Samuel Meisenberg is a graduating senior at The George Washington University. Here, he offers reflections on the sesquicentennial of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and its modern day relevance.
There’s a ghost in D.C. A particularly rangy, haggard one with long black coattails and a silk top hat can be found limping around Ford’s Theater on 10th and F Street and at the nearby Petersen boarding house. These locations have been recreated to help us see the ghost. The Presidential box has been restored to look the way it did on April 14th, 1865, when the ‘American Brutus,’ John Wilkes Booth, fired a bullet into the brilliant brain that had conceived the words “a new birth of freedom” and pledged America to rebuild with, “malice toward none, with charity for all.”
But more than just commemoration is at work in this place. The spirits are especially active this month as it is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death. At a recent showing of The Widow Lincoln, an imagining of the grief experienced by Mrs. Lincoln and the nation in the aftermath of the assassination, the spirits hung over the President’s box. On the front of the Presidential box is a portrait of Lincoln’s favorite President, our own George Washington. It is framed by the restored flag bunting which entangled the assassin and caused him to plummet to the stage, shattering his leg. From that stage, history emanates in shimmering waves. There’s Booth ranting “Sic Semper Tyranis” before limping his way to the basement and exiting to his rendezvous with Dr. Mudd and a Union patrol. Listen carefully and you can hear the President’s guests shout for help and watch the chaos unfold as two doctors fight the crowd to reach the stricken President, destined never to regain consciousness.
While an actor simulates him on that infamous stage, the mind’s eye can pass over the box and imagine the President. The haggard man, famous for his melancholia, is laughing. This light comedy of manners, Our American Cousin, has him grinning. The man who salvaged the work of Washington and brought delayed credence to the words of Jefferson laughs in his high-pitched Kentucky twang. A man of great brilliance amused by trifles. He laughs loudly as a bullet crashes into his magnificent brain.
Lincoln haunts this place not just because the suit of clothes he wore on his death night are displayed in the basement. Rather, his spirit is forced to linger here because of the nation’s unfinished business: the healing of America. Lincoln knew that neither abolition nor a 14th Amendment, guaranteeing legal equality, was sufficient to correct the injustice which was the midwife of America’s birth in 1787. He had chartered a path for racial equality. But Booth’s small bullet killed not only Lincoln, but it also gravely wounded the cause of reconstruction and racial justice which was left to lesser men. Lincoln’s ghost lingers here because the nation has not finished his and its agenda.
Across the street in the parlor of the Petersen House is the parlor where Stanton informed Mrs. Lincoln of the great man’s death the next morning. “Now he belongs to the ages,” he proclaimed. Indeed he does, and he haunts the ramparts until the racial healing will be complete. The bed in which Lincoln died seems impossibly small to accommodate the over-large President. It is not a ceremonious location to die, but Lincoln was a humble man. It would not have disappointed him that it was not a throne, though he surely deserves one. What he deserves most, though, is an end to the haunting. He deserves to rest at last, and that is up to, as Lincoln noted at Gettysburg, “us, the living.”