Remember writing your first college term paper? Depending on when you were in school, you browsed the library shelves or Googled the Internet. Your title was something profound, like “Avian Images in Poe’s The Raven,” and, to your surprise, you were not the first to think of such a theme. In fact, after dutifully scribbling 85 notecards, with no end in sight, you started to have a sinking feeling in the pit of your pendulum that there was absolutely nothing original to say on this ponderous, weary topic. Picking up American Brutus by Michael Kauffman, I wondered whether he, too, had felt such trepidation about choosing as his subject the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
A friend told that me he didn’t care to read Kaufmann’s book because he already knew what happened at the end. Such are the risks an author takes when approaching a piece of history that hundreds of others have put their pens to. The Brutus of the title is, of course, John Wilkes Booth. To unravel the workings of this sinister mind, scholars must first untangle the myths and legends that surround it. Exhaustive research aside, Kaufmann, an independent scholar and historian, knows how to tell a story. Good writers have many tricks in their bags, and he pulls out several with élan.
He begins by starting at the end, painting the most dramatic scene. It is April 14, 1865. President and Mrs. Lincoln are going to Ford’s Theatre this night and have invited Gen. and Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant to join them. It is Good Friday, and ticket sales are not expected to be brisk, but when word of the president’s plan circulates, the house begins to sell. Booth doesn’t need a ticket; he is a well-known actor, and his face is familiar to the staff. No one notices as he snakes his way through the darkened theater to give the performance of his life. A few pages later, the reader is kneeling at Lincoln’s deathbed, and the stage has been set. We have a villain, and we can’t wait to learn what makes him tick.
Kaufmann’s description of the pandemonium that befell the theater and the city of Washington after the assassination strongly echoes the reaction to the 2001 terrorist attacks. The citizenry reeled with a combination of shock, disbelief, grief, and fear. Booth, known both for his acting career and as a Rebel sympathizer, was instantly recognized. So when Secretary of State William H. Seward, a Republican and abolitionist hated in the South, was viciously attacked in his home only minutes later, the idea of a Confederate conspiracy gained momentum. Gen. Robert E. Lee had just surrendered, and some had decided to apply guerrilla tactics to this “civil” war. Many Confederate-leaning newspapers had openly called for Lincoln’s assassination.
Conspiracy theories have become part and parcel of presidential assassinations. No one has ever proved that Booth conspired with the likes of Jefferson Davis. He chose instead as allies those whom he could easily manipulate. Kaufmann shows a certain amount of pity for Booth’s co-conspirators, but there are no apologies for the actor at center stage, who comes across as arrogant and egomaniacal. Though he may have chosen the Ides of April for his plan, his act was no heroic defeat of tyrants. It was simply the act of a man desperate for glory. In his diary Booth wrote that he was God’s instrument; in fact, he was the tool of his own delusions. Even his beloved South rebuked him, fearing the severe consequences his act would bring to their hopes for reconstruction.
Kaufmann succeeds throughout the book in making the story new again. Perhaps the best example is his description of Booth’s flight to Maryland. Our knowledge that the assassin was hunted down and killed does not diminish the suspense leading to these events. Nor does knowing that the other conspirators will be hanged diminish our curiosity about the details of their trial. That the defendants were tried in a military court is another eerie echo of today. The country in time of war was a place where civil liberties suffered.
It is easy to be blasé about our 16th president, especially here in Springfield, where his name is affixed to practically everything. American Brutus serves as an excellent reminder of how much we owe the man who sacrificed his life to save our Union.