April 15, 1865

Today marks the 145th anniversary of Lincoln’s death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth.  Booth shot Lincoln the previous evening while Lincoln was watching a production of Our American Cousin at the Ford Theater.  Lincoln was taken across the street to the Petersen house, and died nine hours later.  Normally I wouldn’t cite Wikipedia, but here is a pretty good summation of the events surrounding Lincoln’s assassination, including the details of the entire conspiracy.  Having just read Jean-Edward Smith’s biography of U.S. Grant, I had almost forgotten that Grant and his wife were originally supposed to accompany the Lincolns to the theater, but Grant’s wife changed her mind at the last moment.  Grant would continue to blame himself for Lincoln’s assassination, believing that had he been there, he would have heard Booth enter the box and would have stopped him.

Lincoln’s assassination led to perhaps the greatest what-if in our history: what if Lincoln had not been assassinated and survived to serve out his second term?  I’ve actually toyed with the idea of writing an alternative history based on that assumption, but that would be a daunting task.  I strongly suspect that Lincoln would have been far more effective in carrying out reconstruction than his pigheaded successor.  Lincoln had proven to be a masterful politician, effectively managing the extremist and moderate factions within his party.  Andrew Johnson had no similar skills, and could not contain the radical Republicans.  Reconstruction was thereby managed by Radical Republicans seemingly bent on revenge and an over-conciliatory President who seemed unwilling to ensure civil rights for the freed slaves.  Lincoln would likely have steered a middle course that would have shunned attempts at vengeance while also attempting to build a more lasting peace that would have granted some greater assurance of civil rights protection to emancipated slaves.

Then again, few presidents have had successful second terms.  Arguably, no president has ever had a successful second term, so it is quite possible that Lincoln would have been no different.  But Lincoln was no ordinary man.

Booth eventually received the justice due to him, but not before horribly affecting the course of American history.

Published in: on April 15, 2010 at 1:04 pm  Comments (5)  


  1. A good title for such an alternate history, “What if Booth Had Succeeded?”, told from the stance of how the alternate world would have changed if Booth hadn’t been foiled in his attempted assassination. Winston Churchill took a similar approach in his short story, “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg”.


  2. I do believe there’s a book out there that explores this issue. I saw it at Borders last year. It had about 600 pages, explored different “what if”s through all of history (ie, thermopolae), tackled the lee-at-gettysburg question and possibly this one. i don’t rmember what it was called but it had a creamy colored cover superimposed with green or blue maps.

    I’m in the middle of a book called “We Saw Lincoln Shot” which is a compilation of 100 eyewitness accounts, collected by Timothy S. Good. It’s quite interesting.

  3. Many Southerners speak slightingly of Lincoln. Ironically, I think the aftermath of the war would have been far less bitter if Lincoln had lived, for the reason you mentioned: Lincoln would have been able to keep the lid on the radical Republicans.

    As for Booth, well, he is Exhibit A illustrating the truism that gifted actors are frequently political idiots. Fortunately, today’s thespians content themselves with just shooting their mouths off.

    Booth’s brother Edwin was an interesting character. Far more talented than John Wilkes, he was also a decent man who suffered greatly from his brother’s infamous deed. According to contemporary accounts, he was not only one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of his day, but a genuinely kind, gentle man, a rare quality in stars of any era. Curiously, this good man’s greatest role was – Iago.

  4. Ledygrey there have been several volumes in the What If series. Alternate history, or, as the academics prefer, counterfactual history, is all the rage these days.

  5. There was an interesting film bio of Edwin back in the Fifties called Prince of Players starring Richard Burton. John Derek portrayed John Wilkes Booth.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: