On the anniversary of the shooting of Abraham Lincoln, BK Marcus muses on the assassins of Caesar and their place at the very bottom of Dante’s Inferno:
If a modern Dante — someone with the same religious and political beliefs, but with an updated knowledge of history — were to write the Inferno today, he would replace Cassius in satanic mouth #3 with John Wilkes Booth, the man who shot Abraham Lincoln 148 years ago today, April 14, 1865.
Lincoln may not have shared Dante’s faith, but he knew how to use the rhetoric of the Bible to stoke the fervor of 19th-century Christian pietists; and after his assassination, the pietists returned the favor by enshrining Father Abraham in the language of Christian martyrdom.
As John Wilkes Booth shot the Union’s president, he shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis!” — thus always to tyrants, a phrase attributed to Brutus as he stabbed the dying Caesar. It’s also the state motto of Virginia, where I live.
Today’s civic religion requires us to canonize Lincoln, to see his life as a crusade for ever-greater freedom and his violent death as the American equivalent of crucifixion.
One of the many things we’ve lost track of in this sanctioned interpretation is an understanding of the tradition that produced John Wilkes Booth. We are only allowed to perceive the evil of chattel slavery at the center of the Civil War; we are censured if we ever emphasize an older historical struggle between liberty and power.
But the liberals of that era did see that there was more than one liberal principle at stake and that not all the angels aligned themselves with only one side in that bloody struggle.
We don’t have to support political violence (or any violence) to recognize that the same ideological tradition that informed Booth’s name, his most famous words, and his most infamous act is the same tradition that produced Western liberalism and the American Revolution. Sic semper…
For the real story of the tyrant himself, in his own words, check out Joseph Fallon’s ebook Lincoln Uncensored.