President Abraham Lincoln is a highly admired man of history. This was not always so. During his presidency, half of the country was against him. Before he was inaugurated into office, seven states left the Union; four more would follow after Fort Sumter. These states chose to leave the Union because they felt that Lincoln would not adequately represent them due to his anti-slavery ideals. During the period of the war, many people came to hate him for these ideals; one such man was Mr. John Wilkes Booth, a renowned actor. Although, a great number of people disliked Lincoln at the time, his death allowed he world to change their views of him. As time passed he became a president who was adored be the general populace.
President Abraham Lincoln and Mr. John Wilkes Booth had distinctively different childhoods. Francis Fisher Browne chronicles Lincoln’s life in his book
The Every-day Life of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was born into a typical frontiers family. Both his mother and father were illiterate. When Lincoln was about eleven his mother died, and a new stepmother entered his life. (Browne, Page 1-4) It is likely that his stepmother encouraged him gain an education. If his stepmother had never come into the picture, then Lincoln may have remained a simple farmer. If he had not entered politics, the sixteenth President may have been Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas was a supporter of popular sovereignty, and may not have issued an equivalent Emancipation Proclamation. The Emancipation Proclamation aroused support and gave the nation another reason to fight; without it, moral may have dropped. It is amazing to see how one person can have such a significant effect on a person.
Booth, contrastingly, was born to a well distinguished acting family. His father, ironically named after Julius Caesar’s assassin (Junius Brutus Booth), was literate and his mother had enough education to get by. He also picked up acting at a young age from the influence of his father and brothers. He was known to American women as “the handsomest man in America.” Due to his beauty, he became a womanizer. Women would do anything for him; one even aided him in his assassination plot and she later becomes the first women to be killed by the government. Booth had long been a supporter of Confederate ideals; he would smuggle supplies for the Confederacy while he was a traveling actor. (www.home.att.net, Dec. 4th, 2008) Most of Booths’ roles involved murder; it is very likely that this instilled a wild psyche in him. Had he been born into a typical Confederate style family, he may not have had such murderous ideas.
Contrary to today’s popular belief, not all men liked Lincoln; in fact half the country left the Union after he became president elect. Booth’s original goal was not to kill Lincoln; he planed to kidnap the President. In the summer of 1864 Booth first contemplated the idea that if President Lincoln was captured, he could be used as a bargaining tool for the Confederacy to regain captured soldiers. After some very through planning, the operation was scrapped. (www.home.att.net, Dec. 4th, 2008) Lincoln planed to attend a play, but at the last minute he canceled. Had Lincoln gone to the play and the kidnapping plot was successful, the Confederates ranks would have swelled. The addition of soldiers may have given the Confederacy the advantage they needed. On April 11, 1865 President Lincoln gave his last speech; in this speech he discussed the rights owed to blacks. This enraged Booth, “on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers. Now, by God! I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.” (www.home.att.net, Dec. 4th, 2008) With that, Booth vowed to kill Lincoln. He reassembled some of the men from the kidnapping attempt to plan some kind of mass murder. Booth received a letter on April 14 that the president was going to attend the evening performance of
Our American Cousin at Fords Theater.
Booth had planed a three part homicide to occur that night. He would kill Lincoln, George Atzerodt was to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Lewis Powell would kill Secretary of state William Seward; the planed to kill the men at 10:15PM so that word would not have enough time to spread before all were dead. (www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk, Dec, 4th) He was very good at planning; if this talent had gone into more constructive means, Booth may today be famous instead of infamous. Instead, he used his skills for evil; if his plan was to succeed, it would have shattered the government. A man said to Booth, “You’ll never be the actor your father was.” Booth replied, “When I leave the stage, I will be the most famous man in America.” He continued on to the State Box at about 10:07. The specifics are unknown, but Booth some how manages to enter the State Box. Booth chose this part of the play to kill Lincoln because he knew the audience would be applauding hard enough to mask the sound of a gun shot. After entering, Booth takes the faithful shot with his derringer which would prove to be fatal. Before he could escape, a man who accompanied Lincoln tries to stop Booth, but Booth slashes him with a hunting knife. With that, he jumped from the State Box to the stage, about eleven feet. After landing, he proudly says, “Sic semper tyrannis” (Latin for “Thus always to tyrants”). (Clarke, Pages 79-85) Clarke, a sister of John Wilkes Booth, reviles in detail what when happened on that faithful day. Ultimately, Booth boldness seals Lincoln’s fate.
Booth had planed his escape to avoid conflict. By 10:45 he crossed over into Maryland, where he joined a co-conspirator, David E. Herold. Booth and his friend were on the run for about the next eleven days. On April 26, Booth and Herold hid out in a tobacco barn, sixty miles south of Fords Theater in Port Royal, Virginia. The Union troops finally found them; the soldiers threaten to set the barn ablaze, so Herold surrendered. Sergeant Boston Corbett decides to fire a round at Booth; the round punctured his spinal cord. After two agonizing hours, John Wilkes Booth was pronounced dead. (Clarke, Pages 103-108) As for the other man involved in the plot, both had failed. Powell had not fatally injured Seward; Atzerodt lost his nerves, and never followed through on his end of the plot. The Union should be glad that these two men were not as bold as Booth. If they were, there is no telling how much damage would be done to the government. The government is already in trouble due to the war, which finally came to an end; the death of three key individuals three could have restarted conflict.
It is the little things the make the world turn. If Lincoln had been six inches to the left, he may have lived. If Booth was born into a normal family, he may not be the infamous man that the world has branded him as. These little things can change the world in big ways. One man and one bullet changed the face of a nation. People who had once hated Lincoln now felt sympathy for him and his family. Many felt that Booth had committed a horrible crime. Booth, on the other hand, felt that he did what was best for the nation. “I can never repent it, though we hated to kill. Our country owed all her troubles to him, and God simply made me the instrument of his punishment” (Diary of John Wilkes Booth). If Lincoln had not been killed on that Good Friday, he may have just been another president. Instead, today that world sees him as a great president.
Browne, Francis Fisher. The Every-day Life of Abraham Lincoln: A Narrative and Descriptive Biography. G.P. Putnam, 1915.
Clarke, Asia Booth and Alford, Terry. John Wilkes Booth: A Sister’s Memoir. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
Booth, John Wilkes. “Diary of John Wilkes Booth.” April 26, 1865. http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/lincolnconspiracy/boothdiary.html
Bruner Jerome. “Biography of John Wilkes Booth.” http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USACWbooth.htm
Norton, R.J. “Biography of John Wilkes Booth.” December 29, 1996. http://home.att.net/~rjnorton/Lincoln72.html.