The First Assassin, by John J. Miller (CreateSpace, 384 pp., $14.99)
Although it’s set a century and a half ago, this thriller by veteran NR writer and first-time novelist John J. Miller deals with a problem that still bedevils us today: how a liberal society can protect itself from determined enemies without undermining its basic values.
Miller tells a compelling fictional story of an attempted assassination and other contemplated atrocities in the early days of the Lincoln administration. Assigned to ensure President Lincoln’s safety, the book’s protagonist, U.S. Army Col. Charles Rook, begins to uncover what appears to him to be a conspiracy to kill the president. After the fall of Fort Sumter, off the coast of South Carolina, marks the opening of actual warfare between North and South, Rook is assigned to defend the nation’s capital from attack and is told to suspend his efforts to expose the conspiracy. “For the sake of the president,” however, Rook disobeys orders and sets up spies to watch people he considers potential subversives, and he spends a good deal of time investigating suspects himself.
Rook is correct about the conspiracy. South Carolina plantation owner and slaveholder Langston Bennett has hired a ruthless, enigmatic hitman from Latin America named Mazorca to assassinate Lincoln. Mazorca is both highly skilled at his trade and entirely disinterested as to the politics of the matter: “You must understand that I do not care about your ultimate ends. . . . I care only about the job I am given. That’s why I’m effective.” However, Bennett’s house slave, Lucius, overhears the plot, engineers the taking of a photograph of Mazorca without the latter’s knowledge, and sends his granddaughter, Portia, to Washington to warn Lincoln and give him the photo of the intended assassin.
Bennett finds out about Portia’s escape, however, and he sends a couple of men to capture her and a fellow slave who is helping her. Meanwhile, in Washington, beautiful society woman Violet Grenier works to advance the Southern cause and help the conspiracy by seducing powerful people in D.C. society in order to pry secrets from them. As Mazorca prepares his attack and Portia makes her way to Washington, multiple instances of betrayal push the story forward to a dramatic conclusion on the lawn outside the unfinished Capitol building.
Miller has a political journalist’s interest in explaining why and how political movements take hold, and he explores the deeper philosophical assumptions behind the characters’ political positions and the choices they make. Appropriately, he gives slavery a prominent role in the story, but he doesn’t neglect the other important issues of the time. For Lincoln and many other Republicans of the era, the central issue was not slavery but the preservation of the national union, which — they believed — must be accomplished whatever the cost. Miller writes: “Rook regarded all abolitionists with suspicion. In his mind, too many of them were radicals who placed the interest of their cause above national unity.” Similarly, Miller correctly intimates that Lincoln was no abolitionist and would likely have been content to let slavery come to a natural end on its own timetable had the Southern states not chosen to secede.
The move to secede forced Lincoln’s hand, however. With the abolitionists making it clear that they would create a significant majority of non-slave states through westward expansion and then end slavery throughout the nation, Southerners saw membership in the United States as leading inevitably to economic and social devastation for their region. Here we see the inevitable tensions within liberal societies at their most extreme. The North finds secession and slavery equally intolerable, and it is willing to use force to ensure that the South remains in a union increasingly hostile to its interests. The Southern states assert the right to self-determination, but they deny that right to a great part of their own population. Each side is willing to destroy liberty in order to save it. Miller’s story does an excellent job of showing the total irreconcilability of the two sides and the inevitability of the eventual war.
From the beginning of the book, in the days immediately preceding Lincoln’s inauguration, the nation’s political and military leaders are worried about the threat of imminent war, but politics and ordinary human flaws affect their reactions. For example, the complacency of Rook’s superior officer, Gen. Winfield Scott, is shown to be a central aspect of his character: He is so obese that it takes a great effort for him just to shift positions in a chair. Another important character — and this is a plot element that those who have not read the book may wish to leave as a surprise, skipping ahead to the next paragraph — is an obsequious toady who gets involved in an affair with a Southern spy, to whom he unwittingly reveals state secrets.
Even Lincoln’s judgment is shown to be clouded by personal and political concerns. Although he is appropriately concerned about the possibility of a military invasion of Washington, D.C., he blithely dismisses the dangers of assassination and usually appears more interested in cracking jokes and socializing with the common folk than in doing anything immediately useful. To some degree this reflects real courage and a democratic, non-elitist spirit, but there’s more to it than that: Lincoln is extremely sensitive to the intensely negative public reaction to his having sneaked past potentially hostile crowds in Baltimore on the way to his inauguration, an action widely derided as cowardly. He is afraid of further mockery from the press were he to institute overly visible security measures. In real life, this ultimately had fatal consequences. In Miller’s story, it leads to an especially bizarre and interesting scene — again, those intending to read the book may wish to skip to the next paragraph — in which Lincoln unwittingly takes a meeting in the White House with Mazorca, the man who intends to assassinate him, believing Mazorca to be just another patronage-job seeker. Thus do laudable liberal impulses create serious vulnerabilities.
Even though the government was well aware that secession and war were imminent, the military was entirely unprepared for it. Miller writes, “Fort Washington was supposed to defend the capital city from enemy warships that sailed upriver, [but] there did not appear to be anybody inside the fort’s walls. The fort was not ready to defend anything.” Similarly — and this, too, requires a spoiler warning — after Rook discovers two conspirators with “enough blasting powder to take down half the Capitol,” Scott bitterly rebukes him for insubordination and scoffs at Rook’s findings: “I do not consider this compelling proof of a sinister plot.” Scott has the men released, tells Rook to stop the surveillance immediately, and threatens to fire him if he continues his activities.
But the vulnerabilities created by liberty invite overreaction. Rook commits insubordination, spies on civilians, steals people’s mail, and invades private property without a warrant. After capturing two Southerners in possession of kegs of blasting powder, Rook illegally incarcerates them in secret in the basement of the Treasury building. “It’s not against the law to possess blasting powder,” one of them says, to which Rook replies, “As far as you’re concerned, my word is the law.” Even though Rook is right about the conspiracy, his actions are morally questionable and definitely illegal.
Given that President Lincoln would ultimately suspend habeas corpus and make numerous other incursions against constitutional rights while fighting a war against half of his own nation, Rook’s story is clearly a microcosm of the bigger conflict that drove the Civil War and that still plagues us today.
– Mr. Karnick is editor of The American Culture (http://culture.stkarnick.com).