Why Did John Wilkes Booth Assassinate Lincoln; a Peak Into the Mind of a Killer

Lincoln close up on five dollar bill main

Abraham Lincoln is America’s most famous martyr. His murderer believed that Lincoln was a tyrant who deserved to die. John Booth loved the South and felt the Confederacy had every right to independence. Slavery was a suitable role for blacks. Black citizenship was an abomination. His brother was not only a supporter of Lincoln but also saved the life of Lincoln’s oldest son. The Civil War was indeed “brother vs. brother.”  

Booth Brothers and Lincoln

The Booth family were actors, including the brothers Edwin Thomas and John Wilkes Booth. They were born in Maryland, a slave state that did not secede when the Civil War broke out. 

But, many people in the state were sympathetic to the South, including Chief Justice Roger Taney, the leader of the Supreme Court. The Booth brothers were divided in their loyalties, Edwin for the Union, and John for the Confederacy. It was indeed “brother vs. brother.”  

Edwin saved the life of Robert Lincoln, the president’s son, during the war. Robert had fallen in the path of an oncoming train. Robert would repeatedly be nearby when death struck others. 

Abraham Lincoln also saw John Wilkes Booth perform. Booth played a villain. It was like he was saying his lines directly at Lincoln. A guest remembered: “Twice Booth in uttering disagreeable threats in the play came very near and put his finger close to Mr. Lincoln’s face.” 

John Wilkes Booth: Confederate 

John Wilkes Booth (1838-65) was named after a distant relative, the English radical and supporter of American independence, John Wilkes.  

He became a strong sympathizer of what he understood as the Southern way of life, including slavery. Booth was nearby when John Brown, who attacked a federal armory in an attempt to start a slave insurrection, was executed. He donned a state militia uniform to gain access.

Booth supported the Confederate cause, believing the Union was committing tyranny. Abraham Lincoln, as president, was the chief tyrant. He continued acting during the Civil War, once arrested for treasonous comments while on tour. A hefty fine and oath of allegiance was enough for the young actor (only 25) to be released.  

In 1864, Booth hatched a plan to kidnap Lincoln in order to exchange him for Confederate prisoners. He had fallen in love with Lucy Hale. She was the daughter of a U.S. senator involved in the anti-slavery movement.

Booth went to Lincoln’s second inauguration as her guest. The kidnap attempt failed the next month when Lincoln changed his plans. 

Lucy Hale does not seem to have known about Booth’s plans. Hale proclaimed shock after Lincoln’s assassination. She did not know her beloved was plotting such horrible crimes. 

Booth previously left a letter with his brother-in-law for safekeeping. He signed it: “A Confederate doing duty upon his own responsibility. J. WILKES BOOTH.”

Assassination Plot 

The nation re-elected President Lincoln. The Confederacy was already in desperate straits.  General Robert Lee’s surrender at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, sealed the deal.  

John Wilkes Booth did not admit defeat. The election and repeated severe military defeats would not stop his dreams of a Confederate nation. 

He plotted a much more grandiose plan than kidnapping the President. He would cut the Union leadership to its knees by killing the president, vice president, and Secretary of State.  

After Lee’s surrender, Lincoln gave a speech about his plans for peace and reconstruction. He suggested that some blacks deserved the vote, particularly black soldiers. Booth was nearby. He found giving blacks the rights of citizenship very offensive.  

Booth shot Lincoln a few days later, reportedly shouting “Sic semper tyrannis!” (the motto of the state of Virginia, meaning “Thus always to tyrants!”) and/or “The South is avenged!.”

A fellow conspirator attacked William Seward, the secretary of state, but failed to kill him. The person who was supposed to attack Vice President Johnson never did so. 

General Ulysses Grant (the commander of the Union armies) was invited to see the play with President Lincoln but chose not to come. If Grant was there, Booth had planned to kill him.

Booth broke his leg when he jumped from the Lincolns’ booth. He fled the city and was killed on April 26th while trying to evade capture.  

Was It A Confederate Government Plot? 

Some believed the Confederate government had something to do with the assassination.  Leading Confederates denied involvement, calling the assassination a great wrong. 

There is limited evidence that John Booth was in contact with Confederate agents. However, a major Confederate conspiracy is unlikely.  

Was Lincoln Killed Because He Freed The Slaves?

John Booth believed slavery was just and was appalled at the idea of black (he used a much more offensive word)  citizenship. However, Booth’s aims were not just a racist plot.

Booth believed that the Confederacy was correct. He could be its savior. Booth might be considered one of the first people who believed in the “Lost Cause,” a mythical view that argued the South might have lost, but they fought the good fight. 

Maybe, deep down, he knew his plot had no chance of saving the Confederacy. But, it would still be avenged, have justice. 

His plans, which ultimately involved the assassination of multiple people, do seem irrational. Booth had no real chance of saving the South. 

Lincoln’s death would be a means to obtain some justice for what he felt was Lincoln’s tyranny. At least, in his twisted mind. 

“Useless, Useless” 

Booth reportedly looked at his hands as he lay dying, crying “useless, useless.” 

We do not know exactly what he meant. There are many things about the Civil War, including Booth’s actions, we must only speculate about. Look at the available evidence and make the best reasonable guess. This includes how much Lincoln’s death changed history.  

It is not useless speculation to wonder “what might have been.” Thinking through possible possibilities helps us better understand history. Understanding history is definitely not useless.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.