"There is no sure foundation set on blood,
No certain life achieved by another’s death” — William Shakespeare, King John
Shakespeare killed Kings and Princes and lovers and warriors with beauty and artistry. With eternally evocative words as his lethal weapon, the bard snatched literary lives out of pages and off of stages in nearly every play that he penned. Sometimes he killed out of love, sometimes he killed out of hate, sometimes he killed for power or because of weakness or in spite of strength. When Shakespeare killed, however, he did it with purpose and poetry. In Shakespeare’s work, murder wasn’t simply committed — it was composed and performed; and, in the centuries since that work was created, it has been left up to actors to breathe life into scenes of death. A good actor can convince the audience to believe; a great actor can convince himself.
Contrary to what many people believe, John Wilkes Booth was neither the most famous nor the best actor in the United States when he assassinated Abraham Lincoln. Booth’s father, Junius Brutus Booth, was probably the greatest actor in the world when he was at his best and when he stayed sober. Of the three sons (all of illegitimate birth) who followed Booth, who died in 1852, into the theater it was his second-oldest, Edwin, who was the most amazing to watch on stage. Edwin traveled the world and not only played all of the parts made famous by his father, but arguably did it better. An Edwin Booth performance was a mesmerizing experience for an theater-goer, and it made him a very wealthy, well-connected man. Junius Jr. was a talented actor, but never quite had his heart completely in the theater, despite his natural abilities. The youngest of the Booth sons, John Wilkes, was determined to be as great as his father and two brothers, but he lacked the talent that seemed instinctive with his father and inherited by his older brothers.
John Wilkes Booth’s determination and ambition, however, drove him to do things on stage that other actors wouldn’t risk. While he wasn’t the most famous or most talented actor in America, John Wilkes was widely considered the most handsome, and women swooned over his appearance, buying stereograph pictures and anything that captured the young actor’s brooding appearance. If John Wilkes couldn’t measure up to his father or his brother’s when reciting his lines, his physicality captivated crowds. Uniquely athletic, Booth would take tremendous risks, performing stunts that stunned audiences and helped hide any defects in his acting ability.
If John Wilkes didn’t play the roles as well as Edwin did, he tackled them with unparalleled energy and was certainly one of the most well-known names in entertainment by the 1860’s. Booth played a multitude of roles, but the role that he felt suited him best — the role that inspired him in so many ways — was that of Brutus in Julius Caesar. Booth saw Brutus in the same light as Marc Antony did in the closing lines of Shakespeare’s masterpiece — a patriot who risked everything to bring down a tyrant, and, as Antony said, “was the noblest Roman of them all”.
The Booths were from Maryland originally, a border state during the Civil War, but the two most visible members of the family — Edwin and John Wilkes — seemed to come from different worlds. Edwin was a Unionist who lived in New York and was a friend to Presidents, Northern politicians, Union soldiers, and captains of industry. John Wilkes was an avowed secessionist and Southern sympathizer. When John Brown was hanged in Virginia in 1858, Booth dressed as a member of a Richmond militia group in order to get a front row seat at the abolitionist’s execution. When the war started in 1861, John Wilkes was open about his support for the states which seceded and formed the Confederate State of America, and his vociferous opinions landed him in trouble in some of the Northern cities that he performed in.
The relationship between Edwin and John Wilkes was never strong, and the younger brother nursed a deep jealousy for the more acclaimed (and more wealthy) Edwin. Their opposing beliefs about the Civil War further endangered their relationship and, at one point, Edwin kicked John Wilkes out of his home in New York when John Wilkes insulted President Abraham Lincoln and praised the Confederacy. At some point, John Wilkes went from a sympathizer to an activist. Booth smuggled medicine to the Southern states and may have been involved in deeper operations as a member of the Confederate Secret Service. Booth’s fame and active career in the theater was helpful, as he was able to travel throughout the country with relative ease.
One thing that is clear about John Wilkes Booth is that he absolutely hated Abraham Lincoln.
The Booths were no strangers to Lincoln. More than anything else, Lincoln loved the theater, particularly Shakespeare, which he often read out loud to guests at the White House. Lincoln had seen Edwin Booth on numerous occasions, and on November 9, 1863 — 10 days before he traveled to Pennsylvania to deliver the Gettysburg Address — the President watched John Wilkes Booth as Raphael in The Marble Heart at Ford’s Theatre, several blocks from the White House. Lincoln was impressed by Booth’s performance, but one of Lincoln’s companions that night, Mary Clay, daughter of Lincoln’s Minister to Russia, remembered a portentous moment. On several occasions, Booth — playing a villain — uttered his lines with anger while seemingly shaking his finger at President Lincoln. Mary Clay recalls saying to the President, “Mr. Lincoln, he looks as if he meant that for you.” Lincoln responded, “Well, he does look pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?” Booth reportedly refused an invitation to meet the President after the performance, but after Lincoln’s young son, Tad, watched in awe as Booth energetically performed in another play, the future assassin gave the President’s son a rose.
A performance that Lincoln certainly would have enjoyed seeing took place on November 25, 1864 in Edwin Booth’s Winter Garden Theatre in New York City. In a special benefit, the three sons of Junius Brutus Booth performed together for the first and only time. Edwin, Junius Jr., and John Wilkes teamed up to perform Julius Caesar, with the goal of raising money for a statue of William Shakespeare — a statue that can be found in Central Park today. While Edwin took the plum role of Brutus and Junius Jr. played Cassius, John Wilkes played the role that would become most unlikely in hindsight: Marc Antony. During the performance by the Booth brothers, Confederate agents set fire to buildings around New York City, including one next to Edwin’s theatre. After a momentary panic in the building, the audience was calmed down and the show went on. John Wilkes Booth had few acting roles left in his career, but by this point, he had decided that his final role would be Brutus.
By the time of the Winter Garden Theatre benefit featuring the Booth brothers, John Wilkes had already been conspiring to kidnap Abraham Lincoln in order to trade the President for a significant amount of Confederate soldiers in Union POW camps and was often meeting with his fellow conspirators such as Lewis Powell, John Surratt, David Herold, George Azterodt, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O’Laughlen at Mary Surratt’s boarding house in Washington, D.C. When Lincoln was sworn in for his second term on March 4, 1865, Booth and some of his conspirators were in the crowd and can be seen in a photo of the Inaugural stand at the Capitol as Lincoln gave his Inaugural Address. Over the next two weeks, the conspirators looked for an opportunity to kidnap the President and hopefully turn the tide for the Confederacy.
On March 17, 1865, Booth and his gang planned to launch their operation when President Lincoln traveled to the Campbell Hospital on the outskirts of the nation’s capital. Unfortunately for Booth, Lincoln’s plans changed and the abduction plot fell through. The next night, Booth gave his final acting performance, as Duke Pescara in The Apostate, at Ford’s Theatre.
"I have no words;
My voice is in my sword” — William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Everything changed for John Wilkes Booth on April 9, 1865, as news reached Washington that Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Two nights later, Booth was in a crowd celebrating at the White House and became enraged when he heard President Lincoln suggest in an extemporaneous speech that blacks would be given the right to vote. That fury multiplied when Lincoln said, “I have always thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I have ever heard. Our adversaries over the way attempted to appropriate it, but I insisted yesterday that we fairly captured it…I now request the band to favor me with its performance…[for] it is good to show the rebels that with us they will be free to hear it again.” Booth took Lincoln’s words as an almost personal affront. The abduction plan was off the table, but Booth instantly realized that he would kill Lincoln. In his mind, he would be Brutus slaying the tyrant Caesar.
We know what happened next. Shakespeare killed with beauty and poetry — deadly, 400-year-old lines that elicit timeless emotions. There was no beauty in what happened at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. President Lincoln sat in his box watching Our American Cousin. Booth slipped into the theatre — his famous face a passport for entry. The actor crept into the room behind the President. The crowd laughed at a line delivered on stage and a shot rang out. A .44 caliber lead ball slammed into the back of Lincoln’s head. Skull fragments carried by the the bullet sliced through the President’s brain. Lincoln slumped forward, almost certainly brain dead already. Booth brandished a dagger and slashed Lincoln’s guest in the Presidential box, Major Henry Rathbone, and performed one last leap on to the stage — one last acrobatic move to stun an audience. However, in an unusual move for Booth, he stumbled, caught a leg in the flags draped in front of Lincoln’s box, and landed awkwardly. Booth’s tibula cracked and he limped off the stage, dragging his broken leg behind him. With fire in his eyes, the youngest member of the Booth acting family turned to the crowd, and with one last act of stagecraft yelled “Sic Semper Tyrannis!”. The line wasn’t part of a play; it was Virginia’s state motto and it meant “Thus Always To Tyrants”. Some witnesses remember hearing Booth add, “The South is avenged!”.
Lincoln was carried across the street and his 6’4” frame was laid diagonally on a bed in William A. Petersen’s boarding house. The powerfully-built President survived longer than most humans would survive a point-blank gunshot wound to the back of the head — even with today’s medical advancements. At 7:22 AM on April 15, 1865, Lincoln stopped breathing, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton uttered the famous words, “Now, he belongs to the ages.”
Over the next 10 days, John Wilkes Booth rode through the war-torn countryside of Maryland and Virginia. Shooting pain from his broken leg made every step and every breath excruciating, even after the injury was set by Dr. Samuel Mudd. With his fellow conspirator David Herold, Booth hid from the biggest manhunt in American History, as bloodthirsty Union troops, many just back from the battlefields of the Civil War, chased the man who killed the President that guided them through that crisis.
For 26-year-old John Wilkes Booth, there was a deeper pain. It wasn’t just the broken leg or the hunger or the exhaustion of evading an entire army. It wasn’t the lifelong envy of his more successful older brother, or the fact that his fellow conspirators failed in their assignments as Booth accomplished his. For Booth, who idolized Brutus and saw himself as the Southern, if not American version of Caesar’s assassin, the pain was due to the fact that he wasn’t being celebrated for removing a “tyrant”. John Wilkes Booth was used to seeing his name on posters that advertised his appearance, but now, his name was on wanted posters offering a $100,000 reward for his capture. Even the South mourned the loss of Lincoln, who looked forward to a gentle reconciliation and reconstruction with the former Confederate States. Booth’s assassination wasn’t seen as a heroic act against a raging tyrant. Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America that Booth so deeply supported would later say that “Next to the destruction of the Confederacy, the death of Abraham Lincoln was the darkest day the South has ever known.”
Instead of Brutus, Booth was seen as one of the murderers of the the Scottish king Duncan, who told Macbeth:
"I am one, my liege,
Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world
Hath so incens’d that I am reckless what
I do to spite the world”
"Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage” — William Shakespeare, Macbeth
In his final days, as he was being hunted down in the woods of Virginia, and before he was cornered in a burning barn and shot to death, Booth came to the bitter realization that the assassination didn’t lead him to the glory he had always sought. As always, though, John Wilkes Booth felt that it wasn’t his fault — that it was the world that let him down. On the run, before he was killed, Booth scrawled a few lines in a diary that was found on him when the Union troops finally caught up to him on April 26, 1865:
"Until today nothing was ever thought of sacrificing to our country’s wrongs. For six months we had worked to capture, but our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done. But its failure was owing to others, who did not strike for their country with a heart. I struck boldly, and not as the papers say. I walked with a firm step through a thousand of his friends, was stopped, but pushed on. A colonel was at his side. I shouted Sic semper before I fired. In jumping broke my leg. I passed all his pickets, rode sixty miles that night with the bone of my leg tearing the flesh at every jump. 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. The country is not what it was. This forced Union is not what I have loved. I care not what becomes of me. I have no desire to outlive my country. The night before the deed I wrote a long article and left it for one of the editors of the National Intelligencer, in which I fully set forth our reasons for our proceedings…
After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods, and last night being chased by gunboats till I was forced to return wet, cold, and starving, with every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for? What made Tell a hero? And yet I, for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew, am looked upon as a common cutthroat. My action was purer than either of theirs. One hoped to be great himself. The other had not only his country’s but his own, wrongs to avenge. I hoped for no gain. I knew no private wrong. I struck for my country and that alone. A country that groaned beneath this tyranny, and prayed for this end, and yet now behold the cold hands they extend to me. God cannot pardon me if I have done wrong. Yet I cannot see my wrong except in serving a degenerate people. The little, the very little, I left behind to clear my name, the Government will not allow to be printed. So ends all. For my country I have given up all that makes life sweet and holy, brought misery upon my family, and am sure there is no pardon in the Heaven for me, since man condemns me so…
Tonight I will once more try the river with the intent to cross. Thought I have a greater desire and almost a mind to return to Washington, and in a measure clear my name — which I feel I can do. I do not repent the blow I struck. I may before my God, but not to man. I think I have done well. Though I am abandoned, with the curse of Cain upon me, when, if the world knew my heart, that one blow would have made me great, though I did desire no greatness. Tonight I try to escape these bloodhounds once more. Who, who can read his fate? God’s will be done. I have too great a soul to die like a criminal…”
"O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!" — William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Cornered in a barn on Pat Garrett’s tobacco farm in Port Royal, Virginia, John Wilkes Booth refused to surrender to the Union troops who had been hunting him for twelve days, even after the soldiers set fire to the barn and Booth’s co-conspirator, David Herold, gave himself up. Limping around in the burning barn, a bullet fired by a Union soldier sliced through Booth’s neck, paralyzing the assassin. Soldiers dragged him from the barn, but the wound was mortal. In the moments before he died, Booth asked to see his own hands because the bullet through his spinal cord had robbed him of the ability to move on his own. When a soldier lifted Booth’s hands to his face, the 26-year-old actor who killed Abraham Lincoln mumbled his final words: “Useless! Useless!”
Congressman Charles Francis Adams (son of John Quincy Adams and grandson of John Adams), on Abraham Lincoln, 1860.
Despite Adams’s comments, President Lincoln appointed him U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain where Adams played an important role in keeping Britain from recognizing the Confederacy during the Civil War. By representing the United States at the Court of St. James, Adams followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who preceded him as Ambassador.
Throughout the United States, most Americans are not too far away from something named after Abraham Lincoln. The 16th President’s leadership through the Civil War and his sudden assassination just days after Appomattox resulted in tributes big and small which have not dissipated with time. There are schools and streets, cities and counties, parks, hospitals, colleges, and pretty much anything imaginable that have been named in honor of Lincoln since his death in 1865.
One town, however, must have seen the promise in Abraham Lincoln before the nation as a whole came to love, honor, and iconize him. While building a railroad through Logan County, Illinois, planners laid out a town to be used as a passenger depot and watering point for the steam trains of the day. As the new town rose from the Illinois prairie, a gangly lawyer from Springfield who had served one two-year term in the U.S. House of Representatives five years earlier was asked to help with legal questions that might come up as the town was built.
As the new town — which would also become the county seat — prepared to sell residential lots, the Sheriff of Logan County named it Lincoln, Illinois, after the friendly lawyer who had helped get the place built. While things named after Abraham Lincoln became commonplace following his Presidency, the small town in Illinois was christened with his name on August 27, 1853 — five years before the Lincoln/Douglas Debates, seven years before his Presidential election, and nearly a dozen years before his assassination. Four years earlier, he had returned to Illinois after a brief, two-year stint in the U.S. House of Representatives and a further political career was no sure thing for Lincoln, so having a town named after him at that point in his life was an odd tribute by the town’s planners that just so happened to pay off in the future.
By the way, Lincoln himself christened the town with his name on that day in August 1853, along with his 10-year-old son, Robert Todd Lincoln. The christening ceremony was an odd one: Lincoln purchased two watermelons from a local merchant, squeezed some watermelon juice into a tin cup, and then poured the juice on the ground in some sort of baptismal gesture. Then Lincoln, his son, and a handful of the town planners in attendance (some say there were just three men there besides the Lincolns) shared a snack of watermelon. Today, a statue of a watermelon marks the spot in Lincoln, Illinois where the man who would one day save the Union christened a town prematurely named after him with watermelon juice.
The Emancipation Proclamation largely applied to slaves in areas that were not yet under Union control and that gives people the opportunity to argue that the Proclamation was toothless or ineffective. There will always be a group of people who want to take a contrary position for the sake of being disagreeable.
But, yes, Lincoln began the process of freeing the slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s not as if the Proclamation was rolled back or swept under the rug once those rebellious regions came under Union control. More importantly, the Proclamation gave slaves an understanding that they had a ticket to freedom declared by the President of the United States. Scores upon scores of slaves were encouraged by word and proof of the Proclamation and gave them genuine hope and belief that their government would back them up if they took the step of breaking their own chains of bondage and heading North or finding their way into Union military lines. Without that sense of legal protection, it seemed almost unthinkable for most slaves and their families to set out on their own. It did not free every slave in every region of the United States, but it was a green light (forgive the anachronism) to leave the horrors of human bondage behind in order to take the long walk to freedom.
Incidentally, the Emancipation Proclamation had an very important impact on the Union soldiers, too. With the Proclamation, President Lincoln made it crystal clear that the Civil War was no longer just an attempt to crush a rebellion and hold the United States together. From that point forward, the abolition of slavery officially became a leading aim of the war. Earlier during the Civil War, President Lincoln famously wrote to the New York Tribune’s Horace Greeley:
"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would do that."
The Emancipation Proclamation was a declaration that the “paramount object” of the struggle for Lincoln (and, through him, the entire Union military) had shifted and abolishing slavery was now the leading mission of the Union war effort as Northern troops began turning the tide and claiming some much needed battlefield successes. Whether or not it immediately applied to their region on January 1, 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, it had a tangible impact on slaves throughout the country as an obvious first step in the progression from human bondage to the landmark Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which officially abolished slavery in the United States of America.
Lincoln and Kennedy are more iconic figures because Lincoln led the country through the Civil War and was murdered just days after Lee surrendered to Grant and Kennedy and his young family truly felt like a page in American history had been turned and the country was moving forward with the first President born in the 20th Century. There was also a bigger shock with the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations. Lincoln was the first President to be assassinated, many people saw him as almost the symbolic final casualty of the Civil War, and his funeral was a national event with stops in over a dozen American cities over twenty days. JFK was shot to death in front of many people (including his wife), in the middle of the day, in a major American city, and the man charged with his assassination was himself murdered just two days later live on national television.
Garfield and McKinley weren’t quite as charismatic as Lincoln or Kennedy, and they hadn’t made as much of an impact on daily American life as Lincoln and Kennedy. Garfield had only been President for a couple of months and McKinley was a low-key figure — an able, popular President, but not as beloved by as many people as Lincoln or Kennedy. But it is important to note that, at the time of their assassinations, Garfield and McKinley were widely mourned by the American people, much like Lincoln and Kennedy were. Their deaths just didn’t have as lasting of an impact.
Another possible reason for the differences in the assassinations might be the immediate impact. The Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations were sudden and their deaths were immediately shocking. Lincoln was shot late in the evening of April 14, 1865, there was no hope of recovery, and he died early the next morning. Kennedy was basically killed instantly. He was still breathing when he reached the hospital, but there wasn’t a single person who expected him to survive the massive head wound that he suffered.
With Garfield and McKinley, neither President died instantly. In fact, at some point following their respective shootings it was believed that Garfield and McKinley both might survive their wounds. Garfield was shot on July 2, 1881 and survived until September 19th. In reality, President Garfield didn’t die directly from his gunshot wounds — he died from infections introduced into his body by doctors who probed his wounds with their dirty fingers and unsterilized instruments. McKinley didn’t survive his shooting nearly as long as Garfield did, but he lingered for 8 days after being shot on September 6, 1901, dying on September 14th. Garfield and McKinley rallied enough while fighting for their lives that it raised hopes that they might survive. Indeed, they would have survived with better medical care. When Ronald Reagan was shot in 1981, his wounds were far more serious than those which killed Garfield and McKinley.
So, while the nation was still stunned and devastated by the deaths of Garfield and McKinley, they didn’t have the same immediate impact as the deaths of Lincoln and Kennedy. With Garfield and McKinley, the American people had a little bit of time to prepare for the worst. That didn’t necessarily make it easier to accept, but I think it possibly softened the blow.
Another possibility is that the assassins of Garfield and McKinley were both captured, brought to trial, convicted, and executed. John Wilkes Booth very nearly made his way to the Deep South and possible escape after shooting Lincoln but he was cornered and killed rather than being arrested and tried. And, of course, Lee Harvey Oswald was murdered while in police custody which helped perpetuate conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination that a majority of Americans believe are true.
April 24, 1865, Union Square, New York City, New York.
As a funeral cortege carries the body of slain President Abraham Lincoln through the streets of New York City, the small heads of two young boys are visible as they watch the procession from the second-story window of their grandfather’s home.
Forty years later, one of those boys would think back to that day as he wore a ring which contained a lock of Lincoln’s hair, placed his hand in the air and said, “I, Theodore Roosevelt, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
The other little boy was Theodore’s younger brother, Elliott, the father of future First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.
And you wonder why I find this stuff so fascinating.
I more than suspect that he is deeply conscious of being in the wrong — that he feels the blood of this [Mexican] war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to Heaven against him…He is a bewildered, confounded, and miserably perplexed man.
Abraham Lincoln, criticizing President James K. Polk and the Mexican War in a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, December 22, 1848
It’s a confusing one, but Andrew Johnson was a Democrat.
The reason for the.confusion stems from the fact that Johnson was elected Vice President in 1864 alongside Abraham Lincoln, who was a Republican. Lincoln and Johnson ran in 1864 under a unified party ticket — they were nominated as the National Union candidates, in fact.
But Lincoln was a Republican, of course, and Johnson’s ties to the Democratic Party were no secret. Actually, that was the appeal. To balance the ticket better in 1864, Lincoln dumped his first term Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin, a Republican who came from about as far North as one could come from — Maine.
The Republicans, gathering under the National Union banner in 1864, wanted to balance the ticket better because there were worries about a strong challenge from the Democratic nominee, former General George B. McClellan, and McClellan’s running mate, George H. Pendleton of Ohio.
The National Unionists were made up of the Republicans who had supported Lincoln since 1860 and Democrats supportive of Lincoln’s leadership in prosecuting the Civil War and wary of what McClellan might do if he happened to be elected President. Johnson fit right in with the National Unionists — a Democrat who supported Lincoln and, better yet, a running mate who could balance the ticket politically and geographically.
Despite belonging to a different party, there was no doubt about Johnson’s loyalty to Lincoln and the Union. Johnson was the only Southern Senator to remain loyal to the Union and hold on to his seat after secession, the formation of the Confederacy, and the outbreak of Civil War. Johnson spent most of the war as Military Governor of Tennessee.
Johnson only served as Vice President for 42 days, succeeding to the Presidency upon Lincoln’s assassination. Once Johnson became President, the fact that he was actually a Democrat eventually caused him major problems. Johnson clashed with his Cabinet, most of whom were holdovers from the Lincoln Administration. His battles with Congress, particularly the Radical Republicans, helped contribute to his failures as President, and after the House of Representatives impeached him in 1868, Johnson was narrowly acquitted in his Senate trial. The Senate was just one vote short of the two-thirds necessary to convict him and remove him from office.
As President, Johnson wasn’t quite a “President without a party” like John Tyler, but his election alongside Lincoln in 1864 on the National Union ticket did put Johnson in an awkward position once he assumed the Presidency. After all, Lincoln and Johnson DID defeat opponents duly nominated by the Democratic Party. Johnson was also in a strange position because the Democratic Party was so weak following the Civil War and throughout Reconstruction.
But Johnson was indeed a Democrat. Before the.Civil War, Johnson won elections as a Democratic candidate to become Mayor of Greenville, Tennessee, a Member of the Tennessee House of Representatives, a Tennessee State Senator, a U.S. Representative, Governor of Tennessee, and a U.S. Senator. And, despite his disastrous Presidency, Johnson found some redemption shortly before his death as he once again won election (as a Democrat) to the U.S. Senate.
The President of the United States is no emperor, no dictator. He can do nothing unless he is backed by power in Congress. The House of Representatives is largely in the majority against him. In the Senate he will also be powerless.
Alexander Hamilton Stephens, in a speech to the Georgia Legislature attempting to calm the fears about Abraham Lincoln’s election.
Shortly afterwards, Georgia seceded from the Union and Stephens became Vice President of the Confederacy.
I declare to you…that for personal considerations I would rather have a full term in the Senate — a place in which I would feel more consciously able to discharge the duties required, and where there is more chance to make a reputation, and less danger of losing it — than four years of the Presidency.
Abraham Lincoln, October 25, 1860, to a visitor shortly before his election, according to John G. Nicolay
You would be hard-pressed to find many comparisons between Franklin Pierce, 14th President of the United States, and Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States. Most historians agree that Lincoln is probably the greatest President in American History; a similar amount of historians usually rank Pierce as one of the worst. Lincoln guided the country through Civil War and to victory; the policies of Pierce’s Administration helped divide the nation and make Civil War a reality. Despite being born in the South, Lincoln fought during every minute of his Presidency to keep the Union together; Pierce, born and raised in New Hampshire, was a “doughface” (a Northerner with Southern sympathies), and close friends with Confederate President Jefferson Davis who served as Secretary of War in Pierce’s Administration. Lincoln died just days after the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox and was immediately considered a martyr by the American public after his death. After dispersing a crowd that angrily gathered in front of his home following Lincoln’s assassination, Franklin Pierce went back to doing what he had done since leaving the White House in 1857 — drinking himself to death.
There is one thing that links these two men beyond the fact that they were both Presidents during the most divisive period in American History — tragedy. In the exclusive fraternity of American Presidents, it’s impossible to find two more melancholy individuals than Franklin Pierce and Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln battled deep depression throughout his life and, as a young man in Illinois, Lincoln admitted that he contemplated suicide at times. During his career as a lawyer riding the Illinois court circuit, Lincoln’s friend Joshua Speed recalls the future President remarking “If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode that I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”
What troubled Lincoln is difficult to pinpoint. Before he married Mary Todd, Lincoln was romantically interested in Ann Rutledge, the daughter of a New Salem, Illinois tavern owner. Lincoln was a frequent visitor to the Rutledge home and was devastated when Ann died of typhoid fever in 1835. William H. Herndon — Lincoln’s longtime law partner and one of the first biographers of Lincoln — acknowledged that the future President loved Ann Rutledge and that the grieving Lincoln was suicidal in the days and weeks following Ann’s funeral. Five years after Ann Rutledge’s death, Lincoln and Mary Todd were engaged, and the couple married in 1842. Mary had a terrible temper and her mental condition was so tenuous that her son, Robert, finally had her committed to an asylum after President Lincoln’s death. Mary was a lot of things that Lincoln was not — short, overweight, confrontational, insecure, and temperamental. The marriage was rocky at times, but Lincoln was passionately defensive about charges against his wife. When Mary lost control and screamed at Lincoln or charged the President with jealous accusations, Lincoln walked away from the fights and always returned to check on Mary’s condition once she cooled down. For a President trying to save his country from destruction, these personal domestic crises had to be taxing on Lincoln.
To find a bright spot somewhere, Lincoln turned to his children for solace. Lincoln’s four sons were all born in Springfield, Illinois with Robert Todd Lincoln leading the way in 1843. By the time of Lincoln’s Presidency, Robert was an adult attending Harvard and he spent the last months of the Civil War on the staff of General Ulysses S. Grant. The second son, Edward Baker Lincoln, was another source of sadness for the Lincolns. Edward died at the age of four; an event that left Mary on the brink of breakdown and pushed Lincoln to cherish the next two children, Willie (born in 1850), and Tad (born in 1853). As President, Lincoln was horrified by dispatches describing the ongoing Civil War, tried to shut out the distractions caused by his unstable wife, and discovered happiness only in those moments where he could play with Willie and Tad.
Willie Lincoln was dedicated to his love for books, much like his father, and it was no secret to anyone that Willie was the President’s favorite child. Tad was more rambunctious, always into joking and playing around, and Lincoln took great satisfaction from Tad’s affinity for dressing up like the soldiers who protected Washington and the White House from the rebel forces. Like the Biblical Job, however, Lincoln had to face adversity while persevering relentlessly towards his goal. In February 1862, Willie Lincoln took ill after riding his beloved pony in chilly weather. Doctors ordered bed rest and Willie rallied at first, but on February 20th, he died from what is thought to be typhoid fever. The Lincolns were devastated, Mary was inconsolable and shut herself off from the world for three weeks. Lincoln worried about Mary while also nursing his youngest son, Tad, who came down with the same illness that killed Willie and was in critical condition himself. Tad recovered, but Lincoln was at times overcome by sadness. Every Thursday for several weeks, Lincoln locked himself in the Green Room of the White House, the room where Willie’s body had been laid out and embalmed after he died, and cried for his lost son.
Throughout his life, Lincoln had loved few things more than reading Shakespeare out loud to family and friends. After Willie died, the President’s voice would break with emotion and his eyes would be flooded by tears when he recited these lines from King John:
And, father cardinal, I have heard you say
That we shall see and know our friends in heaven
If that be true, I shall see my boy again
Though he never shrank from his responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief in the midst of a brutal Civil War, Lincoln confided to others that Willie’s death “showed me my weakness as I had never felt it before.” Only once more did he feel a pinch of unrestrained happiness and that was on the day that he truly considered the Civil War to finally be over — April 14, 1865. That night, John Wilkes Booth ended Abraham Lincoln’s suffering.
It was Willie Lincoln’s death in the White House in 1862 that brought Franklin Pierce and Abraham Lincoln the closest that they would ever be. Men of different political parties, different backgrounds, and different viewpoints on the biggest issue of the day; they were as far apart politically as they were in physical appearance. Lincoln was described by even his closest friends as “ugly” and his opponents likened him to a “baboon”. Lincoln wore the same old suit constantly, he rarely took the time to comb his hair, and he didn’t care what people thought of his “style”. Franklin Pierce looked like a Roman statue come to life. Pierce had long, curly, jet-black hair that he combed over the side of his forehead, he dressed impeccably, and one historian calls him “perhaps the most handsome President”. Even President Harry Truman — a vicious detractor of Pierce’s Presidency — called Pierce “the best-looking President the White House ever had” and suggested that he “looked the way people who make movies think a President should look”.
Behind those looks, however, was a man who was as unsuccessful at fighting depression as he was at fighting alcoholism. Franklin Pierce was ambitious and rose to the Presidency at a younger age than any of his predecessors. His ambition, however, strained his marriage with Jane Means Appleton, who hated politics and hated Washington, D.C. Pierce didn’t help the marriage by not consulting with Jane before undertaking a life-changing experience such as accepting the Democratic nomination for President in 1852. Jane had heard that Franklin was being considered as a compromise choice by the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore, but believed that he had no chance against better-known names such as James Buchanan, Lewis Cass, and Stephen A. Douglas. While out for a carriage ride in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a rider galloped up to the wagon carrying the Pierces with the news that Franklin had won the Democratic nomination. Franklin smiled excitedly, but Jane nearly passed out. Pierce had promised that he was done with politics, that they were done with Washington forever, and now it was a near-certainty that he would be elected President of the United States.
Like the Lincolns, the Pierce family had lost two sons at young age. The first born, Frank Jr., died as an infant, and their second son, Franklin Robert Pierce, died at the age of four. Their son Benjamin was their only surviving offspring, and they devoted all of their parental love to Bennie. In times of the deep depression that both Franklin and Jane suffered from, both parents could turn to Bennie for some joy and to remind themselves that not all was lost. Like his mother, Bennie was shy and unhappy about a potential move to Washington. Shortly after Pierce won the Democratic nomination, Bennie wrote his mother: “I hope he won’t be elected for I should not like to be at Washington. And I know you would not be either.” The hopes and prayers of his wife and his son were in complete opposition to those of Franklin Pierce. He wanted, more than anything, to be President. On Election Day, he was granted his wish as he trounced General Winfield Scott on won the Presidential election.
While Franklin prepared to take the reins of the country, Jane and Bennie prepared for the dreaded move into the White House in Washington. Jane tried her best to project some happiness for Franklin’s sake, and she found some assistance from her religious devotion. As 1853 began, the Pierces prepared for the move to Washington, D.C. and left New Hampshire in January, deciding to stop in Massachusetts for visits with family and friends before arriving in Washington for the inauguration scheduled on March 4th.
On January 6, 1853, a train carrying the young President-elect, his wife, and their only surviving son left Andover, Massachusetts. Just a few minutes after departing Andover, the passenger car detached from the train and rolled down an embankment. None of the passengers including Franklin Pierce and his wife were injured except for one person. In front of his horrified parents, 11-year-old Benjamin Pierce was thrown from the train and was nearly decapitated as his head was gruesomely crushed. Bennie Pierce was killed instantly, and his parents would never be the same.
Less than two months later, Pierce was sworn in as President. The only President who memorized his inaugural address and recited the speech without notes, Pierce started by telling the crowd in front of the U.S. Capitol, “It is a relief to feel that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself.” Traumatized by Bennie’s death, Jane refused to continue any further towards Washington than Baltimore. Pierce had to face the Presidency and the mourning period for their son without his wife. As he told the American public in his inaugural address, “You have summoned me in my weakness; you must sustain me with your strength.”
When Jane finally arrived at the White House, she still didn’t make much of an impact. People referred to her as “the shadow of the White House” and she frequently closed herself off in an upstairs bedroom where she wrote letters to her dead children and stuffed them in a fireplace. Jefferson Davis’s wife, Varina, often substituted as White House hostess. In a way, Jane indirectly blamed her husband for Bennie’s death, claiming that God took Bennie from them so that Franklin would have nothing distracting him from his goals and accomplishments. When Jane died in 1863, Pierce’s closest friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, said that she was never interested in “things present”.
Franklin’s “accomplishments” were not much. He had a difficult time saying “no”, and often agreed to go along with the last person he talked to before making a decision. Pierce was indeed absent of distractions, but he needed some. The country was being torn apart by the slavery question and the Kansas-Nebraska Act inflamed tensions; it was no longer a matter of debate — in some places, open warfare was breaking out. The President found his distraction came in the form of a bottle. President Pierce was an alcoholic and in 1856, his own party refused to consider him for re-election. As his term ended at the beginning of 1857, Pierce said, “There’s nothing left to do but to get drunk.” He lived by that motto until his drinking finally killed him in 1869.
During Franklin Pierce’s retirement, he spoke out against Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War itself. Some called him a traitor, and even his close friends snubbed him. When Pierce’s friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, died, he wasn’t even allowed to be a pall bearer as Hawthorne requested. But despite their many differences, Lincoln found himself in a place that only Franklin Pierce knew — mourning a lost child and worrying about an unstable wife while running a divided country. A few weeks following Willie’s death, President Lincoln received this letter:
Concord N. H.
March 4 1862
My dear Sir,
The impulse to write you, the moment I heard of your great domestic affliction was very strong, but it brought back the crushing sorrow which befel me just before I went to Washington in 1853, with such power that I felt your grief, to be too sacred for intrusion.
Even in this hour, so full of danger to our Country, and of trial and anxiety to all good men, your thoughts, will be, of your cherished boy, who will nestle at your heart, until you meet him in that new life, when tears and toils and conflict will be unknown.
I realize fully how vain it would be, to suggest sources of consolation.
There can be but one refuge in such an hour, — but one remedy for smitten hearts, which, is to trust in Him “who doeth all things well”, and leave the rest to —
“Time, comforter & only healer
When the heart hath broke”
With Mrs Pierce’s and my own best wishes — and truest sympathy for Mrs Lincoln and yourself
I am, very truly,
The melancholy Presidents — so far apart in each and every other aspect of their lives — could at the very least find companionship, if not comfort, in the other’s strength through painful weakness.