For a long time I have devoted my energies, my time and money, to the accomplishment of a certain end. I have been disappointed. The moment has arrived when I must change my plans. Many will blame me for what I am about to do, but posterity, I am sure, will justify me. Men who love their country better than gold and life.
–John W. Booth, Payne, Herold, Atzerodt
When we think of history it is linear. One event follows the next tripping forward, action precipitating reaction. And so when the line loops around it provides a sense of historical congruence, a symmetry of understanding that while obvious, feels like puzzle pieces dropping into place.
On April 14, 1865 a dashing young actor slid his way into a box at Ford’s Theatre and shot the President of the United States.
On May 2, 2012 I watched the bitter arguments between the colonies, just steps away from that very same box, over the anti-slavery clause in the Declaration of Independence. The musical 1776 puts the opposition on Edward Rutledge of South Carolina who sings:
Molasses to rum to slaves
Who sail the ships back to Boston
Ladened with gold, see it gleam
Whose fortunes are made in the triangle trade
Hail slavery, the New England dream!
Mr. Adams, I give you a toast:
Hail Boston! Hail Charleston!
Who stinketh the most?
History is complex, it is not pre-determined and is often re-written — for most Americans they piece the connections together not through primary documents, but through visits to historic sites like Ford’s Theatre, books like David McCullough’s 1776 (or the likewise named musical) and James Swanson’s Manhunt. Each provides a fragment of a history that is at times more real to those who are experiencing it then the facts that they are based on. Sometimes when each of these sources come together in an unexpected way it allows individuals, for a brief moment, to feel the texture of time.
Though the book starts months before its self-titled year, 1776 looks at the first full year of the American Revolution through the actions and relationships of its most popular hero–General George Washington. It’s an unexpected story–one that does not anticipate the victory to come.
On one level this is a portrait of a man leading an army for the first time, while on the other it is a look at those who fought in the rag-tag army at the front lines for Independence. But McCullough’s book has the feeling of uncertainty. Of a people struggling to understand who they are while fighting against a monarchy who had forsaken them. Of a people waiting for a signal for separation, or those unwilling to strip themselves of their nationality because of what they perceived to be a rabble filled minority.
At the start of the fight in 1775, McCullough tells us, independence was not the rallying cry. But he lays the groundwork first with Washington who upon hearing of King George’s speech of October 1775 (where the King declares the colonists in open rebellion) states “we were determined to shake off all connections with a state so unjust and unnatural. This I would tell them, not under covert, but in words as clear as the sun in its meridian brightness.” (McCullough, 68), and again months later “My countrymen…will come reluctantly into the idea of independence, but time and persecution brings many wonderful things to past, and by private letters which I have lately received form Virginia, I find Common Sense is working a powerful change there in the minds of many men” (McCullough, 112).
But we learn of independence in McCullough’s 1776 the way the militia learns of it on July 6 and through John Hancock’s letter and instructions to Washington. McCullough emphasizes that though the declaration changed the tenor of the war, only a military victory could cement its possibility.
I finished 1776 five years after I acquired it at the National Preservation Conference in Pittsburgh where McCullough spoke about his hometown. A few weeks later I took my seat at the Ford’s Theatre to watch the path to independence again. This time though it wasn’t through the eyes of those in the field, but from the perspective of the men ensconced in a tiny room in Philadelphia…and in song. 1776 the musical would not concern itself with the whole year, but rather focused in on the hot summer months leading up to that world-changing decision.
(We’re waiting for the chirp, chirp, chirp/Of an eaglet being born/We’re waiting for the chirp, chirp, chirp/On this humid Monday morning in this/Congressional incubator)
The musical tries to illustrate, once again, that independence did not happen overnight. And while the personalities portrayed may not be entirely accurate (apparently there is no documentation as to who specifically opposed the slavery clause in the declaration), it succeeds in demonstrating that the American colonies were just that–thirteen distinct colonies with their own goals and wishes, and that the men inside what we now know as Independence Hall each had a hand in what was to come. Where McCullough’s novel is filled with the uncertainty of the moment, the musical propels us forward through the arguments and the compromise…
(Congress: For God’s sake, John, sit down!/Someone oughta open up a window!/It’s ninety degrees! Have mercy, John, please/It’s hot as hell in Philadephia!)
(Adams: You See, we piddle, twiddle, and resolve/Not one damn thing do we do we solve)
…until we reach the moment of truth on July 2, 1776.
I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence. I have often pondered over the dangers which were incurred by the men who assembled here and adopted that Declaration of Independence -I have pondered over the toils that were endured by the officers and soldiers of the army, who achieved that Independence. I have often inquired of myself, what great principle or idea it was that kept this Confederacy so long together. It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. This is the sentiment embodied in that Declaration of Independence.
Now, my friends, can this country be saved upon that basis? If it can, I will consider myself one of the happiest men in the world if I can help to save it. If it can’t be saved upon that principle, it will be truly awful. But, if this country cannot be saved without giving up that principle—I was about to say I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it.
–Abraham Lincoln ( February 22, 1861) [From the Ford’s Theatre Playbill for 1776. Essay entitled An Imperfect Union by Nicholas Stimler]
I read these words before the musical started, just steps away from the box where John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln in the head, and I have to admit I felt, for a brief moment a small shiver. I could feel the links from where I sat to the Civil War to the start of the United States. Something that could only happen at that time, in that place.
Ford’s Theatre is a site that can tell that story. Where we can see the pieces of our origin come together with the other fractured period of American History. As the site of Lincoln’s assassination the theatre straddles the before and after….a world where Lincoln fought to preserve the union and a world where we entered what came next from Reconstruction onwards. Seeing the words in a text book that “John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln” is not the same as seeing the cramped box, knowing that he jammed the door shut before leaping from the balcony onto the stage calling out in latin, “thus always to Tyrants.”
On April 2, 1999 a Washington Post reporter David Montgomery re-traced the trail of John Wilkes Booth following this moment. He says: “Scrape away the accumulated gloss of advancing civilization — as provisional as a vinyl house in a pleasant subdivision in a field where Booth once contemplated eternal damnation — and the haunted history stares you in the face.
There are only a few places in the country where that happens, where the channel back to the desperate deeds and choices that shaped the American soul is so clear that you have to pay attention.”
And he’s right. You can’t tell this story anywhere else in the world, and that moment before and after Lincoln always starts with a gunshot in Ford’s Theatre.
Montgomery tells us what James Swanson later writes — that the path to capture Booth is a great detective yarn. In Manhunt we follow Booth’s path from initial conspiracy, to crossing the Potomac in the dead of night. You wouldn’t think that a moment-by-moment accounting of an assassin’s flight would be interesting but against the backdrop of a mourning country you get a glimpse into a world divided, and a man who learns before death that posterity will not justify his actions. As Booth dies following a 12-day chase, his final words open to interpretation, “Useless, Useless.”
Again–I had read Manhunt months before sitting down where it all began and once again I could see where that past met my present. But seeing both pieces: Lincoln and Liberty, the continuing conversations about slavery over time–on paper and off–put things in perspective in a way that they never had before.
Looking Back from 2012
So here we are, Independence Day 2012. As with every July 4, I watch fireworks, I honor those who fought and continue to fight for things that we believe in. I am a proud American. But I also look back, and think of the moments in our past where we saw our mistakes and fought to make things better. Where we came together or pushed through our differences to find life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It was not easy, and it was not always peaceful, but how we live now is built on those broader struggles.
I hope that fifty, a hundred, two hundred years from now someone else will be sitting in a darkened theatre and see where the pieces fit. I hope they will see how we worked, and fought, and sought to make this nation stronger and a more perfect union.
Happy Boothday To You; In Which Our Intrepid Correspondent Rides, Rolls and Rows His Way Into History Chasing the Ghost of John Wilkes Booth by David Montgomery (April 18, 1999)
1776 by David McCullough (2005)
Manhunt by James L. Swanson (2006)
Playbill to Ford’s Theatre’s Production of 1776 (March 9-May 19, 2012)
1776 Book By Peter Stone, Music and Lyrics by Sherman Edwards
Ford’s Theatre (www.nps.gov/foth)
PS: This is my 100th Post!