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On April 14, some seven score and sixteen years ago, John Wilkes Booth, a prominent stage actor, fired a .44 caliber pistol into the back of Abraham Lincoln’s skull. The president died early the next morning, and ever since, we’ve been convincing ourselves that Lincoln still lives—not in body, of course, but in spirit. We’ve made him our national martyr and often find within his words our national benediction.
(Don’t believe me? Look no further than the Biden inauguration. The inaugural ceremony was a nationwide call to unity couched in the rhetoric of Lincoln).
Yet of the many lessons learned from January 6, perhaps the most haunting and historically jarring is the realization that we’ve only ever gotten it half-right—that if Lincoln still lives, so does his assassin, John Wilkes Booth.
For the Capitol Insurrection was, among any number of horrible things, a specter of Booth’s America resurrected, and if we want to celebrate Lincoln, our ideal, we must also reckon with Booth, our odious and hardly suppressed id.
Born to a famous acting family from Baltimore, John Wilkes Booth began plotting to kill Lincoln in 1864. Originally, the plan was to capture, not kill, the president; the idea was to seize Lincoln while he walked through town (presidents could do that then) on a visit to the Old Soldier’s Home and use him as leverage to restart Confederate prisoner exchanges—something the Lincoln administration ceased doing, mostly because the Confederate government refused to exchange prisoners from the United States Colored Troops.
But Booth didn’t kill the president over the administration’s handling of prisoner exchanges. He killed the president because he was an extremist, a dyed-in-the-wool Confederate.
Like many sons of Maryland, the “Old Line State,” Booth sided with the South. He had no problem with slavery, hated abolitionists, and thought that Lincoln’s election in 1860 had illegitimately elevated an illegitimate and entirely sectional candidate.
Even worse in his mind was the election of 1864—a race that pioneered the use of absentee balloting so that soldiers could vote from the front. Booth saw it as a partisan power grab, and he feared Lincoln—or some Republican cabal—would use the president’s war powers as a pretense for undoing the republic.
He wasn’t alone. In his wartime travels from Washington to Baltimore and back Booth imbibed a media ecosystem that routinely villainized the president. Critics couldn’t call Lincoln a “socialist”—the term wasn’t in wide use then. But they could tar him as a tyrant, a Caesar, a Cromwell, or a Bonapartist. He was caricatured “Lincoln Africanus I” for his evolving position on emancipation, and partisan newspapers widely panned him as “King Abraham” for his use of executive action.
The worst of the attacks, though, had to do with racial mixing. In the 1864 election, a Democratic propagandist published a fake pamphlet that coined the term miscegenation—meaning, mixed species—and suggested that Republicans take up racial intermarriage as a policy prescription.
For the rest of the campaign, Democratic opponents used the pamphlet to cudgel the president and his party, suggesting that a vote for Lincoln was a vote for an America where races were free to intermix.
Booth bought it all. The attacks whipped him to a frenzy and brought him to the edge. Booth became convinced that killing the president was his patriotic duty, which is nothing if not richly ironic considering his unyielding support of the Confederacy, literally an armed rebellion against the United States.
Still, that was Booth. Rage defied reason. He had already decided that he had to act. The fate of American democracy hung in the balance—or so he believed.
At the same time, his plot was on the verge of fizzling out. Booth had accomplices abandon him, and as of the first of spring, 1865, the war was drawing to a close. His window of opportunity was getting smaller by the day.
Fate then turned on April 11, 1865, the day before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
That evening, Lincoln gave an address from the White House window, where he mulled the future of Reconstruction. Booth and fellow conspirator David Herold were in the audience and listened as Lincoln expressed his support for Black suffrage for the first time, which set Booth off. “That means n—– citizenship,” he reportedly claimed as he swore to “put him [Lincoln] through.”
He went to Ford’s Theater later that night to check his mail. Two days later, the plot was back on.
But we shouldn’t gloss over Booth’s comment. Later when he went to Ford’s theater, he practically elaborated on what he had said, telling an unsuspecting acquaintance: “We are all slaves now.”
What did he mean? Booth tells us. He complained that in this new America he could no longer walk out on the street and insult a Black man without fear of reprisal. The war had made it so that the man just might hit him back—and that was an America that Booth would rather die than live in.
He wouldn’t stand for having the liberty he enjoyed as a white man curtailed by the freedom of others. His love of freedom—his sense of patriotism—had its limits.
Ultimately, fear of this new America is what led Booth to expand the plot. Just killing Lincoln would no longer achieve the political ends that he thought justified the means, so he turned a plan to kill the president into a wider plot targeting both the Vice President and Secretary of State—a decapitation, in effect, of the U.S. government. Only then did he have a chance of stopping the changes he feared most.
Except that it all went awry—but not without drama. One of his accomplices got cold feet before killing Andrew Johnson, the Vice-President; another slashed Secretary of State William Seward across the face with a knife, but the wily old Republican still lived; only Booth succeeded.
He jumped from the balcony of Ford’s Theater after shooting the president, and when he landed at center stage, he yelled “sic semper tyrannis”—translated, “thus always to tyrants”—and announced to the world that the South had been avenged.
Twelve days later, Booth was dead. He had been shot in the neck while hiding out in a barn in Northern Virginia. The barn was on fire, and Booth was shot while refusing to give himself up peacefully.
Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t a direct hit. The bullet struck him just on the side of the neck, so instead of a quick death, he died a long, slow, horrific death, in which he basically had to wait for his organs to stop working. At one point, he even begged the officers to kill him.
Otherwise, he kept repeating instructions to “tell my mother I did it for my country, that I die for my country.”
To his last breath, John Wilkes Booth went down thinking that history would avenge him, that treason was somehow patriotism, and that he was killed in the name of freedom.
He was wrong. But if January 6 should tell us anything, it’s that his cause is far from lost.
Like Lincoln, the ghost of John Wilkes Booth still haunts us from the grave.
Bennett Parten is a PhD candidate at Yale University whose research interests include, race, slavery, abolition, emancipation and 19th century U.S.