1865: Shots are fired at Ford’s Theatre. The US Civil War was coming to a close with the Union troops bringing a victory. Robert E. Lee had surrendered to Union troops five days earlier effectively ending the War. The proclamation to end the war was still in the future, but close at hand and was signed on May 9. Because news was not instantaneous, the last shots of the War were fired on June 22. Easter was two days hence and on Good Friday, President Abraham Lincoln and his wife went to see Our American Cousin being presented at Ford’s Theatre.
It was thought that General Ulysses S Grant and his wife would be joining the President and Mrs. Lincoln in the booth, but the two women were not on good terms. Others were issued an invitation and declined. The box was filled with Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris. Lincoln had been plagued by bad dreams and had wished to stay away from the theater that night, but he had promised his wife an outing and they left to enjoy an evening out. The party arrived late but settled into the Presidential Box. The performance was stopped briefly while the orchestra played “Hail to the Chief” and the audience gave Lincoln a standing ovation. The theater was full with about 1,700 people watching the play.
The box was to have been guarded by a policeman, John Frederick Parker. Parker left during the intermission and went to nearby tavern with Lincoln’s footman and coachman. He was not at his post when John Wilkes Booth entered the box. Booth was a famous actor and may have been able to persuade the policeman even if he had been present, but without impedance, he was able to enter and then barricaded the first door from the inside. Booth had never starred in Our American Cousin, but knew the play and waited for the precise moment when the funniest line was delivered. He opened the second door and fired a shot into the laughing President’s head behind his left ear. The bullet traversed the brain and exited just above his right eye. The President slumped, Mary caught him and screamed.
Rathbone, having heard the shot, attempted to catch Booth. The two men struggled and Booth dropped his gun to the floor and drew a knife with which he stabbed his opponent in the arm. Rathbone was able to recover and again tried to capture the assailant. Rathbone grabbed at Booth as he attempted to vault over the Box wall to the stage below. Because of the interference, Booth’s boot caught and when he landed, he broke his leg. Booth held the bloody knife over his head as he made his way from the theater. Lincoln never regained consciousness and died the next day. Booth was killed while trying to elude capture on April 26.
Mary Todd Lincoln: What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so? (as she held his hand)
Abraham Lincoln: She won’t think anything about it. (his last words)
Our cause being almost lost, something decisive and great must be done. – John Wilkes Booth diary entry for April 14, 1865
About 10:25 pm, a man came in and walked slowly along the side on which the “Pres” box was and I heard a man say, “There’s Booth” and I turned my head to look at him. He was still walking very slow and was near the box door when he stopped, took a card from his pocket, wrote something on it, and gave it to the usher who took it to the box. In a minute the door was opened and he walked in. – eyewitness account by Dr. George Brainerd Todd
I am a slow walker, but I never walk back. – Abraham Lincoln
February 27, 1860: Abraham Lincoln speaks at Cooper Union in New York City. The Illinois lawyer has already served in the Illinois House of Representatives from 1834-1842 and as a member of the US House of Representatives from Illinois’ 7th District from 1847-1849. During the 1830s, Lincoln was a Whig Party leader and it was as a Whig that he went to Congress. He promoted a rapid modernization of the economy through banks, tariffs, and railroads. His opposition to the Mexican-American War was unpopular and he did not run for a second term. He left politics and returned to his law practice in Springfield. He helped to build up the new Republican party in 1854. He lost his bid for a US Senate seat when he was unable to beat Democrat Stephen A Douglas in that race.
As he made his bid for President of the United States, he held his ground on the non-expansion of slavery. He was not yet the Republican nominee since the convention was not held until May. The speech he gave on this day is considered by some to be one of his most important speeches and they argue it may have been responsible for his gaining the nomination. The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art was established in 1859 at Cooper Square in the East Village of Manhattan. The founder of the school believed education should be accessible to all who qualify regardless of their race, religion, sex, or wealth/social status. In that regard, it was the perfect venue for Lincoln’s speech.
It is one of Lincoln’s longest speeches and runs to more than 7,000 words. (The Gettysburg address is 268 words.) There are not many quotes remembered from this speech but because it was so carefully researched and crafted, and because of the forceful argument Lincoln put forth, it was very effective. The write up in the New York Tribune stated it was “one of the most happiest and most convincing political arguments ever made in this City … No man ever made such an impression on his first appeal to a New-York audience.”
The speech was broken into three basic parts with each building to the conclusion. In the first part, Lincoln spoke of the Founding Fathers and the legal positions they supported on the question of slavery in the territories. This was a special response and clarification to Stephen Douglas’s position from the lost Senate seat race. The second part addressed voters in the Southern states and clarified issued between Republicans and Democrats and argued the Republican Party’s position was the conservative one. The last section addressed Republicans. He advised fellow Republicans to use level-headed thinking and cool actions rather than passionate outbursts. The speech worked.
If any man at this day sincerely believes that a proper division of local from federal authority, or any part of the Constitution, forbids the Federal Government to control as to slavery in the federal territories, he is right to say so, and to enforce his position by all truthful evidence and fair argument which he can. But he has no right to mislead others, who have less access to history, and less leisure to study it, into the false belief that “our fathers who framed the Government under which we live” were of the same opinion – thus substituting falsehood and deception for truthful evidence and fair argument.
Human action can be modified to some extent, but human nature cannot be changed. There is a judgment and a feeling against slavery in this nation, which cast at least a million and a half of votes.
An inspection of the Constitution will show that the right of property in a slave is not “distinctly and expressly affirmed” in it.
Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it. – Abraham Lincoln, Cooper Union speech
Also on this day: Party in New Orleans! – In 1827, Mardi Gras was celebrated in New Orleans for the first time.
Andersonville – In 1864, the Confederacy’s POW camp at Andersonville opened.
The Lord and the Luddites – In 1812, George Gordon Byron spoke out in the House of Lords.
Suffrage – In 1922, Leser V. Garnett was decided by the US Supreme Court.
Carbon Fourteen – In 1940, the carbon isotope was discovered.
June 16, 1858: Lincoln gives a famous speech. Abraham Lincoln was accepting the Republican Party’s nomination to run for United States senator from Illinois. The speech was delivered at the State Capitol in Springfield. Lincoln was launching his campaign against incumbent Stephen A. Douglas who began serving as Senator from Illinois in 1847. The campaign eventually brought the two men together with the Lincoln-Douglas debates later in the year. There were seven debates between Republican Lincoln and Democrat Douglas within each of the remaining congressional districts in the state. There are nine districts in all and each man had already spoken in two of them. The main topic of the debates, as of this speech, was slavery.
Lincoln’s House Divided speech is one of his three most famous along with the Gettysburg Address and his second Inaugural address. In this speech he was attempting to differentiate himself from Douglas as well as predict the future as he saw it. The idea of “A house divided against itself cannot stand” comes from Scripture, Mark 3:25 where Jesus is quoted. Thomas Hobbes in 1651, Thomas Paine in 1776, Abigail Adams in 1812, and Lincoln himself on two previous occasions (1843 and 1850) had used the idea. Lincoln’s address predicted the nation’s need to be all slave or all free as the two were incompatible. Douglas felt that popular sovereignty should decide whether or not future states would be free or slave.
Lincoln felt the Dred Scott decision had made Douglas’s proposal invalid. There were only two options after the decision was handed down. Either the US would be all one or all the other – all free or all slave. Since the North and South were so divided on this issue, the time would come when the government would no longer be able to function. Slavery had come to be part of every political, social, and economic decision facing the nation. Lincoln did not expect the nation to be dissolved, but some method of decision would be made and the country would once again be in agreement.
Douglas went on to win the election although he died in 1861 at the age of 48 from typhoid fever. He died almost two months after the US Civil War had begun and serving in a Senate headed by President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was elected to two terms as President and lived to see the end of the War and the reunited United States before he was assassinated on April 15, 1865 at the age of 56. His leadership through the war was instrumental in bringing the nation he loved back under one roof, undivided, and slavery at an end. There was still much work to be done and Reconstruction would have been much different had Lincoln been available to help heal the country after such horrific wounds had been inflicted.
A house divided against itself cannot stand.
I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.
Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.
Let any one who doubts, carefully contemplate that now almost complete legal combination— piece of machinery so to speak—compounded of the Nebraska doctrine, and the Dred Scott decision. – Abraham Lincoln, from the House Divided speech
Also on this day: Red v. White – In 1487, the Battle of Stoke Field is fought ending the Wars of the Roses.
Education – In 1976, the Soweto Uprising took place.
Psycho – In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller was released.
Children’s Party – In 1883, the Victoria Hall Disaster left 183 children dead.