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America's Original Sin

White Supremacy, John Wilkes Booth, and the Lincoln Assassination

Finally, a compelling narrative history of the Lincoln assassination that refuses to ignore John Wilkes Booth's motivation: his growing, obsessive commitment to white supremacy.

On April 14, 1865, after nearly a year of conspiring, John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln as the president watched a production of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre. Lincoln died the next morning. Twelve days later, Booth himself was fatally shot by a Union soldier after an extensive manhunt. The basic outline of this story is well known even to schoolchildren; what has been obscured is Booth's motivation for the act, which remains widely misunderstood nearly 160 years after the shot from his pocket pistol echoed through the crowded theater.

In this riveting new book, John Rhodehamel argues that Booth's primary motivation for his heinous crime was a growing commitment to white supremacy. In alternating chapters, Original Sin shows how, as Lincoln's commitment to emancipation and racial equality grew, so too did Booth's rage and hatred for Lincoln, whom he referred to as "King Abraham Africanus the First." Examining Booth's early life in Maryland, Rhodehamel traces the evolution of his racial hatred from his youthful embrace of white supremacy through to his final act of murder. Along the way, he considers and discards other potential motivations for Booth's act, such as mental illness or persistent drunkenness, which are all, Rhodehamel writes, either insufficient to explain Booth's actions or were excuses made after the fact by those who sympathized with him.

Focusing on how white supremacy brought about the Civil War and, later, betrayed the conflict's emancipationist legacy, Rhodehamel's masterful narrative makes this old story seem new again. The first book to explicitly name white supremacy as the motivation for Lincoln's assassination, America's Original Sin is an important and eloquent look at one of the most notorious episodes in American history.

About the Author

John Rhodehamel is the former archivist of George Washington's Mount Vernon and the former curator of American historical manuscripts at the Huntington Library. His most recent book, George Washington: The Wonder of the Age, was singled out as "the only Washington biography you need" by the Wall Street Journal.

Endorsements

"This unique book combines Rhodehamel's intriguing insights with the excellent characterizations and top-tier research that have always distinguished his work."

- Terry Alford, Professor Emeritus, Northern Virginia Community College, author of Fortune's Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth

"By emphasizing John Wilkes Booth's devotion to white supremacy and the depth of his rage at Abraham Lincoln's public call for black voting rights, Rhodehamel shows why the sixteenth president should be regarded as a martyr to African American civil rights."

- Michael Burlingame, University of Illinois Springfield, author of Abraham Lincoln: A Life

"America's Original Sin offers an engaging and (unfortunately) very timely review of the life of John Wilkes Booth and his assassination of Abraham Lincoln. By emphasizing Booth's racism and devotion to white supremacist politics as the keys to his murderous deed, the author challenges the widespread notion that Booth was either simply a madman or an overzealous Southern partisan. Presenting this argument in an engagingly well-written narrative history, Rhodehamel has done a great service by bringing this point to a wide audience. An important and powerful book."

- Michael E. Woods, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, author of Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy

"Driven by a love of the South and a zealous belief in slavery and white supremacy, John Wilkes Booth proceeds on a collision course with the Union commander-in-chief and author of the Emancipation Proclamation in the pages of this gripping dual biography of the president and his assassin."

- James McPherson, Princeton University, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

"John Rhodehamel has been responsible for much scrupulous, evocatively crafted scholarship on the Lincoln assassination and its aftermath, and America's Original Sin is yet another hypnotic, thought-provoking, and elegant look at that fraught period of American history. Rhodehamel not only transports us back to the dramatic period leading up to and following the president's murder, but he also presents mesmerizing character portraits of John Wilkes Booth and his complicated family, friends, and accomplices. Most important of all, this book presents the Lincoln murder plot as it should be remembered: not a theatricalized act of madness, but as a sinful effort to sustain white supremacy and prevent or postpone the march toward equal rights in America. This page-turner is destined to occupy an essential place on the history bookshelf."

- Harold Holzer, Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute, Hunter College, author of Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion
Johns Hopkins University Press
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September 7, 2021
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