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American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies
American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies
Michael W. Kauffman
Random House, 2004
528 pp., 29.95

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by Allen C. Guelzo

The Lincoln Supremacy

John Wilkes Booth assassinated the president. Democracy proved harder to kill.

"Oh, assassination of public officers is not an American crime," Abraham Lincoln once cheerfully assured Benjamin Butler.1 This would fit nicely under the category of famous last words, if we could be sure Lincoln actually said them. (Ben Butler was a notoriously unreliable hand at quoting Lincoln.) But the notion that democracies had no need to assassinate leaders, because elections got rid of the undesirable and incompetent in a much less ignoble way, was widely shared in Lincoln's day. Shared, in fact, by William H. Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state, who also confidently explained that assassination was simply not in the American grain—and barely escaped becoming the second victim of the plot that killed Lincoln.

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.

This is why two of the four American presidential assassinations—of James Garfield in 1881 and of William McKinley in 1901—have dropped harmlessly off the screen of public curiosity. Garfield was shot by a certifiable lunatic, Charles Guiteau, who could be written off as an isolated aberration. McKinley was shot by Leon Czolgosz, a Polish-born anarchist who, both for being Polish and an anarchist, could be absorbed and forgotten since he was not-American anyway.

But then there remain Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth. Both were American-born, both embraced causes that ...

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