Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Booth as Brutus?

Alan Guelzo reviews the recently published American Brutus, yet another volume explaining the actions of the assassin John Wilkes Booth. I have found that students know more about Lincoln’s death than they do about his life and political purpose, never mind self-government. Guelzo explains how these are connected. Guelzo: "Three more presidential assassinations behind us, and we might be expected to have a more guarded expectation of democracies. But part of what makes presidential assassinations such a eerily fascinating topic is the persistent sense that this kind of event really does represent some form of bizarre and unfathomable deviation, a challenge to the very notion of democracy. The orderly sharing of power in American politics, beginning with Adams and Jefferson in 1801, has been the fundamental pivot of American politics. Disrupting it by violence is precisely the one thing which will render democracy itself impossible, unless democracy has planted itself very, very firmly in people’s minds."

Guelzo concludes: "But it is hard to believe that Booth would have also struck at Johnson and Grant unless he had bigger game in mind. After four years of bloody civil war, of political cock-fighting of the most vicious sort in American history, and with Congress not scheduled to assemble again until December, an assassination conspiracy of the breadth Booth planned had, at least on paper, all the possibilities it needed to pull the entire structure of the government down in confusion and political chaos. Power, that old enemy of liberty, would rise rampant and unchained, and the experiment in liberal democracy that Lincoln believed was the fundamental issue of the war would collapse like the cardboard Booth and the pro-slavery apologists had always said it was.

For Booth’s ultimate target was democracy itself, just as it had been the ultimate target of Calhoun and Hammond and Fitzhugh and all the other apostles of power who concluded that power rather than liberty was the only reality in this world. It came as a terrible shock to Booth, hiding in the Potomac swamps, that both North and South had nothing but burning-hot execration to pour on his deed. And the passage of presidential authority proceeded the morning after Ford’s Theater without a grain of sand falling into the cogs. Lincoln had struggled to prove Booth wrong in his life. Booth killed him, and Lincoln proved him wrong again, in his death."

Discussions - 2 Comments

Unfortunately for Guelzo, "pro-slavery apologists" were not enemies of liberal democracy; rather, they were fighting for it as they understood it, and fighting against what they saw as an encroachment of government power. This is an old debate, and you’d think people would learn.

Apparently not.

As a life-long student of the Lincoln assassination, I was quite disappointed that someone supposedly so learned in the Lincoln field could write such a misleading review of the wonderful new book, American Brutus, by Michael W. Kauffman. Dr. Guelzo shows that his interest in the Lincoln field is limited to the esoteric and that he has relative little background in the subject of the Lincoln assassination. He seems willing to depend on books written over fifty years ago as the last word on the subject.
In the interest of brevity, I would comment that I am shocked that an alleged scholar would attack a book that is so obviously based on serious, primary resources by citing secondary sources in his critique. What he terms as Kauffman’s "howlers" are actually errors on the part of his cited, secondary sources. One prime example is his nit-picking over the middle initial of John T. Bolton. His citation is a secondary source. Mr. Kauffman tracked down Bolton’s pension and service files, descendants, and grave in Norfolk.
Another example is his citing the Ford’s Theatre work done by George Olszewski concerning the hole drilled in the presidential box’s door. Olszewski states that Harry Ford did the drilling. Upon examination, however, Ford, himself, confessed surprise at discovering the hole. Further evidence in the Archives shows that Booth’s pockets contained painted wood shavings, like those that would have fallen from the door.
Dr. Guelzo needs to re-read American Brutus. Whether or not you agree with all of Mr. Kauffman’s assessments, you would be hard pressed to argue with his excellent use of historical detection and primary sources. Don’t comment on someone’s "howlers" by committing "howlers" yourself!

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