On April 14, 1865, as the nation celebrated the end of the Civil War, its President, Abraham Lincoln, attended a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. Often considered one of the darkest moments in American history, this night at the theater ended with John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer, sneaking into the President’s box and shooting him in the back of the head.
Most Americans know the story of the assassination, including that as John Wilkes Booth jumped down from President Lincoln’s box onto the stage, he yelled “Sic semper tyrannis” (thus always to tyrants). You might not know that the phrase appears in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, after Brutus assassinates Caesar.
As an actor himself, Booth would have been familiar with the phrase as well as its interpretation, meaning that tyrants will always be overthrown. The phrase was also adopted as the motto of the state of Virginia at the dawn of the American Revolution, no doubt a dig at the sovereign King George. Intending to overthrow what he saw as an autocratic government, Booth was the mastermind behind a conspiracy that intended to take out the President as well as Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. He and his co-conspirators hoped they could decapitate the Union government and revive the Confederacy.
Thankfully, Booth’s efforts to upend the government did not succeed, however; after being shot, President Lincoln was carried across the street to a boarding house, where he succumbed to his injuries the following morning.
To read more about this event, start here:
Washington Post: Abraham Lincoln’s assassination: Great joy, then a gunshot