John Wilkes Booth, a name recognized primarily for one shocking act, has had an undeniable impact on the course of American history. Known as a talented and charismatic actor, Booth was much more than just a performing artist. Born into a prominent family of actors in Maryland, he cultivated a successful career in the theatre, performing in New York, Philadelphia, and other major cities. However, the legacy he left was not one of theatrical prowess but of political extremism and violence.
While Booth’s theatrical career took him around the country, it was the turbulent political climate of his time that ultimately directed his actions. Living through the intense factionalism of the Civil War era, Booth, a firm believer in the Southern cause and an avowed white supremacist, became the most infamous figure in American history when he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865. What Booth is less known for, but no less significant, are his strongly-held political beliefs that motivated his actions.
John Wilkes Booth’s early life
Born in 1838 in Maryland, John Wilkes Booth grew up in a large, well-to-do family. His father, Junius Brutus Booth, was a prominent actor from England who had relocated to the United States. His mother, Mary Ann Holmes, was the daughter of a successful farmer. The Booth family had a total of ten children, six of whom survived infancy. Of the Booth siblings, John Wilkes was particularly close to his older brother Edwin, who would also go on to achieve fame as an actor.
From a young age, Booth showed a flair for the dramatic. He followed in his father’s footsteps, demonstrating a talent for acting that would eventually make him a star of the American stage. Despite the success and affluence he enjoyed, however, Booth also grew up in a region deeply divided over the issue of slavery, a division that would come to define his political beliefs.
The Booth family lived in Maryland, a slave-holding border state. While not as heavily reliant on slavery as the Deep South, Maryland nonetheless had strong cultural and economic ties to the institution. Booth’s father, despite his English roots, owned slaves, as did many of their neighbors. This environment no doubt influenced Booth’s views on race and slavery, making him sympathetic to the Southern cause.
John Wilkes Booth’s early years were marked not only by the issue of slavery but also by the broader political and cultural divides between North and South. His family’s status as prominent citizens and their ties to both the North and the South gave him a unique perspective on these divisions. It was in this context that Booth’s political beliefs began to form.
John Wilkes Booth’s Political Beliefs
Booth was a staunch supporter of the Southern cause during the American Civil War. His beliefs were rooted in a deep commitment to the principles of states’ rights and the preservation of the Southern way of life, which he perceived to be under attack by the Northern states and the federal government. He was also a fervent believer in white supremacy, viewing the abolitionist movement as a direct threat to racial hierarchy.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, Booth became increasingly politically active. He was a fervent secessionist, advocating for the Southern states to break away from the Union in order to preserve their rights, particularly their right to own slaves. He also expressed strong opposition to Abraham Lincoln, viewing him as a threat to Southern interests.
Beyond expressing his views in private circles, Booth also took more concrete actions to support the Southern cause. In 1859, he joined a pro-Southern militia group, the Richmond Grays, in order to witness the execution of the abolitionist John Brown. Booth’s presence at the execution was a symbolic act of defiance against the abolitionist movement and an endorsement of Southern interests.
Despite living in the North for much of his adult life, Booth never abandoned his Southern sympathies. Throughout the Civil War, he continued to express support for the Confederate cause, even as the tide of the war turned against the South. His political beliefs, deeply ingrained and increasingly radical, eventually led him to take the most drastic action imaginable.
Did John Wilkes Booth own slaves?
Although there is no direct evidence that John Wilkes Booth personally owned slaves, it is clear that he was born into a family and a culture that did. His father, Junius Brutus Booth, was a slave owner, and many members of the extended Booth family in Maryland also owned slaves.
Booth’s upbringing in a slave-holding society likely had a significant influence on his political beliefs. He was raised with the idea that slavery was a natural and necessary institution, and this belief was reinforced by the culture and economy of Maryland, a state that was deeply divided over the issue of slavery.
Despite living in the North for much of his adult life, Booth never disavowed his Southern roots or his support for slavery. In fact, his political rhetoric and actions suggest that he saw himself as a defender of the Southern way of life, including the institution of slavery. However, it is worth noting that Booth’s support for the Southern cause went beyond just the issue of slavery; he was also a strong believer in states’ rights and the preservation of what he perceived to be traditional Southern values.
The Conspiracy to Overthrow the Government
In the years leading up to the assassination of President Lincoln, Booth was not only a vocal supporter of the Southern cause but also an active participant in efforts to undermine the Union. He was involved in a series of plots aimed at destabilizing the Northern war effort, including a plan to kidnap President Lincoln and hold him ransom in exchange for Confederate prisoners of war.
Initially, Booth’s conspiratorial activities centered around the idea of kidnapping Lincoln and using him as leverage to negotiate a favorable end to the war for the South. He recruited a small group of like-minded individuals, including several Confederate sympathizers and former Confederate soldiers, to assist in his plan.
However, as the war drew to a close and it became clear that the South was going to lose, Booth’s plans took a more violent turn. He became convinced that Lincoln and other key leaders of the Union, including Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward, needed to be eliminated in order to give the South a chance to regroup and continue the fight.
Booth’s plan to assassinate Lincoln was a desperate last-ditch effort to turn the tide of the war. It was not an isolated act of violence but rather the culmination of years of political radicalization and anti-Union activities. While the plan ultimately failed to achieve its broader goals, it succeeded in forever altering the course of American history.
Lincoln’s assassination and John Wilkes Booth’s final days
The days leading up to the assassination of President Lincoln were a whirlwind of activity for Booth. With the fall of Richmond and the imminent surrender of the Confederate army, he felt a sense of urgency to act. On April 14, 1865, Booth learned that Lincoln would be attending a play at Ford’s Theatre that evening. Seeing his opportunity, Booth made his plans.
That night, Booth entered Ford’s Theatre and made his way to the presidential box. He shot Lincoln in the back of the head, then leaped onto the stage, shouting “Sic semper tyrannis!”—thus always to tyrants, the state motto of Virginia. He fled the theatre, setting off a massive manhunt.
Booth escaped into Southern Maryland, where he was aided by a network of Confederate sympathizers. For nearly two weeks, he evaded capture, despite the efforts of federal troops and detectives. However, his freedom was short-lived. On April 26, Booth was found hiding in a barn in Virginia. When he refused to surrender, the barn was set on fire, and Booth was shot by a Union soldier.
Booth died just hours later, his dreams of a Confederate victory dashed and his name forever associated with one of the most infamous acts in American history. His legacy, however, lives on, a reminder of the extreme political polarization of the Civil War era and the lengths to which some individuals will go to defend their beliefs.
For more interesting facts about John Wilkes Booth, read our article 7 Things to Know About John Wilkes Booth