Sitting in a coffee shop with our three pre-teenage children just blocks from Ford’s Theater, where we had just heard a presentation on Booth’s assassination of President Lincoln, our nine-year-old daughter commented, “That man made it sound like the bad guy was the good guy and the good guy was the bad guy.” The bad guy turned good guy would of course be John Wilkes Booth, the most notorious assassin in American history. In the revisionist history now officially on display at Ford’s Theater, Booth’s prophecy appears to be coming true, “The world may censure me for what I am about to do, but I am sure posterity will justify me.”
As Andrew Ferguson’s recent Weekly Standard piece, “When Lincoln Returned to Richmond,” makes clear, debate about Lincoln has become inflamed again in recent years, fueled in part by Thomas DiLorenzo’s revisionist book, The Real Lincoln, a book criticized in the pages of National Review by Ken Masugi. Masugi stressed DiLorenzo’s penchant for selective quotation of passages out of context and Ferguson, looking over the critical, scholarly response to The Real Lincoln, concludes that the book is a “bit of a hatchet job.” DiLorenzo’s accusations against Lincoln–his unjust methods in the execution of the war and his violation of all sorts of constitutional restrains on executive power–confirm Booth’s parting taunt as he ambled off the stage at Ford’s Theater: Sic semper tyrannis. But DiLorenzo seems less interested in rehabilitating Booth than in denigrating Lincoln. The task of reviving Booth now falls, it seems, to the Park Ranger/tour guide at Ford’s Theater.
Suffering from the crudest of childhood educations, our Ranger confessed that he had been taught in grade school that Lincoln was the great emancipator and that Booth was crazy. He then proceeded to a laundry list of Lincoln offenses–suspending habeas corpus, refusing to release prisoners of war, and causing the number of the dead to far eclipse the number on display at the Vietnam Memorial. Each of these accusations was preceded by a rhetorical “Did you know…?” and followed by the exclamation, “Nobody told me that!” No mention here of the unprecedented historical context of civil war, of the constitutional crisis precipitated by the threat of secession, of the opposition from the North to Lincoln’s plans of postwar restraint toward the south, or of the possibility that Lincoln was exercising political prudence in his handling of the issue of slavery.
Having slipped from one crude conception of Lincoln to its polar opposite, from the grips of one shallow myth to another, our Ranger had no time for the complexities of history. Instead, he busied himself with reviving the memory of Booth. Booth, we were assured, was not insane; he was a successful actor, who had been provoked by Lincoln’s misdeeds. Indeed, he never planned to kill Lincoln even after the war, until Lincoln had a band play Dixie at a public ceremony commemorating the end of the war. “Lincoln shouldn’t have done that,” our Ranger thundered. “Can you guess who was in the audience that day?” Again, we have a series of partial truths now peddled as the real truth in place of the mythic truth of this man’s grade-school education. Booth’s initial plan was indeed to kidnap Lincoln but one of his schemes–to capture Lincoln in the presidential box at Ford’s Theater, bind him, lower him to the stage, and then out of the theater–is so preposterous that it supports the view that Booth was nuts. There is, moreover, good evidence that Booth began entertaining the assassination idea in March, before the end of hostilities and that what most provoked him in the days after the war was Lincoln’s suggestion of suffrage for educated blacks. “That means n****r citizenship,” Booth is reported to have fumed, “That is the last speech he’ll ever make.” (For an account of Lincoln and Booth’s last days, see David H. Donald’s Lincoln.)
A strange mix of motives is at work in the lowering of Lincoln (and the elevation of Booth): elements of a scholarly debate, injured southern pride, strains of libertarianism, and strong doses of an old-fashioned democratic pastime–what Nietzsche called ressentiment toward the great and Tocqueville identified as a passion for leveling that results from our obsession with equality.
In a November Wall Street Journal piece occasioned by the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, Christopher Hitchens engaged in a bit of leveling of a more recent president. Visiting Dealey Plaza, Hitchens concluded that even the site of Kennedy’s assassination had lost its luster and he compared it unfavorably with the grandeur of Ford’s Theater. Now, I find the Sixth Floor Museum in the Book Depository building (which we also recently visited with our kids) a tasteful, moving, and instructive memorial of Kennedy’s death. Hitchens is right that it pales by comparison with Ford’s theater and the Peterson House, where Lincoln spent the last hours of his life, but this is hardly something for which to blame Kennedy. His assassin shot from a warehouse and he was killed in an open, mobile car; Lincoln, in a presidential box in a theater just blocks from the most historic political monuments in the nation. By contrast to the understated modern architecture of Dealey Plaza, Ford’s Theater and the Peterson house have the look and feel of antiquity about them. To approach Ford’s Theater’s presidential box, preserved in meticulous historical detail, is to feel oneself transported back in time, not just to the singular event of the assassination but to the entire history of the Civil War, the greatest conflict in American history. And this is what sets Lincoln apart from Kennedy.
Kennedy’s presidency lives on as an unfulfilled promise, a time of youth, optimism, and enthusiasm. The myth of Camelot, a strong indicator of how nostalgic and in need of royalty liberals can be, is a slate onto which Americans can write all the wishful alternative histories of contemporary America. Lincoln, by contrast, is all about achievement, tragic fulfillment, and the limitations and costs of difficult choices in the face of unprecedented threats and magnificent uncertainties. Kennedy lived in a time just before a great war and prior to the polarization of America culture; Lincoln guided the nation through a great war and the strongest of possible divisions in a nation.
Along with the Lincoln Memorial, Ford’s Theater gives ample testimony to the grandeur of Lincoln, even if our guide failed to grasp it. His message is that Lincoln was a tyrant who would nonetheless have avoided bringing assassination upon himself if he had only avoided personally provoking Booth in the days after the war. Our ranger said quite emphatically that there were things Lincoln never should have done, but he never came close to saying anything like this about Booth’s actions.
Lincoln is thus brought low yet again in Ford’s Theater, not this time by an assassin’s bullet but by vulgar revisionist history. Ford’s Theater, it seems, is now the house that Booth built.
–Thomas Hibbs, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University, is author of Shows About Nothing. Hibbs is also an NRO contributor.