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.