150 years ago today: The assassination of “A President Who Lived and Died for Liberty”

President Lincoln died at 7:22 am on April 15 1865, after being shot by John Wilkes Booth the prior evening. In a fascinating piece of history, the AP republished their original dispatch chronicling the events,  

In “A President Who Lived and Died for Liberty” James L Swanson and Michael F Bishop, for the Wall Street Journal, examines how; “Lincoln’s assassination 150 years ago still offers invaluable lessons about the importance of leadership.”

One hundred and fifty years ago, on April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln went to the theater.

The day began as one of the happiest of his life. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender on April 9 had elated him, and he had been more buoyant than at any other time during his presidency. Three-quarters of a million men had fallen in the Civil War over which he had presided, and the conflict had almost consumed him.

“This war is eating my life out,” he once said to abolitionist Illinois congressman Owen Lovejoy. “I have a strong impression that I shall not live to see the end.”

On the afternoon of the 14th, during a carriage ride with his wife, he said, “Mary, I consider this day, the war has come to a close. We must both be more cheerful in the future. Between the war and the loss of our darling Willie we have both been very miserable.” Freed from the vexations of war and death—no more would he have to send armies of young men to die—Lincoln dreamed of the future.

It was not to be. On what Walt Whitman would soon call that “moody, tearful night” Lincoln became the war’s final casualty.

We know what happened next: Lincoln’s triumphant arrival at Ford’s Theatre; the cheering audience; the strains of “Hail to the Chief”; a single gunshot; the gleaming knife flourished by the murderer; the leap to the stage; the assassin’s exultant cry of “Sic Semper Tyrannis”; his escape into the wings; a galloping horse; and a dying president lying on the floor in a playhouse gone mad. Lincoln was carried across the street to the cramped back bedroom of a boarding house, where began the long deathbed vigil from midnight to dawn that transformed him from mortal man to secular saint.

One reporter for the New York Times wrote that “a stroke from Heaven laying the whole of the city in instant ruins could not have startled us as did word from Ford’s Theatre a half hour ago.” The country’s mood changed overnight from inexpressible joy to unimaginable sorrow.

One million Americans viewed his corpse when it was placed on public display in the 12 great cities of the North, including Philadelphia, New York and Chicago. More than seven million watched his funeral train pass as it chugged from Washington westward to Illinois. Whitman immortalized that journey in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”: “Here, coffin that slowly passes, I give you my sprig of Lilac.”

Clanging bells, fragrant flowers and black bunting and crepe—these were the sounds, symbols and scents of the spring of 1865. One hundred and fifty years later, what does the death of Abraham Lincoln mean?

It is obvious but too often overlooked that Lincoln died a martyr for civil rights. Already the prime instrument of the abolition of slavery, through the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment he masterfully maneuvered through Congress, Lincoln in the last speech of his life called for voting rights for black Americans. Among the crowd at the White House, as the president spoke from a second-floor window, was John Wilkes Booth. Incandescent with rage and spewing racial hatred, he resolved to assassinate Lincoln. Seventy-two hours later, he fired the fatal shot.

The first presidential assassination affirmed the enduring strength of our form of government. By April 1865 American institutions had survived their severest trial, but the constitutional fabric of the nation was further frayed in the aftermath of Lincoln’s murder. The Union, though, would endure; the United States would assume its place as the dominant world power. American democracy transcended any one man, even one as great as Lincoln.

And yet, the death of Lincoln did grave harm to the Union he had given his life to save. Not least of the tragedies to befall the nation that day was the accession to power of the coarse and inept Vice President Andrew Johnson, who himself might have died had the assassin dispatched to murder him not lost his nerve. Crude and inflexible, Johnson botched the reconstruction of the nation. Lincoln had rightly considered Reconstruction “the greatest question ever presented to practical statesmanship,” but his successor lacked his principled pragmatism.

Eager to usher Confederate states back into the Union, and himself a racist, Johnson was indifferent to the callous treatment of newly freed slaves. The eventual reconciliation of North and South came at the expense of civil rights for black Americans, which poisoned race relations for a century.

The death of Lincoln reminds us that leadership matters, and that much depends on the occupant of the White House. Lincoln lived and died for liberty, union and equal rights for all people. With every fiber of his being, Abraham Lincoln believed in American greatness and exceptionalism.

As we mourn him on the anniversary of his death, we must do more than yearn for great leaders like Lincoln. We must cultivate and elect them.

I will end with this quote from Abraham Lincoln from April 18, 1864 and is applicable today:

The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing

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