Born 200 years ago, America’s most popular President, a lapsed Catholic, was assassinated in a Washington theatre six days after the Civil War ended, writes Paul Hurley, SVD
It was Good Friday, 14 April 1865, six days after the Civil War ended with the surrender of the Southern States. The play, Our American Cousins, had already started when the President, a theatre lover, his wife and two friends entered Ford’s Theatre in Washington. They were greeted by great cheering as they sat down in a box near the stage. Two hours later, at nearly 10 pm, the President’s bodyguard, sitting outside the box, went out for a short time.
This was the moment the assassin was waiting for. John Wilkes Booth, a young actor and a supporter of slavery, entered the box quietly and shot the President in the head. Lincoln slumped forward, never to recover consciousness, while Booth jumped down onto the stage, shouting Sic semper tyrannis! (So die all tyrants!) and “The South is avenged!” He then left the theatre by a side door and escaped on a waiting horse.
Lincoln was taken to a house across the street and doctors were summoned. They gave him stimulants, but to no avail. He died at 7.20 the next morning, aged 56, the first of four U.S. Presidents to be assassinated. A few days later, before his funeral procession reached Springfield in Virginia, where he was buried, Booth was caught, hiding in a barn, and shot dead.
Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky, on 12 February 1809. He was one of the three children of Thomas Lincoln, a poor farmer, and his first
wife, Nancy Hanks, who were both illiterate. Their youngest child died in infancy and Abe’s mother died when he was nine. A year later his father got married again, to Sarah Johnston, a widow with two children. She treated all four children equally, though she became especially fond of Abe.
She insisted that the children should all go to school, but for Abe this was very sporadic as he had to help his father on the farm. He later admitted that his entire schooling amounted to no more than one year’s attendance and said, “I could read and write, but that was all.” When he was 19, the family moved north to Illinois, where Abe decided
to leave home and work on his own.
He tried his hand at various jobs, including storekeeper and postman, worked on a river boat and served briefly in the 1832 Black Hawk War against the Red Indians, who had
killed his grandfather. “He was 6ft 4in tall, lanky, but muscular and physically powerful,” says his biographer, the U.S. historian Prof Richard Current. “He spoke with a backwoods twang and walked in the long-striding manner of a ploughman. Good-natured, though somewhat moody, he could mimic preachers and politicians with an accuracy that brought screams of laughter. He also won a reputation for all kinds of sports, especially wrestling.”
Meanwhile, he taught himself grammar and maths. From his earliest days he was familiar with the Bible, the only book his parents had at home. Now he also read works like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Aesop’s Fables. He considered becoming a blacksmith, but finally decided to be a lawyer and started studying law on his own.
Having passed the bar examination in 1836, he began practising as a lawyer, acting for banks, railroads, insurance companies and manufacturing firms. He later became a partner of William Herndon. Another biographer, Noah Brooks, says, “He soon proved the qualities that won him the title of Honest Abe Lincoln.”
In 1841 he was engaged to be married to Mary Todd, a well-educated girl from an upper-class Kentucky family, but later began to have doubts about the wisdom of this. On the wedding day, Mary arrived in all her finery, but Lincoln failed to turn up. They were later reconciled, and married in 1842. “Mary was in many ways an unsuitable wife,” says
Ian Gordan in his biography of Lincoln. “She was domineering, extravagant, jealous, snobbish, suffered from fits of temper and was constantly making scenes both in public and private.” After Lincoln’s death she was declared insane and sent to an asylum. They had four children, all boys, but only one, Robert, survived to adulthood; he too
became a lawyer.
Entering local politics in 1834, Lincoln was elected to the Illinois state legislature four times. After he went into national politics and was elected to Congress in 1847, he proposed a bill for the gradual emancipation of black slaves in the small District of Columbia; but because it was to take effect only with the approval of the “white citizens”, it was not even considered. He was disillusioned, but only somewhat, for though he is often thought to have been an unqualified champion of black emancipation, this is not so.
He was elected President in 1860, but by the time he took office in March 1861, seven Southern States had left the Union. In his inaugural address he begged them not to use violence in solving their differences. “We are not enemies, but friends,” he said. “We must not be enemies.” But soon they were.
The Southern leaders had already decided on war, which began in April and lasted for four years, all the time Lincoln was President. The Southern or Confederate soldiers
believed in their cause, contending that their States’ rights were more important than those of the Union government. This, not slavery, was the main issue, as Lincoln admitted. “My paramount object is to save the Union, not to destroy slavery,” he said. More than half the 15 Presidents before the Civil War, including Washington, were slave owners.
The real cause of the War was the dispute between the federal and national principles. The North stood for preserving national unity, with the various States as
provinces, while the South fought for maintaining each State’s sovereignty, on which the original Constitution was based. But political power was gradually moving from the
agricultural South to the industrial North. Southerners said there would always be a Northern majority in Congress and a Northern President – as indeed there was until
Eisenhower, a century later. In fact, the South felt that it was becoming a mere colony of the North, and decided to leave the Union.
Eventually, 11 of the then 34 States set up their own Confederate government with Jefferson Davis as President in Richmond, Virginia. At first the South had the best armies and all the time the better generals, the greatest being Lee. But after four years the South suffered a crushing defeat, from which it never fully recovered. Of the four million men who fought in the War, 620,000 were killed – 360,000 from the North and 260,000 Southerners – far more than the 405,000 Americans who died in World War II.
To the Civil War death list one could add Lincoln, who was killed a week after the South surrendered. Most of his presidency was devoted to that end. He is probably best remembered now for his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which freed almost 200,000 of the country’s four million slaves – and for his speech after the battle of Gettysburg, which marked the turning of the tide for the North. With a piercing and shrill voice, he was not a great orator, but his speeches were eloquent and powerful. He scribbled his Gettysburg address on the back of an envelope and kept it in his tall hat. Fortunately, a reporter was present when he spoke at Gettysburg cemetery. The Chicago Times dismissed his short oration as “silly, flat and dishwatery”, but it is now remembered among the greatest speeches of all time.
Growing older, Lincoln “developed a profound religious sense,” says Prof Current, “and attended Presbyterian services with his wife.” Bishop Lefevre of Detroit stated that, as a young priest, he “often celebrated Mass in his parents’ house (his father and stepmother were Catholics and in Fr Lefevre’s parish) and I heard his confession many times. But after he married a Presbyterian woman and aspired to honours, he became a Freemason.
Archbishop Ireland of St Paul, who was a Northern chaplain in the Civil War, confirmed this.
On hearing of Lincoln’s assassination in a Washington theatre, Bishop Lefevre said, “Poor Lincoln! If he had remembered my advice long ago, he would have stayed at home and prayed on Good Friday.”