Front Page Titles (by Subject) THE ASSASSINATION OF MR. LINCOLN. ( From The Economist, 29 th April, 1865.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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THE ASSASSINATION OF MR. LINCOLN. ( From “ The Economist, ” 29 th April, 1865.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 9.
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THE ASSASSINATION OF MR. LINCOLN.
The murder of Mr. Lincoln is a very great and very lamentable event, perhaps the greatest and most lamentable which has occurred since the coup d’état, if not since Waterloo. It affects directly and immensely the welfare of the three most powerful countries in the world, America, France, and England, and it affects them all for evil. Time, circumstances, and agent have all conspired as by some cruel perversity to increase the mischief and the horror of an act which at any moment, or under any circumstances, would have been most mischievous and horrible. It is not merely that a great man has passed away, but he has disappeared at the very time when his special greatness seemed almost essential to the world, when his death would work the widest conceivable evil, when the chance of replacing him, even partially, approached nearest to zero, and he has been removed in the very way which almost alone among causes of death could have doubled the political injury entailed by the decease itself. His death destroys one of the strongest guarantees for continued peace between his country and the external world, while his murder diminishes almost indefinitely the prospects of reconciliation between the two camps into which that country has for four years been divided. At the very instant of all others, when North and South had most reason to see in his character a possibility of reunion, and to dread the accession of his inevitable successor, a Southerner murders him to place that successor in his chair, gives occasion for an explosion of sectional hate, and makes a man who has acknowledged that hate, master of armies which can give to that hate an almost limitless expression in act. At the very moment when the dread of war between the Union and Western Europe seemed, after inflicting incessant injury for four years, about to die away, a murderer deprives us of the man who had most power and most will to maintain peace, and thereby enthrones another whose tendencies are at best an unknown quantity, but who is sure, from inexperience, to sway more towards violence than his predecessor. The injury done alike to the North, to the South, and to the world, is so irremediable, the consequences of the act may be so vast, and are certainly so numerous, that it is with some diffidence we attempt to point out the extent of the American loss, and the result that loss may produce.
The greatness of the American loss seems to us to consist especially in this. To guide and moderate a great revolution, and heal up the wounds created by Civil War, it is essential that the Government should be before all things strong. If it is weak it is sure either to be violent, or to allow some one of the jarring sections of the community to exhibit violence unrestrained, to rely on terror as the French Convention, under a false impression of its own dangers, did; or to permit a party to terrorise, as the first Ministry of Louis the Eighteenth did. The “Reign of Terror” and the “Terreur Blanc” were alike owing, one to an imaginary the other to a real weakness on the part of the governing power. There are so many passions to be restrained, so many armed men to be dealt with, so many fanatic parties to convince, so many private revenges to check, so many extra legal acts to do, that nothing except an irresistible Government can ever hope to secure the end which every Government by instinct tries to attain, namely, external order. Now, the difficulty of creating a strong Government in America is almost insuperable. The people in the first place dislike Government, not this or that administration, but Government in the abstract, to such a degree that they have invented a quasi philosophical theory, proving that Government, like war or harlotry, is a “necessary evil”. Moreover, they have constructed a machinery in the shape of States, specially and deliberately calculated to impede central action, to stop the exercise of power, to reduce Government, except so far as it is expressed in arrests by the parish constable, to an impossibility. They have an absolute Parliament, and though they have a strong Executive, it is, when opposed to the people, or even when in advance of the people, paralysed by a total absence of friends. To make this weakness permanent they have deprived even themselves of absolute power, have first forbidden themselves to change the Constitution except under circumstances which never occur, and have then, through the machinery of the common schools, given to that Constitution the moral weight of a religious document. The construction of a strong Government, therefore, i.e. of a Government able to do great acts very quickly, is really impossible, except in one event. The head of the Executive may, by an infinitesimal chance, be a man so exactly representative of the people, that his acts always represent their thoughts, so shrewd that he can steer his way amidst the legal difficulties piled deliberately in his path, and so good that he desires power only for the national ends. The chance of obtaining such a man was, as we say, infinitesimal; but the United States, by a good fortune, of which they will one day be cruelly sensible, had obtained him. Mr. Lincoln, by a rare combination of qualities—patience, sagacity, and honesty—by a still more rare sympathy, not with the best of his nation but the best average of his nation, and by a moderation rarest of all, had attained such vast moral authority that he could make all the hundred wheels of the Constitution move in one direction without exerting any physical force. For example, in order to secure the constitutional prohibition of slavery, it is absolutely essential that some forty-eight separate representative bodies, differing in modes of election, in geographical interests, in education, in prejudices, should harmoniously and strongly co-operate, and so immense was Mr. Lincoln’s influence—an influence, it must be remembered, unsupported in this case by power—that had he lived, that co-operation, of which statesmen might well despair, would have been a certainty. The President had, in fact, attained to the very position—the dictatorship—to use a bad description, required by revolutionary times. At the same time, this vast authority, not having been seized illegally, and being wielded by a man radically good—who for example really reverenced civil liberty and could tolerate venomous opposition—could never be directed to ends wholly disapproved by the ways of those who conferred it. It was, in fact, the authority which nations find it so very hard to secure, which only Italy and America have in our time secured, a good and benevolent, but resistless temporary despotism. That despotism, moreover, was exercised by a man whose brain was a very great one. We do not know in history such an example of the growth of a ruler in wisdom as was exhibited by Mr. Lincoln. Power and responsibility visibly widened his mind and elevated his character. Difficulties, instead of irritating him as they do most men, only increased his reliance on patience; opposition, instead of ulcerating, only made him more tolerant and determined. The very style of his public papers altered, till the very man who had written in an official despatch about “Uncle Sam’s web feet,” drew up his final inaugural in a style which extorted from critics so hostile as the Saturday Reviewers, a burst of involuntary admiration. A good but benevolent temporary despotism, wielded by a wise man, was the very instrument the wisest would have desired for the United States; and in losing Mr. Lincoln, the Union has lost it. The great authority attached by law to the President’s office reverts to Mr. Johnson, but the far greater moral authority belonging to Mr. Lincoln disappears. There is no longer any person in the Union whom the Union dare or will trust to do exceptional acts, to remove popular generals, to override crotchety States, to grant concessions to men in arms, to act when needful, as in the Trent case, athwart the popular instinct.
2. The consequences of this immense loss can as yet scarcely be conjectured, for the one essential datum, the character of the President, is not known. It is probable that that character has been considerably misrepresented. Judging from information necessarily imperfect, we have formed an ad interim opinion that Mr. Johnson is very like an average Scotch tradesman, very shrewd, very pushing, very narrow, and very obstinate, inclined to take the advice of any one with more knowledge than himself, but unable to act on it when opposed to certain central convictions, not oppressive, but a little indifferent if his plans result in oppression, and subject to fits of enthusiasm as hard to deal with as fits of drunkenness. Should this estimate prove correct, we shall have in the United States a Government absolutely resolved upon immediate abolition, whatever its consequences, foolish or wise according to the character of its advisers, very incapable of diplomacy, which demands above all things knowledge, very firm, excessively unpopular with its own agents, and liable to sudden and violent changes of course, so unaccountable as almost to appear freaks. Such a Government will find it difficult to overcome the thousand difficulties presented by the organisation of the States, by the bitterness of partisans, or by the exasperated feelings of the army, and will be driven, we fear, to overcome them by violence, or at least to deal with them in a spirit of unsparing rigour. It is, therefore, we conceive, primâ facie probable that the South will be slower to come in, and much less ready to settle down when it has come in, than it would have been under Mr. Lincoln; and this reluctance will be increased by the consciousness that the North has at length obtained a plausible excuse for relentless severity. It will also be much more ready to escape its difficulties by foreign war. Beyond those two somewhat vague propositions, there are as yet too few data whatever for judgment. Least of all are there data to decide whether the North will adhere to the policy of moderation. Upon the whole we think they will, the average American showing in politics that remarkable lenity which arises from perfect freedom, and the consequent absence of fear; but he is also excitable, and it is on the first direction of that excitement that everything will depend. If it takes the direction of vengeance, Mr. Johnson, whose own mind has been embittered against the planters by family injuries, may break loose from his Cabinet; but if, as is much more probable, it takes the direction of over-reverence for the policy of the dead, he must coerce his own tendencies until time and the sobering effect of great power have extinguished them. He is certainly a strong man, though of rough type, and the effect of power on the strong is usually to soften.