On the evening of April 11, 1865, a large crowd gathered on the south lawn of the White House in Washington to hear President Abraham Lincoln deliver a speech from a second-floor balcony. They had come to celebrate the surrender of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant two days earlier at Appomattox. Instead of the triumphalist speech expected by the audience, however, Lincoln gave a serious address looking toward the procedures for bringing the defeated states back into the Union. The victorious Union army would have to stay in the South for an indefinite period to oversee this process and to suppress "disorganized and discordant elements." With the disintegration of the Confederate government, "there is no authorized organ for us to deal with." Therefore "we must simply begin with, and mould from" those disorganized elements. Lincoln had already begun that effort in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas, where he hoped that the newly "moulded" state governments would soon grant the right to vote to literate African Americans and black Union army veterans. For the other states, the president promised a "new announcement to the people of the South." (1)
One of the listeners in the crowd turned to his companion David Herold. "That means nigger citizenship," snapped John Wilkes Booth. "Now, by God, I'll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make." (2)
Booth's beloved Confederacy had been founded on the cornerstone of slavery, and he hated Lincoln for destroying both the Confederacy and slavery. In a famous speech on March 21, 1861, Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens had explicitly avowed slavery as the basis for the new nation. Thomas Jefferson's Declaration that all men are created equal was wrong, said Stephens. "Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery . . . is his natural and moral condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth." (3)
A native of the slave state of Maryland, Booth was a strong believer in slavery. In the draft of a speech (which he never delivered) written when he was in Philadelphia in December 1860, Booth defended slavery and denounced the abolitionists for driving the South into secession by their persistent agitation of the question. "The South has a right according to the constitution to keep and hold them," he wrote. "And we have no right under that constitution to interfere with her or hers. And instead of looking upon slavery as a sin . . . I hold it to be a happiness for themselves and a social & political blessing for us. . . . I have been through the whole South and have marked the happiness of master & of man. . . . True I have seen the Black man w[h]ip[p]ed but only when he deserved more than he received." (4)
Foreshadowing his attack on Lincoln, Booth denounced those who wanted to abolish slavery as traitors deserving death. "Then what are they who preach this Abolition doctrine who have in doing so nigh destroyed our country. I call them tra[i]tors . . . and treason should be stamped to death and not al[l]owed to stalk abroad in any land. So deep is my hatred for such men that I could wish I had them in my grasp And I the power to crush. I'd grind them into dust." (5) Four years later he had Lincoln, now seen as the arch-Abolitionist, in his power. And he ground him into dust.
Two of the other conspirators were slaveholders, Mary Surratt and Samuel Mudd. The Surratts had been compelled to sell some of their slaves in the 1850s to meet debts, and Mary Surratt evidently owned no more slaves when Maryland abolished the institution by a constitutional amendment in 1864--a measure strongly pushed by the Lincoln administration. The extended Mudd family were substantial slaveholders, and Samuel had also participated in patrols that chased down and returned fugitive slaves in Maryland during the war. Surratt and Mudd would also hold Lincoln responsible for the dual crimes of destroying slavery and the Confederacy, for which he deserved death. (6) It is safe to say that if slavery had not existed, there would have been no Civil War--and no assassination.
1. Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J., 1953-1955), 8:399-405.
2. William Hanchett, The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies (Urbana, IL, 1983), 37. A similar version is quoted in Michael W. Kauffman, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies (New York, 2004), 210.
3. Augusta Daily Constitutionalist, March 30, 1861.
4. John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper, eds., "Right or Wrong, God Judge Me": The Writings of John Wilkes Booth (Urbana, IL, 1997), 62-63.
5. Ibid., 56.
6. Kate Clifford Larson, The Assassin's Accomplice: Mary Surratt and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln (New York, 2008), 21-22; Edward Steers, Jr., Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln (Lexington, KY, 2001), 66-68.
Professor James McPherson is the George Henry Davis '86 Professor of History Ameritus at Princeton University. He is also a member of the editorial board of Encyclopaedia Britannica. He won the Pulitzer Prize for "Battle Cry of Freedom" and his most recent book "Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as... More