Thursday, March 15, 2012

Bill O'Reilly, Killing Lincoln (2011)

Was Abraham Lincoln the 19th century equivalent of Jesus Christ (nee Yeshua, English name Joshua)? Or was he the 19th century equivalent of Julius Caesar? Bill O'Reilly seems to believe he is one or the other, or perhaps both. Like Jesus, Lincoln was well-read in the scriptures and had a premonition of his death. The biblical story of the death of Jesus, however, reads more like an assisted suicide. (See September 9, 2010 post). A lingering question over Lincoln's death is whether the President and some in his inner circle were negligent in failing to make a more robust effort to protect the President given that there were both intelligence and rumors indicating that persons might try to take his life. Lincoln did not have death wish. As O'Reilly points out, the President was turning his attention to the reunification of the States now that the war was over and a man with that objective would not have had a death wish.

Others have attempted to draw parallels between Julius Caesar and Abraham Lincoln, but the only meaningful similarities are that both were leaders and both were assasinated at approximately 56 years of age. The more interesting angle, which is not lost on O'Reilly, is Lincoln's interest in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and the fact that Mary Lincoln bought her husband a copy of the Shakespeare play shortly before he was killed. Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had acted in the Shakespeare play, the only play in which he performed with both of his brothers.

In the epilogue, O'Reilly concludes, "Just as the story of Julius Caesar has been told and retold for centuries, the tragedy that befell Lincoln should be known by every American. His life and death continue to shape us as a people, even today. America is a great country, but like every other nation on earth it is influenced by evil. John Wilkes Booth epitomizes the evil that can harm us, even as President Abraham Lincoln represents the good that can make us stronger." Here, O'Reilly uses the word tragedy to refer to an event. In contrast, Shakespearean tragedy, such as Julius Caesar, is not an event, but a story-form , in which (typically) the protagonist represents an admirable, but nevertheless flawed character, who suffers a fall. Most would probably concede that the death of Julius Caesar was not a tragedy: a dicator was overthrown in the name of the people of Rome. And the admirable but flawed character of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar who meets his demise, is not Caesar, but one of Caesar's assassins, Brutus. While Lincoln's interest in the story of Julius Caesar makes for an interesting coincidence, the parallels between Lincoln's death and Julius Caesar are limited. Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth, is not an admirable but flawed character. As O'Reilly acknowledges, Booth was undoubtedly flawed by his false sense of self-importance, but he was not admirable: he was evil.

O'Reilly calls his book a "thriller," and it is certainly written as a page-turner. Despite a number of minor factual errors, O'Reilly's book is documented history. It is not historical fiction. This book therefore demonstrates that even historical research, if all of its purported facts are uncritically accepted, might have the power to shape belief in an uninformed way. While this outcome is unlikely with respect to beliefs about the good represented by Abraham Lincoln or the evil represented by his assassin, Booth, it could misinform the public about how Mary Surratt was treated (p.278) while she awaited her fate.

The "tragedy" in the story of Lincoln's death, if you want to call it that, lies in the unfinished business of reconciling the war-torn nation. Six weeks before his death and five weeks before the end of the Civil War, Lincoln sets out his vision for a post-Civil War America in his second inaugural address: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations." Would the Reconstruction have been any different had Lincoln lived to fill out his second term? Would a subsequent Supreme Court have tolerated Jim Crow? And would we have experienced the level of racial lynchings across the southern states that ensued in the decades after the Civil War was over? (See December 16, 2010 post). We will never know, but if Booth's murderous act had consequences, these are the kind of consequences that were possibly put into motion by his act.

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