The Lincoln Assassination: Crime and Punishment, Myth and Memory

By Harold Holzer; Craig L. Symonds et al. | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5

The Lincoln Assassination
in Law and Lore

Frank J. Williams

IN THE AVALANCHE OF INTENSE MOURNING THAT GREETED Abraham Lincoln's death more than 144 years ago, Americans pursued a dual and not entirely compatible course of revenge and mythification. On the one hand, his admirers elevated Lincoln to the status of icon, a transfiguration into secular sainthood that was as swift as it was sure. Yet concurrently, Americans thirsted for revenge against the conspirators who had perpetrated the murder of the man they now mourned. Through the summer of 1865, the public was entirely able to sanctify the memory of Lincoln the forgiver, the preserver of American democracy, while at the same time applaud and support the trial of the assassins by questionable military means, and in conditions that would ordinarily have been repugnant to lovers of liberty. Precisely what did the military trial of the Lincoln assassination conspirators mean in law, culture, and history?

Despite the intense and widespread hatred for Lincoln that existed during the Civil War, even in the North, there was an intense mourning for him upon his assassination. No doubt some Lincoln haters experienced a strong emotional reaction in his favor, but

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