The long, dark history of political violence in the United States
Violence has been employed to achieve political objectives throughout history. Taking the life of a perceived enemy is as old as mankind. Antiquity is filled with examples of political murders, such as when Julius Caesar was felled by assassins in 44 BCE.
While assassinations and assassination attempts are not unique to the American way of life, denizens of other nations sometimes look upon the US as populated by reckless cowboys owing to a “Wild West” attitude about violence, especially episodes involving guns.
In this book, J. Michael Martinez focuses on assassinations and attempts in the American republic. Nine American presidentsAndrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reaganhave been the targets of assassins. President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt was also a target shortly before he was sworn into office in 1933. Moreover, three presidential candidatesTheodore Roosevelt, Robert F. Kennedy, and George Wallacewere shot by assailants. In addition to presidents and candidates for the presidency, eight governors, seven U.S. senators, nine U.S. House members, eleven mayors, seventeen state legislators, and eleven judges have been victims of political violence.
Not all political assassinations involve elected officials. Some of those targeted, such as Joseph Smith, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., were public figures who influenced political issues. But their cases are instructive because of their connection to, and influence on, the political process.
No other nation with a population of over 50 million people has witnessed as many political assassinations or attempts. These violent episodes trigger a series of important questions. First, why has the United Statesa country constructed on a bedrock of the rule of law and firmly committed to due processbeen so susceptible to political violence? Martinez addresses these questions as he examines twenty-five instances of violence against elected officials and public figures in American history.
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About the Author
J. Michael Martinez is an attorney and author of numerous articles and five books, including The Safety of the Kingdom: Government Responses to Subversive Threats. He lives in Monroe, Georgia.
Read an Excerpt
"SIC SEMPER YRANNIS": ABRAHAM LINCOLN (1865)
One of the most infamous assassinations in American history occurred on April 14, 1865, when the acclaimed stage actor John Wilkes Booth shot President Abraham Lincoln with a .44-caliber Deringer pistol while the president watched a play at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC. Booth escaped through a back door moments after horrified theatregoers witnessed the assassin leap from a balcony and land on the stage. Unconscious and mortally wounded, Lincoln slumped in his chair, never to look on the world again. When it was clear that the wounded president would not survive a journey to the White House, doctors directed that his body be carried out of the theatre so the great man would not expire on the floor of the presidential box. The following morning at 7:22, the president died. Already popular for guiding the nation through its darkest hours, the martyred Lincoln ascended into the pantheon of American heroes, forever after memorialized as a man of granite, an icon for the ages.
Nothing in Lincoln's early life or career suggested that one day he would be regarded as a giant figure in American history. In a campaign biography, he characterized his humble origins as the "short and simple annals of the poor." When he first considered a run for the presidency, the coarse, homely, undereducated prairie lawyer from Illinois was a dark horse candidate in a field of stellar thoroughbreds, including New York Senator William H. Seward and former Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase. Having served but a single term in the US House of Representatives and eight years in the state legislature, Lincoln appeared ill-suited for high office.
Yet appearances can be deceiving. Despite his lack of formal education and his slim resume, Lincoln had developed a remarkably nuanced view of slavery, the most important, and contentious, issue of the day. Navigating between the abolitionists who sought to emancipate slaves immediately and apologists for the peculiar institution who wished to preserve the status quo, Lincoln argued that the Constitution protected slavery where it already existed, but the federal government could prevent its spread into the territories. He was on record expressing his private distaste for the institution, but he recognized that an elected official must follow constitutional requirements and statutory dictates despite his personal predilections.
Lincoln came to national attention when he unsuccessfully ran for a US Senate seat against the prominent Illinois politician Stephen A. Douglas, the incumbent senator, in 1858. In a series of well-publicized debates, the two men grappled over slavery and its effect on the nation. Douglas was by far the better known of the two candidates, but Lincoln held his own in the debates and emerged as a promising national political figure. Although Lincoln lost the battle for the Senate, he arguably won the war for public attention. He used his new-found prominence to position himself as a viable alternative to Republican presidential hopefuls who had amassed too many political opponents to capture the party's nomination in 1860. It was a brilliant strategy. Lincoln became a compromise candidate for the Republican presidential nomination when the bigger names failed to secure the requisite votes at the party convention.
He was elected to the nation's highest office in 1860, at precisely the moment when the Union was fracturing. Southern state leaders had spent decades, they believed, ground under the boot heels of an oppressive federal government. Time and again Southerners had threatened to secede from the Union rather than submit to federal limitations on the institution of slavery. As early as the 1830s, when President Andrew Jackson threatened to use force against South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis, the precarious state of the Union had caused no small amount of consternation among leaders on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.
The incoming president initially underestimated the nature and extent of secession threats. National lawmakers — notably Lincoln's political hero, Henry Clay — had cobbled together compromises to forestall disunion for decades, and Lincoln hoped that another accommodation could be reached. Despite last-minute wrangling among several influential political leaders, a compromise was not in the offing. Lincoln nonetheless was an optimist; he believed that Southern men would come to their senses if he could assuage their fears about an obdurate federal government interfering with state rights. In his inaugural address, the president assured hostile factions that "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors"
Alas, despite Lincoln's eloquent plea for sectional rapprochement, the better angels of our nature could not be found. Thirty-nine days into the Lincoln administration, the rebels in Charleston, South Carolina, fired on Fort Sumter, a federal military installation. War had descended on the nation. No one knew that it would become a bloody, internecine affair that would claim the lives of more than 2 percent of the population, but it was clear that history had changed forever. Lincoln reluctantly issued a call for volunteers to put down the rebellion by force. Long-threatened civil war had become a reality.
And so Abraham Lincoln became a wartime president, overseeing four arduous years of bloodshed, deprivation, and discord. As with so much in his life and career, he grew into his job. He had almost no military experience save for a few months in 1832 when he served in the Illinois state militia during the Black Hawk War, and yet Lincoln educated himself on strategy and tactics. When he could not find a suitable commander to claim consistent battlefield victories, he stepped into the breach as much as he could before he tapped Ulysses S. Grant to serve as general in chief late in the war. Lincoln was not a commander in the field, but he knew the kind of general officer that he needed. He used his new- found knowledge to help him find the right man at the right time.
Essentially a moderate, cautious politician when the war began, Lincoln evolved over time. He resisted pressure from abolitionists as well as some Radical Republicans in Congress to emancipate the slaves, fearing that he would alienate Border State representatives if he moved too quickly or outpaced Northern public opinion on slavery. When he recognized the advantages of issuing an emancipation proclamation as a wartime measure, Lincoln decreed that slaves in the rebellious states were free as of January 1, 1863. It was not the wholesale assault on the peculiar institution that the Radicals had desired, but Lincoln went beyond his predecessors in issuing his proclamation. Later, he lobbied to enact a constitutional amendment to outlaw slavery throughout the nation. The states ratified the amendment in December 1865, eight months after Lincoln's assassination.
When he learned that Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his army near Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, on April 9, 1865, Lincoln was elated. Rebel armies still marched in the field, but the president believed that the rebellion would soon end. Despite the hardships he and the nation had endured, in April 1865 Lincoln believed that better days were ahead.
As the war wound to a conclusion and the prospects for national unity improved, a group of conspirators plotted to kidnap or kill the president. John Wilkes Booth, a celebrated actor from a prominent family of actors, served as the leader of the cabal. Booth was the ninth of ten children born to Junius Brutus Booth, an English actor known for his vivid portrayals of Shakespearean characters.
John Wilkes grew to adulthood with little structure or discipline in his life. He was fourteen years old when his father died in 1852. Three years later, he followed in his father's footsteps by becoming an actor. His elder brother, Edwin, was a prominent actor in his own right, which led to a not- so-good-natured sibling rivalry. Another brother, Junius Brutus Booth, Jr., was also a well-known thespian, but he was seventeen years older than John Wilkes and therefore not a serious competitor.
By all accounts, the handsome, charismatic Booth was a talented if somewhat undisciplined actor. His physical attractiveness and hail-fellow- well-met bonhomie made him a popular public figure as well as "a star of the first magnitude." President Lincoln saw John Wilkes Booth perform in a play, The Marble Heart, on November 9, 1863. Booth's kindness and generosity to friends and strangers alike became well-known, presenting a stark contrast to the portrait of a crazed radical that became the standard narrative following the Lincoln assassination.
If John Wilkes Booth was such a fun-loving, kind, gregarious friend to all, his actions in the eighteen months leading up to the assassination appear inexplicable — until they are placed in the context of the times. Washington, DC, was for all intents and purposes a Southern city. Loose talk circulated throughout the capital. Shady characters engaged in talk of conspiracies, but most dastardly deeds only consisted of the empty threats and broken promises uttered by disgruntled Southern sympathizers who developed bold plans but almost never followed through. It was clear, however, that Southerners loathed Abraham Lincoln, referring to him as a tyrant who desired nothing so much as the subjugation of the South and the destruction of her cherished traditions. Booth revered the Southern Confederacy and worried that the Union might prevail, destroying the Southern way of life. Exposed to the vitriol espoused by his colleagues as well as in numerous pro-Southern newspaper editorials, Booth came to hate the man in the White House who was pushing for the rebels' capitulation.
As Southern fortunes deteriorated throughout 1864, Booth resolved to act in defense of his beloved Confederacy. He had never served in the Confederate Army, but he was anxious to serve the cause. With the hour growing late, Booth recognized that desperate times call for desperate measures. In October 1864, he traveled to MontrÃ©al, a haven for Confederate spies and agents provocateurs, perhaps to meet with representatives of the Confederate government, although no conclusive link has ever been demonstrated. Whether he acted in concert with Confederate agents or on his own initiative, Booth hatched a plan to kidnap the president of the United States and hold him for ransom.
The original plan was to abduct the president while Lincoln visited the Soldiers' Home near Washington, DC. After traveling on back roads into southern Maryland with his captive in tow, Booth would hold Lincoln hostage far away from the protection of Union soldiers. It was a bold plan requiring multiple parties to assist in the abduction and getaway.
Booth reached out to four pro-Southern men, all of whom brought a different skill to the table: John Surratt, Jr., was a Confederate spy who knew the back roads of southern Maryland and could prove invaluable in eluding capture; George Atzerodt was a boatman who knew the waters they would likely encounter as they fled with the captured president in tow; Lewis Powell (also known as Lewis Payne or Lewis Paine) was an ex-Confederate soldier with a powerful physique and a fierce disposition who could be counted on to employ violence, as necessary; and Booth apparently selected the last man, David Herold, a simpleton, because Herold was loyal to a fault. Other persons may have been involved in the initial planning as well, but their participation in the conspiracy was never clear.
Booth soon recognized that kidnapping the president was unrealistic and unnecessarily complicated. Abducting Lincoln with only a handful of men and fleeing along back roads patrolled by Union troops probably would lead to the conspirators' arrest, trial, conviction, and execution. Moreover, Booth was not sure how long the Southern Confederacy would remain viable. By late 1864, Southern armies had suffered a series of crushing military defeats. Confederate General Robert E. Lee was stuck in Petersburg, Virginia, as General Ulysses S. Grant besieged the city. Grant's trusted lieutenant, General William T. Sherman, was cutting a swath of destruction through Georgia. Confederate General John Bell Hood had suffered a disastrous defeat in fierce fighting during the Franklin-Nashville campaign in Tennessee. If Booth and his band were resolved to act, they must act boldly — and soon.
If he could not seize the president for strategic advantage, Booth could cut off the head of the snake. He believed that he could create chaos — and thus benefit the Southern cause — in Washington by assassinating President Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, Secretary of State William Seward, and General Grant.
In the modern era, approaching a president of the United States is difficult owing to the extraordinary security precautions in place to ensure his safety. During much of the nineteenth century, however, presidents were readily accessible to the public. Booth bragged that he might have assassinated Lincoln as the newly reelected president delivered his inaugural address on March 4, 1865. As an important person about town, the charismatic young actor enjoyed access to places where he could get at Lincoln at his discretion. Yet as winter turned to spring, Booth hesitated to implement his plan.
His indecision ended as the Confederacy collapsed. On April 11, two days after Lee's surrender, Lincoln appeared on a White House balcony to address a crowd of well-wishers standing below. Booth was among the onlookers as the president spoke. "Let us all join in doing the acts necessary to restoring the proper relations between these states and the Union," Lincoln called to the crowd. He outlined his Reconstruction plan in Louisiana and suggested that he might support universal manhood suffrage, allowing "very intelligent" blacks to vote.
Booth was disgusted by what he heard. This coarse buffoon who had destroyed the Southern Confederacy would now allow black men to vote in federal elections. The angry young man turned to a friend and exclaimed, "That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I'll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make."
Booth made good on his promise. His plans solidified on April 14 when he learned that Lincoln and Grant would attend a performance at Ford's Theatre that evening. It would be a convenient opportunity to snuff out the lives of two loathsome tyrants while Booth's confederates acted against other high-ranking government officials. As Booth shot the president and his chief butcher, the plan was for Atzerodt to assassinate Vice President Johnson while Lewis Powell killed Seward — with Herold's assistance, if necessary.
Booth arranged for a horse to be waiting at the rear door of the theatre that evening. Sneaking up behind Lincoln and Grant, he would fire a pistol at the unsuspecting prey, dash from the building, jump on his horse, and ride away into the night. Booth entertained delusions of grandeur, believing that he would be hailed as a hero, at least in the South, for disposing of two villains. As he expressed it in a letter that he handed to a fellow actor, John Matthews, "The world may censure me for what I am about to do, but I am sure posterity will justify me."
Shortly after ten that evening, as the play Our American Cousin was showing, Booth made his way to Ford's Theatre. His presence in the theatre was not alarming. He was a well-known actor and had performed many times at the venue. He even had his mailed delivered there. As he ambled through the theatre, Booth approached Lincoln's valet, Charles Forbes, and handed him a card, presumably the actor's calling card. It was not unusual for a prominent actor such as Booth to request a brief audience with the president to offer his regards. Forbes spoke to Booth for a moment before the actor approached the door to the presidential box.
The presidential box contained two barriers — an exterior door that opened from the hallway into a small vestibule, and an interior door that led to the enclosure where the president and his entourage would sit in chairs to view the performance. Booth entered the exterior door without being challenged or asked to state his business. The man who was supposed to guard the door, John Frederick Parker of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department, had departed, reputedly to lounge in a nearby tavern. Inside the vestibule, to Booth's surprise, no one watched over the president. Booth had come equipped with a knife to slash his way through one or more presidential bodyguards, but he realized that a blitz attack was unnecessary.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History"
Copyright © 2017 J. Michael Martinez.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
List of Photographs xi
Preface and Acknowledgments xiii
Part I Type 1 Actors 1
Chapter 1 "Sic Semper Tyrannis": Abraham Lincoln (1865) 3
Chapter 2 "I Killed the President for the Good of the Laboring People, the Good People. I Am Not Sorry For My Crime": William McKinley (1901) 23
Chapter 3 "I Saw Murder-No, Not Murder, a Thousand Times Worse Than Murder-I Saw Anarchy Wave Its First Bloody Triumph in Idaho": Frank Steunenberg (1905) 38
Chapter 4 "It All Happened So Rapidly. I Didn't Really Know What the Hell Was Going On": Harry S. Truman (1950) 52
Chapter 5 "RFK Must Die": Robert F. Kennedy (1968) 61
Part II Type 2 Actors 73
Chapter 6 "It's Just That We Will Never Be Young Again": John F. Kennedy (1963) 75
Chapter 7 "Whoever Dies in Project Pandoras Box Will Be Directly Attributable to the Watetgate Scandal": Richard M. Nixon (1974) 93
Chapter 8 "The Security Was So Stupid. It Was Like an Invitation": Gerald R. Ford (1975) 101
Chapter 9 "At Least Give Me the Chance, with This Historical Deed, to Gain Your Respect and Love": Ronald Reagan (1981) 116
Part III Type 3 Actors 129
Chapter 10 "I Have the Gun in My Hand. I Kill Kings and Presidents First and Next All Capitalists": Anton Cermak (1933) 131
Chapter 11 "Looking Back on My Life, I Would Have Liked It If Society Had Protected Me from Myself": George C. Wallace (1972) 142
Chapter 12 "I've Never Killed a Person Who Was Undeserving of It": John H. Wood, Jr. (1979) 153
Part IV Type 4 Actors 161
Chapter 13 "Let Me Go, Gentlemen-I Am Not Afraid-They Can't Kill Me-I Can Protect Myself": Andrew Jackson (1835) 163
Chapter 14 "I Shot the President as I Would a Rebel, If I Saw Him Pulling Down the American Flag. I Leave My Justification to God and the American People": James A. Garfield (1881) 173
Chapter 15 "Lock Me Up; I Am the Man Who Shot the Mayor": Carter Harrison, Sr. (1893) 190
Chapter 16 "I Don't Know Whether You Fully Understand That I Have Just Been Shot; But It Takes More Than That to Kill a Bull Moose": Theodore Roosevelt (1912) 199
Chapter 17 "He's Been Controlling My Mind for Years. Now I've Put an End to It": Allard K. Lowenstein (1980) 211
Chapter 18 "I Believe That for All Our Imperfections, We Are Full of Decency and Goodness, and That the Forces That Divide Us Are Not as Strong as Those That Unite Us": Gabrielle Giffords (2011) 225
Part V Unknown Or Mixed Motives 239
Chapter 19 "Oh Lord, My God, Is There No Help for a Widow's Son?": Joseph Smith, Jr. (1844) 241
Chapter 20 "I Ask No Quarter and I Fear No Foe": William Goebel (1900) 252
Chapter 21 "Every Man a King, but No One Wears a Crown": Huey P. Long (1935) 263
Chapter 22 "I Live like a Man Who's Already Dead": Malcolm X (1965) 277
Chapter 23 "I May Not Get There With You. But I Want You to Know Tonight, That We as a People, Will Get to the Promised Land": Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968) 295
Chapter 24 "If You See Me as Your Savior, I'll Be Your Savior. If You See Me as Your God, I'll Be Your God": Leo Ryan (1978) 317
Chapter 25 "We've Said All Along There Were Three Victims in This. Today Dan White Became the Third Victim": George Moscone and Harvey Milk (1978) 334
Part VI Conclusion 349
About the Author 434
“In J. Michael Martinez’s new book Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History , he does a brilliant job of putting US presidential assassinations and attempts under a microscope for an insightful and sobering view of US history.” Greg Stebben, author of White House Confidential
“This fascinating book provides a deeper understanding into the warning signs, which unfortunately, may be all too plentiful in today’s political climate.” Mike Farris, author of A Death in the Islands: The Unwritten Law and the Last Trial of Clarence Darrow
“Original and evocative, this book examines within the historical context the nature of assassinations perpetrated against twenty-five American political figures. Grappling with this perplexing issue, Martinez probes the jagged edge of human psychology. He offers a provocative explanation of the underlying motives behind political assassinations, assigning them to five categories.” Orville Vernon Burton, author The Age of Lincoln
“In Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History , Martinez thoughtfully examines political assassinations in America to understand not just the historically important question of what happened, but, perhaps more importantly, the intriguing one of why individuals resorted to violence against prominent political figures.” William D. Richardson, author of Democracy, Bureaucracy, and Character: Founding Thought
“In Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History , J. Michael Martinez provides an incisive description and analysis of a problem that has plagued nations and communities. Based on twenty-five instances of violence against elected officials and public figures in the United States, the book contributes new insight to long-standing issue.” Jeffrey L. Brudney, PhD, Betty and Dan Cameron Family Distinguished Professor of Innovation in the Nonprofit Sector, University of North Carolina Wilmington