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Presidential Inaugurations: Words and Images

Abraham Lincoln, Second Inauguration, March 4, 1865

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Lincoln's second inaugural, March 4, 1865. Architect of the Capitol. Reproduction number: LC-USA7-16837 (b&w film copy neg.).

Benjamin Brown French (1800-1870) was a New Hampshire politician, clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives and, during Lincoln's as well as Andrew Johnson's administration, commissioner of public buildings in Washington, D. C. In a heart-stopping letter of April 24, 1865, to his son, Francis, in the week following Lincoln's assassination, Benjamin French recounts his confrontation with John Wilkes Booth on Lincoln's inauguration day, March 4, 1865.

I have little doubt that the intention was to assassinate the President on the 4th of March, & circumstances have been brought to my mind which almost convince me that, without knowing what I was doing, I was somewhat instrumental in preventing it. As the procession was passing through the Rotunda toward the Eastern portico, a man jumped from the crowd into it behind the President. I saw him, & told Westfall, one of my Policemen, to order him out. He took him by the arm & stopped him, when he began to wrangle & show fight. I went up to him face to face, & told him he must go back. He said he had a right there, & looked very fierce & angry that we would not let him go on, & asserted his right so strenuously, that I thought he was a new member of the House whom I did not know & I said to Westfall "let him go." While we were thus engaged endeavouring to get this person back in the crowd, the president passed on, & I presume had reached the stand before we left the man. Neither of us thought any more of the matter until since the assassination, when a gentleman told Westfall that Booth was in the crowd that day, & broke into the line & he saw a police man hold of him keeping him back. W. then came to me and asked me if I remembered the circumstance. I told him I did, & should know the man again were I to see him. A day or two afterward he brought me a photograph of Booth, and I recognized it at once as the face of the man with whom we had the trouble. He gave me such a fiendish stare as I was pushing him back, that I took particular notice of him & fixed his face in my mind, and I think I cannot be mistaken. My theory is that he meant to rush up behind the President & assassinate him, & in the confusion escape into the crowd again & get away. But, by stopping him as we did, the President got out of his reach. All this is mere surmise, but the man was in earnest, & had some errand, or he would not have so energetically sought to go forward. . . .

In a print made about 1920 from an original photograph by Alexander Gardner, President Lincoln is seen reading his inaugural address before the crowd on the east portico of the Capitol. This is one of three photographs taken March 4, 1865, by Alexander Gardner. Above Lincoln, to the right and behind an iron railing, stands John Wilkes Booth, though he cannot be seen clearly in this photograph. In only one of the photographs, that in the Meserve Collection in the National Portrait Gallery, is Booth visible. He has a mustache and is wearing a top hat. Five of the other conspirators in Lincoln's assassination stand just below the president. Looking at a detail of the figures behind the railing in the photograph presented here reveals a man with a mustache holding a top hat in his hand who could well be John Wilkes Booth. For a discussion of the three photographs and the identity of Booth and the conspirators, see Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt and Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., Twenty Days (San Bernardino, California: Borgo Press, 1985), pp. [30]-37.

Next: Rutherford B. Hayes, Inauguration, March 5, 1877

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