Was Abraham Lincoln Killed Because He Freed Black Slaves in 1863?

On the morning of the first day of 1863, the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln hosted a three-hour reception in the White House. That afternoon, Lincoln snuck into his office and quietly signed a document that would change America forever.

It was the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared that “all persons held as slaves” in the rebellious Southern states “are, and shall be, free.”

However, none of the nation’s nearly 4 million slaves were immediately freed as a result of the declaration. The most significant effect was that, for the first time in the bloody civil war with the Confederates, ending slavery became a priority of the Union.

The news sent shockwaves through a divided United States. Although southern newspapers were outraged, the northern ones welcomed the news.

As a matter of fact, the news was also welcomed by free African Americans in the north.

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Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1909 – April 15, 1965), 16th President of the United States (March 4, 1961 – April 15, 1965)/Getty Images.

The announcement came as no surprise. On July 22, 1862, Lincoln delivered his draft of a preliminary order to the Cabinet. Before publishing the paper, Secretary of State William Seward advised the president to wait until the North had won a new victory over Southern forces.

Abraham Lincoln released the preliminary declaration on September 22, just days after Union forces declared victory in the Battle of Antietam. It declared that unless Southern states surrendered by January 1, 1863, the president would issue a final order making their slaves “forever free.”

The war went on. Some questioned whether Lincoln would follow through on his threat. However, on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the final Emancipation Proclamation.

Although Lincoln claimed that freeing the slaves was the right thing to do, his declaration was merely a tactical “war measure” in the fight against the Confederacy. The proclamation made it possible for black men to join the Union military. Nearly 200,000 African Americans eventually fought for the North. The proclamation prohibited anti-slavery foreign nations, such as England, from intervening on the Confederate side by making abolition a Union target.

Abraham Lincoln, who was re-elected in 1864, understood that his declaration of war was only temporary, and he pressed Congress to change the Constitution to permanently abolish slavery. Both houses of Congress passed the 13th Amendment on January 31, 1865, stating that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist in the United States.”

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President Abraham Lincoln, surrounded by his cabinet, signs the Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863/Craig Hill.

After 27 of the 36 states, or two-thirds, ratified the amendment, slavery was abolished on December 18, 1865. Lincoln did not live to see his proclamation come to fruition. On April 14, 1865, five days after the South surrendered, President Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed at Ford’s Theatre in Washington by a Southern sympathizer named John Wilkes Booth.

What prompted Booth to kill the President? Was it because of the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the black slaves? We shall soon find out.

Who was John Wilkes Booth?

Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, just days before the American Civil War ended. Nevertheless, the joy of this day would be quickly broken by the news that President Lincoln had been assassinated.

Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865, while watching a performance at the Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. The next morning, Lincoln died, but it would be another two weeks before his killer was apprehended.

Lincoln’s killer, John Wilkes Booth was born on May 10, 1838, to prominent British actors Junius Brutus Booth and Mary Ann Holmes. He followed in his parents’ footsteps and made his stage debut in Shakespeare’s Richard III in Baltimore in 1855 at the age of 17. He had been involved in the Know-Nothing Party, a nativist political movement at the time, a year before.

Booth went on to become a well-known actor who wowed audiences with his energetic performances. He made his admiration for the Southern Secession known when the civil war broke out, nearly having himself expelled from Albany, New York.

The plot to kidnap Abraham Lincoln

Booth agreed to act when the tide had clearly turned against the South and the war’s end was obvious. He devised a plan to abduct President Abraham Lincoln with the help of his associates. They intended to smuggle Lincoln to Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, once he was in their hands.

However, things did not go as expected. On the day of the scheduled kidnapping, March 20, 1865, Lincoln failed to show up at the designated spot. Richmond fell to Union forces two weeks later, and General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9.

The Lincoln assassination

After failing to kidnap Lincoln and realising that the scheme was no longer feasible, now that Richmond was under Union influence, Booth switched to plan B: assassinating President Abraham Lincoln. He found out that Lincoln and his wife would be attending a production of “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre by chance. His intention was to assassinate Lincoln with the help of his accomplices, who would then assassinate Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward, effectively truncating the government.

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John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, c.1865/Public Domain.

The Lincolns were accompanied to the play by Henry Rathbone, a young army officer, and Clara Harris, his fiancée. The community was seated in a private box with a view of the stage.

Booth slipped into Lincoln’s box around 10 p.m. and shot the President in the back of the head with a pistol.

Rathbone, surprised, attempted to apprehend the attacker right away, but Booth stabbed him in the shoulder. John Wilkes Booth then jumped from the balcony to the stage and exclaimed, Sic semper tyrannis! The Virginia state motto, which means, Thus ever to tyrants! The crowd’s initial response was that it was all part of the act, before Mary Lincoln’s screams were heard.

If he broke his leg jumping to the stage or later during his escape is debatable, but Booth managed to flee. He had a horse ready to transport him out of the city. His two co-conspirators, however, were not successful in their attempts.

Since Booth was a well-known actor, many in the crowd recognised him right away, and the Union army was soon after him and his accomplice, David Herold. The two came to a halt at the home of Samuel Mudd, a doctor who had helped Booth with his broken leg. Dr. Mudd was sentenced to life in prison for his efforts, but his sentence was later commuted.

John Wilkes Booth is captured

On April 26, Union troops apprehended Booth and Herold and surrounded the Virginia barn where they were hiding. Herold gave up the fight, but Booth remained inside. The troops set fire to the barn in an attempt to root out the fugitive. A sergeant shot Booth in the neck as the fire grew, and he was finally taken out of the building alive.

John Wilkes Booth held on for some time before asking that his hands be raised to his face so that he could see them. Staring at his hands, Booth said his last words: “Useless, useless.”

Abraham Lincoln’s death

After Lincoln was shot, a young doctor in the audience, Charles Leale rushed to the presidential box to treat the President. Some soldiers then carried the dying Lincoln across the street to a boarding house and laid him on a bed. When the surgeon-general arrived at the president’s bedside, he concluded that Lincoln could not be saved and that he would most likely die during the night.

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An illustration of John Wilkes Booth preparing to shoot President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater, April 14, 1865/Wikimedia Commons.

Friends, members of Lincoln’s Cabinet, and Vice President Andrew Johnson stood by Abraham Lincoln’s bedside as his soul slowly left his body. In the adjoining room, First Lady Mary Lincoln, accompanied by her eldest son Robert Lincoln, was distraught with grief.

At 7:22 a.m., Saturday, April 15, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was pronounced dead. He was 56.

The nation mourns Lincoln

After the President died, he was escorted by an armed cavalry to the White House. On April 18, Lincoln’s body was carried to the Capitol rotunda where he laid in state for three days. Afterward, his remains were boarded onto a train that transported him to Springfield, Illinois.

Thousands of people line the rail tracks along the funeral train path. He was buried along with his son, William Lincoln, at Oak Ridge Cemetery on May 4, 1865.

Now to the burning question. Did John Wilkes Booth kill President Abraham Lincoln because he freed black slaves?

The Slavery Question

Lincoln’s decision to enact the Emancipation Proclamation, which would free black slaves, in order to crush the Confederacy had killed him. Abraham Lincoln also indicated a wish to extend the voting rights to some African-Americans—at the very least, those who had fought in the Union ranks during the war—and expressed a desire that the southern states would extend the vote to literate blacks, as well.

The American Civil War was fundamentally a conflict over slavery.

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President Abraham Lincoln with African Americans outside of the White House, c.1863/Bettmann Archive/Getty Images.

Nevertheless, emancipation, when it came, would have to be gradual, according to Lincoln, because the most important thing was to keep the Southern rebellion from severing the Union permanently. The end of slavery was just the beginning of a long fight by African Americans for full citizenship in the United States. In the 1960s, racial segregation in the South continued – from public accommodations to colleges.

In August 1963, an integrated crowd of more than 250,000 swarmed around the Lincoln Memorial for the March on Washington where Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech.

It’s been 158 years since the Emancipation Proclamation. But is the black man really free?

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Sources

Heilman G. (2021). Who killed Abraham Lincoln, when, how and why? Retrieved from https://en.as.com/en/2021/02/12/latest_news/1613146394_958932.html

Pruitt, S. (2012). 5 Things You May Not Know About Abraham Lincoln, Slavery and Emancipation. https://www.history.com/news/5-things-you-may-not-know-about-lincoln-slavery-and-emancipation

Shafer, R.G. (2019). Lincoln moved to end slavery on New Year’s Day 1863. It went on for three more years. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/01/01/lincoln-declared-an-end-slavery-new-years-day-it-went-two-more-years/

teachinghistory.org (2018). Booth’s Reason for Assassination. Retrieved from https://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/24242

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