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.
No, there were allegations that the conspiracy involved a lot more Confederates or Southern sympathizers (including Confederate President Jefferson Davis), but there weren’t any suspicions about members of Lincoln’s Administration. Eventually it became clear that the conspiracy was designed and driven by Booth and President Davis wasn’t involved. In fact, Davis realized that Lincoln’s death was devastating to the South and to the upcoming Reconstruction. Among other things, following the assassination Davis said “I certainly have no regard for Mr. Lincoln but there are a great many men of whose end I would much rather have heard than his. I fear it will be disastrous to our people, and I regret it deeply”, “His successor is a worse man”, and, most famously, “Next to the destruction of the Confederacy, the death of Abraham Lincoln was the darkest day the South has ever known.”
As for Booth’s conspiracy, it did work in the result that Lincoln was killed, but it really wasn’t a plan that Booth thought out very well. Although Booth’s plan was to decapitate the federal government by killing Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, and Secretary of State William H. Seward, I think that the fact that Lincoln died and Johnson survived was far more destructive than if they had both died. Booth was hoping that the assassinations would throw the nation into confusion and threaten the continuity of government, but if Lincoln and Johnson had died, Seward wouldn’t have become President. The order of succession at the time designated the President pro tempore of the United States Senate next in line to the Presidency following the Vice President and would have triggered a special election later that year. If Lincoln and Johnson both died, Senator Lafayette Foster of Connecticut would have become President and a special election would have been held in December 1865. Next in line following Foster would have been the Speaker of the House, Schuyler Colfax. Continuity of government was never threatened and wouldn’t have been even if George Atzerodt had followed through on his mission to kill Vice President Johnson or if Lewis Paine’s brutal attack of Secretary of State Seward was successful (which it nearly was). Had Booth’s targets included Senator Foster and Speaker Colfax, perhaps the conspiracy would have resulted as Booth dreamed it would. But Atzerodt chickened out on the assassination of Andrew Johnson, Seward somehow survived Paine’s stabbing, and Foster and Colfax weren’t on Booth’s radar.
Apparently, the April 19, 1865 edition of the New Hampshire Patriot, but I haven’t been able to track it down.
The most complete account of Pierce’s speech that I’ve been able to piece together over the years, mostly thanks to Dr. Wallner’s Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union and Roy Franklin Nichols’ Young Hickory of the Granite Hills is that several hundred residents of Concord, New Hampshire showed up on Pierce’s doorstep at about 9:00 PM the night following Lincoln’s death. When Pierce asked “What is your desire?”, the crowd told him, “We wish to hear some words from you on this sad occasion.”
Pierce: “I wish I could address to you words of solace. But that can hardly be done. The magnitude of the calamity, in all its aspects, is overwhelming. If your hearts are oppressed by events more calculated to awaken profound sorrow and regret than any which have hitherto occurred in our history, mine mingles its deepest regrets and sorrows with yours.”
Someone in the crowd accusingly asked “Where is your flag?” because Pierce’s home apparently had no American flag on display, and Pierce was visibly irritated by the demand.
Pierce: “It is not necessary for me to show my devotion for the Stars and Stripes by any special exhibition, or upon the demand of any man or body of men. My ancestors followed it through the Revolution…My brothers followed it in the War of 1812; and I left my family, in the Spring of 1847, among you, to follow its fortunes and maintain it upon a foreign soil [in the Mexican War]. But this you all know. If the period during which I have served our State and country in various situations, commencing more than thirty-five years ago, have left the question of my devotion to the flag, the Constitution, and the Union in doubt, it is too late now to remove it, by any such exhibition as the inquiry suggests. Besides to remove such doubts from minds where they may have been cultivated by a spirit of domination and partisan rancor, if such a thing were possible, would be of no consequence to you, and is certainly of none to me. The malicious questionings would return to reassert their supremacy and pursue the work of injustice…I have never found or felt that violence or passion was ultimately productive of beneficent results.”
With that, the crowd supposedly gave the former President three cheers and Pierce went back to bed. When I finally find the full transcript of Pierce’s speech from that night, I will be sure to share it.