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Jun 11, 2021

How to Change History

John Wilkes Booth escaping Ford’s Theater after shooting President Lincoln.


It’s more than likely that in the audience in Montgomery on the day Stephen Douglas spoke on the statehouse steps was John Wilkes Booth.   Booth would have cheered Douglas, as he put before the citizens of Montgomery the case for remaining in the Union.  The actor had arrived in town a week earlier to make his debut as a leading man, in the title role of Richard III.

Booth believed that slavery was a blessing rather than a sin.  “I have been through the whole South,” he wrote in an unfinished speech, “and have marked the happiness of master & of man.” True, he had seen “the Black man whipped, but only when he deserved much more than he received.”  

John Wilkes Booth believed that slavery was a blessing but he opposed secession.

Nevertheless, Booth was strongly opposed to secession, believing that “the whole union is our country and no particular state.”  According to his manager, his public utterances on behalf of the Union “were so unguarded” as to put his life in jeopardy.  

A year earlier, Booth had attached himself to the Virginia Militia detachment sent to maintain order and stand guard at the scaffold where John Brown was hanged.  “I may say I helped to hang John Brown,” he later wrote proudly.  Although Booth despised Brown’s anti-slavery cause, he envied him his fame and heroic stature, calling him “the grandest character of this century.”   If John Brown’s execution hastened the freeing of the slaves by igniting the Civil War, it also very likely inspired John Wilkes Booth in another history-changing act five years later, the assassination of the President who signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  


Fortune's Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth, Terry Alford

John Wilkes Booth:  Day by Day, Arthur F Loux

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