Because February contains Presidents Day, largely because of the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, it is a good time to take a look at one of the first real threats to the constitutional system of the United States: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the other events of the night of April 14,1865, and what would have happened had they all succeeded. A coup d’etat is defined as the violent overthrow of an existing government by another group. That is precisely what was planned, but, fortunately, two of the three parts of the plot did not work. The general public knows very little of what was taking place that fateful night. Who was Lafayette S. Foster? He almost became the President of the United States!
The conspiracy was similar to the climax of each film of The Godfather Trilogy: Key individuals were to be eliminated, all at different places, but all at the same time. John Wilkes Booth’s personal role was to shoot Lincoln during a play at Ford’s Theatre, and that he did. George Atzerodt was to kill the vice president in Andrew Johnson’s favorite bar or hotel room, but he “chickened out.” Lewis Payne was to stab to death Secretary of State William Seward in his home, but Seward’s neck brace from a carriage accident prevented any lethal knife wounds from occurring before his son rescued him.
If the Southern-sympathizer John Wilkes Booth was trying to avenge the South’s defeat in the Civil War, then everything he and his associates were involved in that night was clearly an act of insanity. Lincoln was the South’s best friend: Lincoln’s reconstruction plan was lenient on the South – “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” Vice President Johnson was a states-rights Democrat who supported Lincoln’s plan to allow the South back into the Union as smoothly as possible. Seward, a leader of the moderate Republicans, admired Lincoln and was willing for his State Department, rather than the War Department, to carry out Lincoln’s reconstruction plan for the South. From the South’s point of view, getting rid of these three men was clearly the worst thing that could have happened.
If Booth really wanted to avenge the South, who would have been the three targeted for assassination that night? Lincoln, of course: He was responsible for insisting on the South’s rebellion being suppressed. Next on the list would have been Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War who efficiently organized the war effort to defeat the South. And then there would have been Ulysses S. Grant, the general who chased and surrounded Lee and met him at Appomattox Courthouse. The two men most responsible for the humiliation of the South, Stanton and Grant, were not proscribed for extinction. What was really going on here?
Had Lincoln, Johnson, and Seward all died as planned, the election results of November 1864 would have been overturned and the radical Republicans would have taken over the executive branch of the government while retaining control of the legislative branch. Lafayette S. Foster, a Republican senator from Connecticut, would have become President. Foster had been chosen to be the President pro tempore of the Senate for the 39th Congress, which would not convene until May 7, 1865. According to the Succession Act of 1792, the President pro tempore was next in line to the presidency after the Vice President. Without Seward, Edwin Stanton would have had no major opposition in the cabinet and would have been given authority over the South’s reconstruction.
The controversy over Reconstruction seems to be the primary motive for the assassination plot. Lincoln, who had been the first Republican Party candidate to be elected President, and his new running mate, Tennessee’s War Democrat Andrew Johnson, ran on the National Union Party ticket in 1864. Other than agreeing on the winning of the war and the passing of an anti-slavery amendment, the rising Radical Republicans in the Congress had drastically different postwar plans than Lincoln. The Radical Republican reconstruction plans were mostly designed to punish the South. They favored Stanton’s War Department to implement them, not Seward’s State Department. After Lincoln pocket-vetoed their Wade-Davis Bill (for the radical reconstruction of the South), the radical Republicans tried, but failed, to get a new convention to replace Lincoln as the party’s nominee!
The stench of Edwin Stanton, who was contemptuous of Lincoln, is all over the events of this coup d’etat. Here are a few examples. When reports were made to the War Department about suspicious activities at the boarding house where Booth and his co-conspirators met, he ordered no investigation. When Lincoln asked that Major Thomas Eckert be assigned as his bodyguard, he was given John F. Parker, who had been reprimanded for drunkenness and was in a bar when Lincoln was shot. Eckert had told Lincoln that he would have to work late at the telegraph office on the night of the play, but he actually went home early. And the telegraph lines out of Washington, DC, failed to work that night as Booth and company escaped! Stanton rewarded Eckert by making him the Assistant Secretary of War. Also, Stanton urged Gen. Grant not to attend the play with the Lincolns. In fact, at the height of Lincoln’s popularity (because of the recent surrender of Lee), twelve people declined presidential invitations to join the first family at Ford’s Theatre! Stanton also suppressed Booth’s diary for two years. When he was pressured to make it public, 18 pages were missing! Lafayette C. Baker, the head of the National Detective Police and not related to Lafayette S. Baker, testified before the radical Republican-controlled Congress that he believed Stanton had destroyed the pages. Baker died of symptoms similar to those of arsenic poisoning.
If the assassinations had occurred as planned, Foster would have replaced Lincoln and Johnson. That effectively would have been a coup d’etat. The Republicans did drop the National Union name after Lincoln’s death, but we can never know for sure who was behind the conspiracy. It seems unlikely that Booth’s group worked alone since their actions would have done direct harm to the South – which they claimed to be avenging. It is more likely that Booth’s group worked for or with Stanton and his Radical Republican supporters since they would have been the direct beneficiaries of the murders and circumstantial evidence indicates their extensive involvement. If anyone else involved in the plot kept any written records at the time, those records have no doubt found their way – like Booth’s 18 pages -into the ashes of history.
It was close, but the U.S. Constitution and the electoral system that it established survived and were not replaced with election by murder. We should never take the Constitution for granted; it can be quite fragile.
by David Offutt (slightly revised January 1, 2010)
A version of this essay was published February 2, 2005,
in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.