April 15th, 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre in Washington DC.
|Lincoln in April, 1865|
On the evening of April 14th, Lincoln was shot point blank while sitting in the Presidential box while watching a play. On April 9th, General Lee of the Confederate States of America had surrendered to General Grant at Appomatox, and the war between the states was effectively concluded.
Were it fiction, the assassination might be considered a weirdly indulgent bit of storytelling in a sprawling tale of the original sin of the birth of the United States. As a very real event, Lincoln's death stands as a moment of personal tragedy that somehow echoes as harshly as the four years of war and hundreds of thousands lost. The timing of the assassination meant that we never saw a coda to the 16th presidency, would never question Lincoln's handling of Reconstruction or witness Lincoln watching Washington DC come back together as the capital of a single nation. We would never see Lincoln as a private citizen no longer with the weight of the nation resting upon his shoulders.
There's plenty of information out there about Lincoln's assassin, and I won't belabor any of the details of Lincoln's murder or the story of his murderer.
Instead, I'll remember that Lincoln was a man of his times, but a remarkable one at that. In the midst of the war (and historians will never tire of debating the motives of the action) Lincoln produced the Emancipation Proclamation
While the nation fought a miserable war against itself, Lincoln took the final step that the states that had fled for the confederacy feared he would upon his election, and forever changed the course of the nation.
And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.
And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.
And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.
And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.
This act, which Lincoln would ultimately perform as a proclamation rather than by way of political maneuvering or clout. And, as the war drew to a close, the 13th Amendment was proposed, but Lincoln would not live to see its ratification.
And, on that night in Ford's Theater, a believer in abstract causes that would always trump the dignity of his fellow man, sought revenge for the shame he felt had been bestowed upon his state and the hardships he felt the South would continue to endure. Failing to see the irony in his own battle cry of "Sic semper tyrannis!", he fled the stage, hobbled, to die badly in barn, disowned by the very people he thought would hail him as a hero and protect him.
I don't need to tell you much else about Lincoln. He's all but a folk hero to us here in the States, and probably beyond. His funeral train was met by endless masses, and he continues to inspire generation after generation of Americans. The Lincoln Monument in Washington DC stands as a stark reminder of not just the man, but of his times and of the great penance paid by the United States for our moral failings, his death a closing note to the cost of all that had preceded it.