Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The First Presidential Assassination

In hindsight, some things seem to confirm the concept of predestination. The shooting of Abraham Lincoln in Washington's Ford's Theater 150 years ago today is such an event.

Predestination has always played an important role in the story of Lincoln's assassination. About two weeks before he was assassinated, Lincoln claimed to have had a dream in which he saw a deceased person in repose in the East Room. In his dream, Lincoln said he asked a soldier who was dead in the White House. The reply was that the president was dead. He had been killed by an assassin's bullet.

For anyone who grew up in the United States, was educated in its schools and studied its history (even half–heartedly), the story of Lincoln seems to be an integral part of the story of America — which, indeed, it is, as is the story of each president. We tend to remember periods in history, after all, by the chief executives who presided over them — i.e., "the Reagan years" or "the Roosevelt years."

Not all presidencies are created equal, though, so it doesn't always work that way, especially the farther back one must go to locate a particular president. I would venture to say that, if you mentioned "the Fillmore years" or "the Pierce years," you'd draw blank stares from 21st–century listeners. (Heck, you'd probably get blank stares from many if you spoke about the Ford years.)

In part, I suspect that reflects the changing nature of American government. The modern president has more power than many of his predecessors, especially those who lived in the 19th century. When Fillmore and Pierce (and others — they just happen to be the two I mentioned earlier) occupied the White House, there were giants in Congress like Daniel Webster, and they were the ones who held most of the authority.

In the early days of the republic, two–term presidencies were not uncommon. Five of the first seven presidents were two–term presidents — the exceptions being the Adamses, John and his son John Quincy — but none of the next eight presidents served more than a single four–year term. I guess that made the American president seem more like a transitory figure.

Lincoln was elected twice, the first president to be re–elected in nearly 30 years, and he presided over the North's triumph over the South in the Civil War.

Other than Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, most of the early presidents are largely unknown to modern Americans. There is no special reason why they shouldn't be, I guess. It was the nature of the times — and the nature of the presidency is that it has been an evolving office, one that has grown more powerful as time goes by. Consequently, the men who have held that office have been more powerful as time has passed.

That's really a topic for another time, though. My point here is that Lincoln's administration had a lot to do with the evolution of the presidency. It was a consequence of the unique situation in which Americans found themselves at that time — at war with each other. There was no precedent for what Lincoln faced, no opportunity to reflect on what some previous president did right or wrong in a similar situation and learn from it. It was uncharted territory, and it required Lincoln to do things that the founding fathers couldn't have anticipated. It required him to act quickly in many cases. It made his a different kind of presidency than any the country had seen before.

But 150 years ago today, that war was over. It was Good Friday. Able to relax for the first time since entering the White House, Lincoln and his wife made plans to go to the theater on this night and see the British play, "Our American Cousin."

Of the evening at the theater, Carl Sandburg wrote, "The evening and the drama are much like many other evenings when the acting is pleasant enough, the play mediocre, the audience having no thrills of great performance but enjoying itself."

Actor John Wilkes Booth wasn't in the cast, but he knew the play. He knew which lines drew the biggest laughs and which actors were on stage at particular points in the performance.

And he had determined a good point in the play to shoot Lincoln. It was just after one of the biggest laugh–getting lines in the script, which he hoped would muffle the sound of the shot, and only one actor would be on stage. After shooting Lincoln, he planned to make his escape by leaping to the stage and running off in the confusion. He figured it would be just after 10 p.m. when the moment came so, in his last meeting with his co–conspirators, he instructed them to kill the vice president and the secretary of state at about the same time. The would–be assassin of the secretary of state only succeeded in wounding him, though, and the would–be assassin of the vice president lost his nerve; if things had gone off the way Booth envisioned, all three would be attacked and killed at roughly the same time.

After the assassination, at least one witness to what had happened in Lincoln's box came forward. He had been watching the box instead of the stage at the moment the shooting occurred, and he said Lincoln was laughing.

Booth began making his way to the presidential box around 10 o'clock. Presidential security in the mid–19th century was almost nonexistent by 21st–century standards; even if it hadn't been, Booth was well known. His presence in a theater would not have been questioned if anyone had confronted him — but no one did. Lincoln's friend and self–appointed bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, was not on hand; the president had sent him to Richmond, Virginia. Lamon's substitute left his post and was drinking at a nearby tavern, leaving the president unguarded.

Booth was able to stroll into the theater and make his way to Lincoln's box almost without being stopped — and then only for a cordial greeting and some brief small talk. Walking at a fairly leisurely pace, Booth reached Lincoln's box in time to barricade the first door that led to the box. Booth would go through the second one and shoot Lincoln in the back of the head, then leap to the stage, but the Lincolns' companion for the evening, Major Henry Rathbone, tried to stop Booth, and he tumbled out of the box instead, catching the spur of a boot in a flag, and landed awkwardly on the stage below. He suffered a fracture but still managed to get away in the confusion as planned.

As I observed the other day, Booth swore to kill Lincoln a few days before actually pulling the trigger, so we know he had thought about it before he did it, but there is plenty of reason to suspect that Booth did not decide to shoot Lincoln on Good Friday until that day, when he went to Ford's Theater to pick up his mail and learned that the Lincolns would be attending that night along with General and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant.

As it turned out, the Grants did not attend, but upon hearing the president would be there, the idea of assassination began to percolate in Booth's mind. He walked around the theater, observing its layout for a much more substantial performance than any he had given there before. Bishop wrote that Booth made plans for his getaway before leaving the theater around noon.

After that, it was simply a matter of time.

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