One hundred and fifty years ago today, America lost its innocence. The country had weathered several wars, including the just concluded bloody Civil War. But, the country was rocked to the core and still had to prove its resilience on April 15, 1865, the day when revered (and reviled by many) President Abraham Lincoln died less than a week after the Civil War ended.
Lincoln was not the first president to die in office. The very wordy William Henry Harrison, who delivered the longest inaugural address ever while standing outside in a snowstorm in 1841 and then contracted pneumonia before dying 31 days later, was first. Zachary Taylor fell ill and died in 1850. People do get sick, but Lincoln was the first U.S. President to be assassinated.
The country was still celebrating the end of the war, and many were waiting to find out if their loved ones would be slowly making their way home on foot from the battlefields. But one million people turned out to view the President’s corpse where in was placed on display in 12 large cities. By some accounts, over 12 million gathered along train tracks just to watch the train carrying his body go by.
In today’s social media, smartphone era when everyone can film and report on things instantly, it is hard to imagine how quickly the information about the shooting and death spread for that timeframe. Flags throughout the country were supposedly at half mast within a day or two. One-third of the U.S. population turned out for the procession, largely via word of mouth. While reviled in the South then, Lincoln was revered and still is.
Is his shooting part of the reason his legacy has endured? Or is it that legend around the man and his actions that endured and have made him one of the best known presidents seven score and 10 years later?
Hollywood likes to say America loves an underdog and people like someone who overcomes great odds. Lincoln truly embodies those qualities in his personal life, where he rose from nothing to become President. His story and cult of personality have spawned countless movies, books, poems (O Captain! My Captain!) and other works, stamps, coins, etc. Even his words, like the reference to score above and phrases like “a nation divided,” have become immortal.
Contrary to myth, the assassination did not change the role of the Secret Service. The legislation creating the agency to deal with the massive amount of counterfeit money in the country at the time was actually reportedly on Lincoln’s desk when he was shot. The Secret Service came into being July 1865; they started protecting Presidents after the assassination of William McKinley.
Lincoln’s greatest legacy is really in the civil rights arena. Critics like to point out that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free all the slaves in the U.S., just the ones in the South. That may be true, but Lincoln did push and lobby to pass the 13th Amendment, which banned involuntary servitude. Additionally, Lincoln’s last speech called for voting rights for Blacks.
The debacle of reconstruction and continued racial issues in the country today may have turned out very different had Lincoln lived, given his previous actions. His successor, who was a racists himself, clearly botched the opportunity and then got caught up in his own political drama.
It is hard to imagine any recent President having the long lasting impact to be discussed and still revered 150 years later like Lincoln is. Media and public scrutiny are tougher today. The Lincoln family traumas was have been played out in byte after byte. The assassination made him a martyr, but history and hindsight have not changed many opinions of Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.
By Dyanne Weiss