A Belated Apology

When the terrible shock of Lincoln’s assassination first echoed forth on the morning of April 15, 1865, carrying the word to an as-yet unknowing world, friend and foe alike took pause to reflect upon the meaning of it all. One of the most interesting facets of such an historical moment is how it may tend to freeze, reveal, or reverse the true feelings of one person about another.  At such a time, much of note, from the abhorrent to the altruistic, may come to light.  Such was the case with the death of Lincoln.

After four years of intense conflict, the war had left virtually nothing untouched.  Emotions, already frayed in border communities, finally snapped in Maryland.  Nine days before the President’s death, the outspoken, and increasingly unpopular, Southern-leaning editor of Westminster’s Western Maryland Democrat, Joseph Shaw, had called upon “Providence” to relieve the country of its burden, to clear the way for Andrew Johnson.  After Booth struck, a mob destroyed Shaw’s newspaper press, and he was subsequently murdered by a group of five men, who beat, shot and stabbed him to death.  Given the larger mood of the country at the moment, it is perhaps unsurprising that while all five were later tried, they were acquitted of the charges.

Word of the President’s murder quickly spread “a thousand directions,” and by April 26th it was known across the Atlantic.

From the April 26, 1865, London Times

“The intelligence of the assassination of President Lincoln and of the attempt to assassinate Mr. Seward caused a most extraordinary sensation in the city yesterday. Towards noon the news became known, and it spread rapidly from mouth to mouth in all directions. At first many were incredulous as to the truth of the rumour, and some believed it to have been set afloat for purposes in connexion with the Stock-Exchange.”

The “excitement caused by the intelligence was manifest in the public streets, and the event was the theme of conversation everywhere.”  It was reported “there was no face in which grief was not depicted, no sentiment uttered but that of abhorrence at these foul crimes.”

up a tree

“Lincoln as A Treed Raccoon,” Feb. 11, 1862, during the Trent affair.

One English location, however, where the reaction to Lincoln’s death was hotly debated was the boardroom of Great Britain’s Punch magazine.  This publication, famous for searing editorials and scandalous cartoons depicting various political figures of the day, had paid special attention to “the war across the shore,” given the impact the American conflict had played on cotton imports, the Union blockade of the American coast and subsequent mill shut-downs in Britain, arms exports, the Trent affair, and other international matters generally.  While Punch took no favorites, delighting in satirizing the failures and foibles of both combatants, Mr. Lincoln had long been a particular target of the magazine’s editorial staff.

Now, with the American war all-but concluded, and the victorious Northern commander-in-chief struck down in such in a manner, a debate arose.  Should, and if so how, might Punch honor this fallen foreign leader who had often been their target?

One writer, Thomas Taylor, felt a public acknowledgement of his loss should be made.  At a dinner discussion for the upcoming May 6th issue, he read portions of a memorial that not only eulogized the slain President, but chastised Punch itself for having treated Lincoln the way it had during his career.

brooks

C. Shirley Brooks

The editor, Mark Lemon, listened as his senior writers fought out the battle before him, voicing opposition to Taylor’s view.  Another contributor and future Punch editor, C. Shirley Brooks, recorded the struggle this way later in his diary:

“Dined [at] Punch.  All there. Let out my views against some verses on Lincoln in which T.T. [Tom Taylor] had not only made P[unch] eat humble pie, but swallow dish and all.

Ultimately, however, when the shouting was all through, the decision was made that the May 6th issue of Punch would bear tributes to the man it once had actively mocked.  Two primary elements composed it: a striking editorial cartoon –

Britannia

In this editorial cartoon from Punch’s May 6th edition, Lincoln’s recumbent corpse bears two mourning wreaths; the first from the still deeply-mourning Columbia (left,) while the somewhat-more detached Britannia places the second. To the right, a recently liberated slave also mourns.

…and Tom Taylor’s remarkable poem, entitled simply Abraham Lincoln, Foully Assassinated, April 14, 1865.

Composed of nineteen verses, it was both a paean to Lincoln the man and to the leader, as he had matured on the frontier and through the fiery furnace of four years of terrible national conflict. In this respect, it was not unusual.  What makes this work stand out, however, is what else Taylor put into the work – and what put some of his fellow writers so ill-at ease.  Apology does not come easily to political satirists.  But Taylor was insistent, and he won the day.  Lincoln had proven himself worthy, and had lost his life in the cause of his country.  Perhaps, just, once, Punch could do the right thing.  So before the body of the memorial poem truly commences, the poet clears his conscience (v. 1-5) –

You lay a wreath on murdered Lincoln’s
bier,
You, who, with mocking pencil, wont to
trace.

Broad for the self-complaisant British sneer,
His length of shambling limb, his furrowed
face,

His gaunt, gnarled hands, his unkempt,
bristling hair,
His garb uncouth, his bearing ill at ease,
His lack of all we prize as debonair,
Of power or will to shine, of art to please;

You, whose smart pen backed up the
pencil’s laugh,
Judging each step as though the way were
plain;
Reckless, so it could point its paragraph
Of chief’s perplexity, or people’s pain, –

Beside this corpse, that bears for winding-
sheet
The Stars and Stripes he lived to rear anew,
Between the mourners at his head and feet,
Say, scurrile jester, is there room for you?

Yes, he had lived to shame me from my
sneer,
To lame my pencil, and confute my pen;
To make me own this hind of Prince’s peer,
This rail-splitter a true-born king of men.

This self-condemnation was further accentuated by the praiseworthy tones struck in Taylor’s closing verses (v. 16 -19)

The words of mercy were upon his lips,
Forgiveness in his heart and on his pen,
When this vile murderer brought swift
eclipse
To thoughts of peace on earth, good will to
men.
 

The Old World and the New, from sea to
sea,
Utter one voice of sympathy and shame.
Sore heart, so stopped when it at last beat
high!
Sad life, cut short just as its triumph came!

A deed accursed!  Strokes have been struck
before
By the assassin’s hand, wherof men doubt
If more of horror or disgrace they bore;
But thy foul crime, like Cain’s, stands darkly
out,

Vile hand, that brandest murder on a strife,
Whate’er its grounds, stoutly and nobly
striven,
And with the martyr’s crown crownest a
life,
With much to praise, little to be forgiven.

Tom Taylor

Thomas Taylor

So why, from the nest of Punch, this sudden need to conciliate?   What drove Thomas Taylor to fight so determinedly for the artistic expression to print these words?   For the present is always upon us, and a satirist’s work is never done. Surely there would soon be fresh personalities upon the horizon for the picking.

The answer, as it often does, perhaps lies in the small print.  While Taylor eventually aspired to a myriad of careers (as an art critic, biographer, professor of English at University College, London, and so forth,) one facet, and one moment of his life binds him inextricably to Abraham Lincoln.  You see, Taylor was also a playwright, with eventually one hundred or so works to his credit – and it was his creation, Our American Cousin, the President had gone to see that fateful night, and during which, had fallen “foully murdered.”  If you were Tom Taylor, then, how would you feel?

Ranger Bert Barnett

About The Staff

Staff of Gettysburg National Military Park
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One Response to A Belated Apology

  1. wildninja says:

    This is an amazing article. Thank you.

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