On This Day
April 26, 1965 – Port Royal, Virginia: Citizen of the Union, acclaimed actor and Confederate advocate John Wilkes Booth is shot dead by Union officers 12 days after assassinating U.S. president Abraham Lincoln. Booth had fatally wounded Lincoln at a theatre performance at the Ford Theatre. In the commotion that followed, booth yelled to the stunned crowd “Sic semper tyrannis” (“Thus always to tyrant” in Latin) before fleeing Washington and making his way to a remote farm in Virginia.
Though celebrated by some recently defeated Confederates, Booth was condemned by the North as well as by several prominent Southern figures such as General Robert E. Lee. The politics of the Civil War aside, was Booth’s condemnation of Lincoln as a tyrant hyperbole? Or did Lincoln display characteristics of a dictator during the Civil War? Let us look at the facts:
While the 11 Confederate states that seceded from the Union were exercising their constitutional rights, or their interpretation thereof, Lincoln refused to recognize their sovereignty and classified the actions as a “rebellion.” When the C.S. seized U.S. Federal property within its borders, He escalated the situation by calling for volunteers to help stamp out what he called an “insurrection.” Lincoln provoked the war through his resolve to restore the United States by any means necessary. Historians also agree that Lincoln baited the South into firing the first shot of the war at Form Sumter in April, 1861. Lincoln then proceeded to blockade Southern ports – an act of war – without approval from congress.
The slam-dunk in the case for Lincoln as a dictator is his suspension of the right to the writ of habeas corpus for suspected dissenters and C.S. agents. After Union troops were sabotaged while traveling through Baltimore, habeas corpus was suspended only in certain areas, but, in 1862, Lincoln suspended it nationwide for the duration of the war. Thousands of people were jailed without due process under this policy. Though this is allowed in the U.S. Constitution in the event of rebellion or invasion, it is not clear whether the power to suspend habeas corpus lies in the hands of the president or congress. When advised that the authority was likely congressional, Lincoln replied, “the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?” After 1862, Union military tribunals, not civil courts, tried civilians suspected of cooperating with the C.S.A. Additionally, Lincoln shut down 300 newspapers in the North, which had called for an end to hostilities with the South.
Lincoln also ignored a law passed by the Maryland legislature which barred Union troops from using the state as a staging ground for attacking the South and imprisoned state politicians who were critical of this action. Under Lincoln, congress also passed a law allowing an army draft for the first time in U.S. history. Last, the Southern states were completely destroyed as a result of a policy of “total war” ordered by Lincoln and carried out by Union forces. This policy saw major cities reduced to rubble, schools and churches burned, 40 percent of private property destroyed, and 50,000 civilian deaths, all in an effort to both demoralize the public and impede the Confederate ability to wage war.
Historians can and will continue to debate whether or not Lincoln’s irreverence for the U.S. Constitution and brutally displayed by his generals and troops were warranted to save the Republic. However, during the Civil War, Lincoln displayed, by definition, dictatorial behavior. Like most dictators, Lincoln was willing to use a variety of coercive tactics both on the enemy and the Northern population in order to restore the Republic. While Lincoln is remembered as a hero of the United States, the accusation that he was a dictator was leveled at him consistently by the public and press – in the North and South – during the Civil War and for decades after. He may have been a constitutional dictator, perhaps. But he behaved like a dictator, nonetheless.
Pictured Above: A glass slide depicting John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Lincoln by T. M. McAllister