publicly in front of rows of Southern soldiers. As Brown mounted the scaffold, he was calm and unruffled. He believed he was a divinely-appointed martyr for the antislavery cause.
His courage in the face of death made a profound impact on John Wilkes Booth, a 21-year-old actor. Booth had interrupted his engagement at a Richmond theater to join a militia company that stood with the troops near Brown’s scaffold. For Booth, Brown was a bold, dignified man who, though misled in his views, willingly sacrificed himself for a higher ideal. “He was a brave old man,” Booth said. In contrast, Lincoln was for Booth a scheming, power-hungry politician. Lincoln, Booth declared, was “made the tool of the North to crush out, or try to crush out slavery”; he was a “Sectional Candidate” intent on “overturning this blind Republic and making himself a king.” For Booth, Lincoln and other antislavery politicians were duplicitous and treacherous. In 1860, as he witnessed the rise of Lincoln and his fellow antislavery Republicans, Booth wrote that John Brown was far nobler than Lincoln, since, in Booth’s words, “open force is holier than hidden craft.”
The four years of civil war that followed Lincoln’s election drove Booth to draw an even sharper contrast between Old Abe and Old Brown. In a letter of December 1864, shortly after Lincoln was elected to a second term, Booth wrote bitterly of the president: “He is standing in the footprints of old John Brown, but no more fit to stand with that rugged old hero—Great God! No. John Brown was a man inspired, the grandest character of this century!” Lincoln, in contrast, was deceitful, tyrannical, and filthy-minded. “This man’s appearance,” Booth wrote, “his pedigree, his low coarse jokes and anecdotes, his vulgar similes, his frivolity, are a disgrace to the seat he holds.”
What really infuriated Booth was his conviction that America was now destined to be ruled by a dictator, Lincoln, who would bring about a horrible racial reversal. Booth, who referred to black people as “monkeys,” “apes,” or “thick-skulled darkies,” wrote that “this country was formed for the white not for the black man,” and that slavery was “one of the greatest blessings that God ever bestowed upon a favored nation.”