Wednesday, April 14, 2010

145 Years Later, the Harm of Booth’s Actions Still Linger

On April 14, 1865, five days after Lee’s surrender, John Wilkes Booth shot and mortally wounded President Abraham Lincoln. In doing so, Booth did more harm to the South than Sherman did in his “March to the Sea.”

The plot sought the simultaneous assassinations of Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward. That evening, Lewis T. Powell broke into Seward's home and seriously wound the secretary. George A. Atzerodt, who was to kill the vice president, lost his nerve and fled. Booth succeeded.

After shooting Lincoln, Booth shouted, "Sic semper tyrannis! [Thus always to tyrants] – the South is avenged!" Unfortunately for the South, Booth’s actions did not avenge the Confederate cause, instead it helped to bring almost a century of suffering to the average southerner.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the South was in ruins. Its infrastructure ravaged, its class structure reordered, and its economy destroyed. Decisions needed to be made concerning how the rebellious states should be treated in the aftermath of America’s deadliest war.

Looking back at reconstruction, we see two very distinct and different approaches to the rebuilding of the nation. Lincoln always took the position that the Southern states had not left the Union. By the end of 1863, he announced a plan for reconstruction that granted amnesty to all who would swear allegiance to the Union, and recognized the state governments as soon as ten percent of its citizens took the oath.

When Johnson became President, he followed a similar course of action, but lacking the political clout of Lincoln, lost control of reconstruction to the “Radical Republicans” in Congress.

Congress, as is often the case, proved to be far more responsive – not always a good thing – to the emotions of the citizens of the North. Here were the abolitionists who had long pushed for an end of slavery, as well as the families who had sacrificed half a million lives in the cause of preserving the Union and ending slavery. Here too were those who saw Lincoln as one of the nation’s greatest leaders. One only needs to read Walt Whitman’s poem “Oh Captain My Captain” to understand the emotion of many ordinary Americans in the North.

Congress wanted blood. Congress wanted Southern leaders to prostrate themselves and beg forgiveness from the North for the terrible price inflicted upon the nation. As a result, marshal law was declared, the South was divided into military districts and much harsher standards were set for readmission into the union.

Ultimately, Southern states would be readmitted, but the average southerner would suffer for generations to come. The South would enter a period when it was basically an economic colony of the North, rather than a region equal of standing. Many within the old Southern elite would regain their power, but many of the independent farmers of the South, the ones who had never owned slaves, would lose their land, becoming tenant farmers. Former slaves would struggle under an oppressive system of inequality, and the South become a isolated region that suffered the extremes of poverty.

The actions of the Radical Republicans in Congress also contributed to a North-South animosity that lingers today, along with the racism, the fear of strangers and the religious intolerance of the South.

Perhaps, if Lincoln had lived, had he been there to continue to provide the leadership America so desperately needed, things would have been very different. Personally, I think Booth did a terrible disservice to America, North and South.


  1. Well yes, killing Lincoln did a disservice to the country but I don't think much would have changed. Congress (and most Northerners) wanted the south to pay and I don't think even Lincoln could have made the North be sweet and kind to the south.

  2. Perhaps not sweet, but a bit kinder.