All Commentary
Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Bullets, Ballots, and the Bard

And did his assassin?

When most of us hear “John Wilkes,” the next thing we think is “Booth.” But Lincoln’s infamous assassin was named for the once-famous English radical liberal John Wilkes, who was also a distant relative of the Booths. The earlier Wilkes has, unfortunately, been relegated a footnote in Western history.

JWB’s grandfather was a London lawyer who avidly supported the new American republic — and one of the ways grandpa Booth announced his classical-liberal values to the world was by naming his son (JWB’s father) Junius Brutus Booth, after one of Julius Caesar’s republican assassins.

As historian Barry Strauss writes at History News Network,

Booth was all but fated to compare himself to Brutus. Both his father and a brother were named Junius Brutus Booth; Booth himself played Brutus on stage and called it his favorite Shakespearean role. Just a few months before the assassination, in 1864, Booth and his two brothers played in a benefit performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in New York City. Booth played the part of Mark Antony, but another stage beckoned.

That other stage was not, according to Strauss, for the particular dramatic role Booth thought he’d be playing, because history does not work according to the rules of drama, at least not as the angry young actor understood such things.

Everything that Booth thought about Brutus, Caesar and political assassination was wrong. Yet if Booth was a lousy historian he was a faithful student of Shakespeare. The Bard makes Brutus into a noble Roman and downplays the conspirators’ squalid calculations of power and privilege. Nor did Booth consider that Brutus unleashed the dogs of war – against himself. . . .

Few of those who hear Shakespeare’s stirring lines in Julius Caesar consider how different historical events were from the play. The real tragedy is not the death of Brutus or Caesar but society’s failure to settle differences peacefully, by ballots rather than bullets – or daggers. Poetry inspires us to good deeds and bad. History teaches us the sober and complex truths that we ought to live by.

But Booth was not the only one who got history wrong:

If Booth misread the lessons of history so did Lincoln. Lincoln thought he was a peacemaker. In his Second Inaugural Address five weeks earlier he called for “charity towards all,” “bind[ing] up the nation’s wounds,” and achieving “a just and lasting peace.” But civil war lights fires that do not die out when the battles end.

Strauss believes America’s 16th president was “the best hope for racial harmony and reconciliation,” and says that Lincoln thought of himself as a peacemaker — assessments that many libertarians may question —  and he also implies that ballots are the only alternative to bullets, while some of us consider voting to be a lesser evil when there are positive goods available.

But as his post emphasizes, knowing the history that people carry around in their heads is essential to making sense of their motives, and a great work of historical literature, even one of the Bard’s masterworks, may not be the best guide to cause and effect in matters of war and peace. History may not be a Manichean narrative, but the belief that it is has altered its course in many strange and tragic ways. And that fault, at least, is in ourselves.