The MSM and Lincoln
I'm reading a book I find exceedingly fascinating. It's called American Brutus, and it's a fairly new biography of John Wilkes Booth, by Michael W. Kauffman. John Wilkes Booth and Lincoln are two figures about which most of us think we know a lot--all those US History courses we're required to take do cover the events, after all. But, unless you are a history buff (which I never was, but am beginning to be), I doubt you're familiar with the details this book describes.
Booth was a figure of huge complexity, one of the most famous actors of his day and part of an acting family as famous as the later Barrymores, as well as a person of great charm and intelligence (not to mention extraordinary handsomeness--see the photo on the cover). I used to think I knew what Booth's motive was--he was a Southern sympathizer--but that's an extreme oversimplification. The truth, as usual, is not only more complex, it's more interesting--and more relevant to our times. But you'll have to read the book to find that out (no, I don't get a commission).
Lincoln was a figure who was widely reviled in his time for causing the war, and for policies instituted during it. I'd known that. But the book brings these facts alive by quoting contemporary sources in a way that makes the criticism seem--well, familiar (although the civic turmoil seems to have been even more extreme than at present):
The Civil War was unlike anything known in modern times, and the nation came closer to collapse than most people realize today. Emancipation of slaves, confiscation of property, and the draft often led to deadly clashes between the public and civil authorities. The political storm threatened not only the federal government, but state governments as well...In the middle stood Abraham Lincoln, blamed for the war and fired upon from all sides. It was not just the fringe element who hated the president; judges, senators, editors, and otherwise respectable citizens left no doubt of their contempt for him as well. One senator compared Lincoln to the tyrants of history, saying "They are all buried beneath the wave of oblivion compared to what this man of yesterday, this Abraham Lincoln, that neither you nor I ever heard of four years ago, has chosen to exercise..." To that senator and countless citizens, Abraham Lincoln was the American Caesar, out to establish a new empire from the ashes of a republic.
Thus, the name of the book: American Brutus, which is how Booth saw himself. Some newspapers of the time even called for Lincoln's assassination, explicitly invoking the Brutus comparison.
The papers of Europe also got into the act of over-the-top criticism of Lincoln. Here's the London Times, reprinted in an Indianapolis paper of the time:
Mr. Lincoln and his party have been dominant as no set of men ever were before in a land peopled by the English race. They have governed twenty millions of their countrymen with a revolutionary freedom from the trammels of law.
After the assassination, however, some newspapers that had formerly been fiercely anti-Lincoln backtracked and suddenly decided he was a hero after all. Some papers which had been most critical of Lincoln were set on by angry mobs. This was part of a pattern of post-assassination violence in which some who were heard to speak out in favor Booth's act were lynched. Although there's no record of the number of such deaths, the author believes it was in the hundreds.
Here is how Europe and Canada reacted:
Throughout most of the civilized world, foreign leaders expressed horror at the assassination and sympathy for the nation's loss. But in Montreal, reactions were mixed. Canadian officials offered condolences, and a great many citizens draped their buildings in mourning. But others celebrated openly, and their revelry caused the U.S. consul to remark that "treason has transformed them to brutes, and seems to have eradicated from their breasts all sense of moral right." He would have been deeply offended by an editorial in the London Examiner that said, "It must be remembered that atrocious as was Booth's deed, his 'sic semper tyrannis' was literally justified by the facts. The man he killed had murdered the Constitution of the United States, had contradicted and set at naught the principles under which the States came together, had practically denied the competence of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, and overthrown all for which Washington fought and Patrick Henry spoke."
Plus ca change...