“Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.” ~ John Wilkes Booth
With these words, the first successful presidential assassin in American history — following a speech by President Abraham Lincoln two days after Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House — determined to kill this nation’s 16th president.
Last week I asked the question of “why?"
In the waning days of the American Civil War, I’m sure similar questions were on the minds of just about every American of every cut and stripe.
Why had there been a war? Why did over 600,000 have to die in this nation’s greatest upheaval, which ended slavery as an economic institution in the United States?
Plain and simple, they had to die because great men and politicians from the very founding of our country were unable to come together in civil debate, and work out a solution over the thorny question of slavery.
Slavery very nearly wrecked our democracy at the writing of the U.S. Constitution.
Slavery, originally addressed by Thomas Jefferson, was omitted from the Declaration of Independence because it was such a divisive subject.
Slavery was either at the forefront — or at least in the conversation — of every piece of legislation. It was on the plate of every president, from George Washington to Lincoln.
How does the greatest experiment in world democracy proclaim its people free, that everyone is entitled to the God-given, inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — exclude millions of black slaves?
No easy answers, obviously.
When it came to slavery, pre-Civil War America was on the wrong side of history.
So out of this burning question Americans dealt with and faced every day of their lives — from 1775 to 1865 — developed the political personality of one John Wilkes Booth.
An ardent Southerner and supporter of the institution of slavery, Booth had it in his mind he would take down the president of the United States with a bullet, and somehow make that burning question moot.
Yet, from the time he jumped from the president’s balcony box after having shot Lincoln in the back of the head, Booth was playing the lead role in a real-life melodrama that had become our American history.
None of us can get into the mind of a presidential assassin.
In fact, none of us can get in the mind of even our closest acquaintances. Each of us is endowed with thoughts and ideals we gain from life’s experiences.
To sound trite, we really all are individuals.
At least from after-the-fact historical observation, it was plain to see Booth thought he would become a hero in the South, by downing the perceived tyrant Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln’s very election on Nov. 6, 1860, had pushed the South’s individual states — for the most part — into seceding from the Union.
The nation’s leaders had been unable to come together and decide that the institution of slavery went against history, was morally repugnant and needed to end.
How can a democracy have — or condone — the enslavement of some of its people?
The simple answer is, that country is a democracy in name only.
I still have it in my mind our Founding Fathers thought slavery eventually would work its way from our shores.
That Americans, as they found and experienced a true and free democracy, eventually would see slavery had no place.
Many Southern leaders of their day, in fact, had reached that conclusion.
But, ending an economic boon which put a lot of money in a lot of pockets does not die easily. Thus, the American Civil War.
John Wilkes Booth jumped onto the stage in Ford’s Theatre after assassinating the president that fateful April day in 1865, proclaiming the words, “Sic semper tyrannis!” — “Thus always to tyrants.”
Booth thought he had avenged the South for its defeat at the hands of Lincoln and Union forces.
Yet, in the weeks that followed, as Booth was hunted down following his escape into the Virginia countryside and former Rebel-held territory, he had woefully miscalculated public opinion.
Booth felt he would be viewed as a hero to Southerners, that they would aid in his escape.
Yet, in the cold light of history, Americans of every stripe — even those who hated the president both North and South — looked on in horror at this act.
Historians almost universally agree Lincoln was the only man who could have mended this nation’s wounds following a bloody war. Yet, Booth had deprived the nation of his intellect.
Booth’s legacy is one that brought near ruin, humiliation and the punitive Reconstruction period upon the South. He made it all the harder to forgive and forget the war.
He re-opened and festered all the wounds that had been suffered on countless battlefields — many of those wounds we still deal with to this very day.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking