“Passion governs, and she never governs wisely,” wrote Benjamin Franklin to Joseph Galloway in 1775. Wise words from the wisest of America’s Founders, yet ninety years later the very government that Franklin helped create disregarded his wisdom, fell prey to those very passions, and trampled the constitutional rights of its own citizens in order to help quench what seemed an insatiable thirst for vengeance.
On July 7, 1865, one of those citizens, Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Surratt of Maryland, went to the gallows for her role, or supposed role, in the plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Though her execution would not have seemed a tragedy to Northerners in 1865, or to many Americans today, it is a glaring example of how government can become tyrannical when given the opportunity, particularly when passions are at a fever pitch, just as Franklin had warned.
As history tells us, Lincoln met his fate at Ford’s Theater on the evening of April 14, 1865, just days after General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Euphoric feelings across the North celebrating the end of a long and bloody war quickly abated after news spread that actor John Wilkes Booth had shot the President in the back of the head as he watched a performance of “Our American Cousin.” The injury proved fatal and Lincoln succumbed at 7:22 am on the morning of the 15th.Northerners were now bent on revenge for an act the federal government viewed as the last gasp of the Confederate cause.
Investigating authorities soon discovered a Booth-led plot involving a number of conspirators, including Mary Surratt, who owned a boarding house in Washington City, her son John, and several other men, among whom were Dr. Samuel Mudd, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt.
All would eventually face the hammer of American justice, in one form or another, for what was proving to be a wide-ranging conspiracy, which included other targets – Secretary of State William H. Seward, who was viciously stabbed multiple times but survived, Vice President Andrew Johnson, whose attacker, Atzerodt, apparently backed out, and perhaps General Ulysses S. Grant, who escaped a possible attack after deciding not to attend the play that night. Killing all four leaders in one fell swoop would have effectively decapitated the US government.