John Wilkes Booth and the Higher Law

tags: Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln conspiracy

David S. Reynolds is a distinguished professor of English at the City University of New York. He is the author or editor of fifteen books on American history and literature.

When John Wilkes Booth killed President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington on April 14, 1865, was he inspired by John Brown, the militant abolitionist whose public execution Booth had witnessed in Virginia six years earlier?

At first glance, the idea seems improbable. Ideologically, Booth and Brown were light-years apart. Booth was a Southern white supremacist who detested the notion of freedom and citizenship for black people. Brown, an antislavery Northerner, wanted America’s four million enslaved people to be emancipated immediately and integrated into mainstream society. Yet, in spite of this enormous difference, Booth had great admiration for Brown. Why?

It’s an issue that may hold the key to understanding the assassination of Lincoln. Booth and Brown—and, surprisingly enough, Lincoln himself—were conjoined on a deep level by what in that era was called “the higher law.” They were inclined to follow the dictates of moral principle rather than human law. Reconsidering Booth’s murder of Lincoln in light of John Brown and the higher law leads to troubling questions. When is violence in the name of a higher cause justified, and when is it not? Can we distinguish between bad terrorism and good terrorism?

Brown, Booth, and Lincoln all appealed to a higher cause to justify taking up arms against what they viewed as a great social evil. Brown, a devout Calvinist, considered himself God’s chosen instrument for eradicating slavery. In 1856, he and several followers murdered five proslavery settlers in Kansas Territory to preserve that area for freedom. Three years later he invaded Harpers Ferry, Virginia with a band of 21 in a bold but futile effort to spark slave insurrections throughout the South that he hoped would lead to the fall of slavery. Instead, he was captured in Harpers Ferry, brought to trial, convicted of treason, and, on December 2, 1859, hanged publicly in front of rows of Southern soldiers. As Brown mounted the scaffold, he was calm and unruffled. He believed he was a divinely-appointed martyr for the antislavery cause.

His courage in the face of death made a profound impact on John Wilkes Booth, a 21-year-old actor. Booth had interrupted his engagement at a Richmond theater to join a militia company that stood with the troops near Brown’s scaffold. For Booth, Brown was a bold, dignified man who, though misled in his views, willingly sacrificed himself for a higher ideal. “He was a brave old man,” Booth said. In contrast, Lincoln was for Booth a scheming, power-hungry politician. Lincoln, Booth declared, was “made the tool of the North to crush out, or try to crush out slavery”; he was a “Sectional Candidate” intent on “overturning this blind Republic and making himself a king.” For Booth, Lincoln and other antislavery politicians were duplicitous and treacherous. In 1860, as he witnessed the rise of Lincoln and his fellow antislavery Republicans, Booth wrote that John Brown was far nobler than Lincoln, since, in Booth’s words, “open force is holier than hidden craft.” ...

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