Captain William E. Doster delivered a remarkably powerful summation for his client, Lewis Powell (referred to as Lewis Payne in Doster's summation and during the trial), before the Military Commission appointed to try the Lincoln assassination conspirators. Faced with overwhelming evidence of guilt, Doster argued that the Commission should spare Powell's life because he was a victim of slavery, the horrors of war, and his own imagination. Although ultimately unsuccessful (Powell was hanged on July 7, 1865), Doster's eloquent summation is fascinating reading.
ARGUMENT IN DEFENSE OF LEWIS POWELL, BY W.E. DOSTER, ESQ.
May it please the Court:
I. There are three things in the case of the prisoner,
Payne, which are admitted beyond civil or dispute:
The question of his identity and the question of his
sanity are, therefore, settled, and among the things of
the past. The sole question that remains is, how far
shall his convictions serve to mitigate his punishment?
I use the word punishment deliberately, and with the
consciousness that in so doing I admit that if he is a
responsible being he ought to be punished. And I say it,
because I can not allow my duties as counsel to
interfere with my convictions as a man so far as to make
me blind to the worth of the life of a distinguished
citizen, and the awful consequences of an attempt to
take it away. If, indeed, such an attempt be allowed to
go without rebuke, then it seems to me the office is but
a perilous exposure to violence; then the highest
compensation for public services is the distinction
which follows assassination, and then our public
servants are but pitiable and defenseless offerings to
sedition. And surely, if any public servant deserved to
be excepted from that fates it was he, the illustrious
and sagacious statesman, who, during a long life of
arduous services, has steadfastly checked all manner of
factious and public discontent; who, in the darkest days
of discord, has prophesied the triumph of concord, and
who at all times has been more ready to apply antidotes
than the knife to the nation's wounds. How far, then,
shall the conviction of the prisoner that he was doing
right go in extenuation of his offense? That we may
accurately, and as fully as the occasion demands,
understand the convictions of the prisoner, I invite
your attention to sketch of his life, the customs under
which he was reared, and the education which he
received. Lewis Thornton Powell is the son of the Rev.
Geo. C. Powell, a Baptist minister, at present supposed
to live at Live Oak Station, on the railroad between
Jacksonville and Tallahassee, in the State of Florida,
and was born in Alabama in the year 1845. Besides
himself, his father had six daughters' and two sons. He
lived for some time in Worth and Stewart counties,
Georgia, and in 1859 moved to Florida. At the breaking
out of the war, but four years ago, the prisoner was a
lad of sixteen, engaged in superintending his father's
plantation and a number of slaves. We may safely presume
that, occupied in the innocent pursuits of country life,
he daily heard the precepts of the Gospel from his
father; that, in the society of his sisters, the hardy
life of a planter was softened by the charms of a
refined and religious circle, and that, in the natural
course of events, he would be today, as he was then, a
farmer and an honest man. But, in 1861, war broke
out--war, the scourge and pestilence of the race. The
signal, which spread like a fire, was not long in
reaching Live Oak Station. His two brothers enlisted,
and Lewis, though but sixteen, enlisted in Capt.
Stuart's company, in the Second Florida Infantry,
commanded by Col. Ward, and was ordered to Richmond.
Let us pause a moment in this narrative, and consider what, in the eyes of this Florida boy, was the meaning of war, and what the thoughts that drove him from a pleasant home to the field of arms. At another time I might picture to you the scene, but too familiar, of his taking leave; a mother, like the mothers of Northern boys, shedding tears, less bitter, because she was dedicating a son to her country; sisters, whose sorrow, like the sorrow of the sisters of Northern boys, was alleviated with pride that they had a brother in the field; the father's blessing; the knapsack filled with tributes of affection, to be fondled by distant bivouac fires, and the heavy sigh, drowned in the rolling of the drum. But this is not a stage for effect. We know this was mistaken pride and sorrow in a mistaken cause, though the object of them was a son and brother, and we must not consider them, though the boy was but sixteen when he launched on the terrible sea of civil war.
In the State of Florida were two separate races--one white and the other black--of which the one was slave to the other, and Lewis belonged to the race which was master. It was a custom of this State for masters to whip their slaves, sell them, kill them, and receive the constant homage which the oppressed offer to the powerful. It was the custom of this State to whip and burn men who preached against the custom. It was the custom to defend this institution in meeting-houses, at political gatherings, in family prayers. It was the custom to hunt fugitives with bloodhounds--even those who tried to help them to freedom.
In this custom the prisoner was bred; education made it a second nature; politicians had taught him to find it in the Constitution, preachers had taught him to find it in the Bible, the laws taught him to regard it as property, habit had made it a very part of his being. In the eyes of the lad, the war meant to abolish this custom and up heave society from its foundations. His inheritance was to be dissipated. It is vassals equals, his laws invaded, his religion confounded, his politics a heresy, his habits criminal. Hereafter, to strike & slave was to be an assault, to sell one felony, to kill one murder. For this, then, the lad was going to fight--the defense of a social system. That was the reason. It was a traditional political precept of the State in which the prisoner lived, that the State, like its elder sisters, had reserved the right of divorcing itself at pleasure from the Union, and that great as the duty of a citizen might be to the Union, his first duty was to Florida. Schoolmasters taught that the relative rights of State and Nation had been left unsettled; politicians taught that the local power was greater than the central, and in support of it men were sent to Washington. The war, in the eyes of the boy, meant to reverse this, to subordinate the State to the Nation, the Governor to the President, Tallahassee to Washington City. And, therefore, he was going to fight; to defend State rights. That was the second reason.
It was a deep-seated conviction of the people in this State that their blood and breeding were better than the blood and breeding of Northerners; that they had more courage, more military prowess, and were by nature superiors. This conviction the war threatened to overthrow, this boast the war was to vindicate, this superiority was, by the war, intended to be proved. And this was the third reason he was going to fight--to show that he was a better man than Northerners.
There was a frantic delusion among these people that
Northern men were usurping the Government, were coveting
their plantations, were longing to pillage their houses,
ravage their fields, and reduce them to subjection. The
war was to defend mother, sister, home, soil, and honor,
and beat back an insolent invader. This was the fourth
reason?to repel invasion. These were, in the mind of
this lad, the incentives to war. Let us not pass
unnoticed how he was schooled in the instincts and
morals of war. Under the code of slavery we know that
the murder of a companion with a bowie-knife or in a
duel was an index of spirit; the torture of negroes
evidence of a commanding nature; concubinage with
negroes a delicate compliment to wives; spending wealth
earned by other men in luxuriance, chivalric; gambling
the, sweet reprieve for confinement to plantations.
Instead of morals bad sprung up a code of honor--perhaps
a false, but surely an exacting and imperious code, that
kept bowie-knives in the belt and pistols in, the
pocket. and had no hesitation in using them when slavery
was assailed, and a code that remembered friends an
never forgave enemies. These, then, were the morals and
instincts of the lad--it is right to kill negroes, right
to kill abolitionists; it is only wrong to break
promises, to forget a friend, or forgive an enemy ; and
to do right is to be ready with bowie-knife and pistol.
But who is to blame that he, with five millions more, was so instructed, so demoralized, so educated to crime? Is it his father and mother? They found their precepts in the Bible; they gave their son but the customs they had themselves inherited. Is it the society of Florida? It was a society that ruled this country until within four years, and occupied the seats of Government. Is it the laws of Florida? They were but rescripts of the Constitution. Is it the Constitution? That is but the creation of our forefathers. Who, then, is responsible that slavery was allowed to train assassins? I answer, it is we; we, the American people ' we who have cherished slavery, have compromised with it, have for a hundred years extended it, have pandered to it, and have at last, thanks be to God, destroyed it. Let us, then, not shrink from our responsibility. If there be any Southerner here who has sought to foster slavery, lie is in part father of the assassin in this boy. If there be any Northerner here who has been content to live with slavery, he is also in part father of the assassin in this boy. If there be any American that has been content to be a citizen of a slave-holding republic, he is part father of the assassin in this boy. Nay, all of us--such as he is we have made him--the murderous, ferocious, and vindictive child of by-gone American Constitution and laws and what is to be the fate of our offspring Let us see. That it is criminal, let us reform it; that it, is deluded, let us instruct it. But let us not destroy it, for therein we punish others for our own crimes. Let the great American people rather speak thus: “For twenty years we have sent you to a wicked school, though we knew not the wickedness thereof, until our own child rebelled against us. Now we have torn down the school?house and driven out the master. Hereafter you shall be taught in a better school, and we will not destroy you, because you learnt but as instructed."
II. But there is another school before him--the school of war. At Richmond his regiment joined the army of Gen. Lee, and was joined to A. P. Hill's corps; with it he shared the fate of the rebel army, passed through the Peninsular campaign, the battles of Chancelloraville and Antietam. Here he heard that his two brothers were killed at Murfreesboro. Finally, on the 3d of July, 1863, in the charge upon the Federal center, at Gettysburg, he was wounded, taken prisoner, and detailed as a nurse in Pennsylvania College Hospital.
Let us pause again to consider the effect of two years' campaigning as a private in the army of Gen. Lee upon the moral nature of the accused. He was one of that army who made trinkets and cups out of the bones of Union soldiers--an army where it was customary to starve prisoners by lingering agonies, which supplied its wants by plundering the dead, which slew men after surrender, that was commanded by officers who bad violated their sacred oaths to the United States, and who taught their subordinates that such violation was justifiable; an army who were taught by Jackson that God was the champion of their cause; an army that held the enemy in quest of "booty and beauty;" an army which believed no means that helped the cause of Southern independence unjustifiable, but glorious; an army who for two years explained victory by the righteousness of the cause--finally, an army that held the person and Cabinet of the President in holy execration. Surely he could not pass through these two terrible years without being in his moral nature the same as the army of which he formed a part. He is now eighteen, and the last two years have formed his character. He also abhors the President of the Yankees; he also believes that victory comes because God is just; he also believes that nothing is bad so the South be free; he also regards a Federal as a ravisher and robber; he also prays with Jackson to God for the victory. He further believes in Heaven and General Lee; dresses himself in the clothes of Union dead; stands guard over starving prisoners; also has his cup carved out of some Federal skull. Besides, he has learned the ordinary soldier's lessons, to taste blood and like it; to brave death and care nothing for life; to hope for letters and get none; to hope for the end of the war and see none; to find in victory no more than the beginning of another march; to look for promotion and get none; to pass from death and danger to idleness and corruption; to ask for furloughs and get none, and finally, to despair, and hope for death to end his sufferings. The slave-driver has now become a butcher….
Now, I hear it said, true, the boy has been a rebel soldier. and we can forgive him; but we can not forgive assassins. Let us, for a moment, compare a rebel soldier with the prisoner, and see wherein they differ. The best rebel soldiers are native Southerners. So is he. The best rebel soldiers have for four years longed to capture Washington, and put its Government to the sword. So has he. The best rebel soldiers have fought on their own hook, after the fashion of the provincials during the Revolution, finding their own knives, their own horses, their own pistols. So has he. The best rebel soldiers have fired at Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Seward, have approached the city by stealth from Baltimore, and aimed to destroy the Government by a sudden blow. So has he. The best rebel soldiers have picked off high officers of the Government?Kearney, Stevens, Baker, Wadsworth, Lyon, Sedgwick. So has he.
What, then, has he done that every rebel soldier has not tried to do? Only this--he has ventured more; he has shown a higher courage, a bitterer hate, and a more ready sacrifice; he has aimed at the head of a department, instead of the head of a corps; he has struck at the head of a nation, instead of at its limbs; be has struck in the day of his humiliation, when nothing was to be accomplished but revenge, and when he believed lie was killing an oppressor….
If, then, you praise men because they kill such as they believe oppressors, you must praise him; if you praise men who are ready to die for their country, you will praise him; and if you applaud those who show any courage superior to the rest of mankind you will applaud him.
III. But there is a third school before him From Gettysburg he was sent to West Building Hospital, Pratt street, Baltimore, and remained until October, 1863, when, seeing no hope of an exchange, he deserted for his regiment, and, walking through Winchester, met a regiment of cavalry at Fauquier. Not being able to get through our lines, he was joined to this arm of the service ' and remained in that service until January 1, 1865. On that day, as we see by the narrative of Mrs. Grant, he saved the lives of two Union soldiers. About the same time be, like many of the Southern soldiers, began to despair of the Confederacy, came to Alexandria, sold his horse, gave his name as Payne, took the oath of allegiance as a refugee from Fauquier, went to Baltimore, took a room at the house of Mrs. Branson , the lady be had met at Gettysburg, and resolved to wait for the return of peace. Now, let us see what he learned in the third school.
The rebel cavalry of Northern Virginia, as we now know, was considered, in the Southern army, the elite of their horsemen. Dismounted cavalrymen of the army of the Potomac were sent to Northern Virginia, re-mounted and then returned to their commands. In the spirit of war, however, they differed materially from the rest of the Southern forces. First, they came intimately in contact with the people of Loudon and Fauquier, who had suffered most from the war, and whose hatred of Northern troops was more bitter, so that they fought rather from personal hate, and in individual contests, than from political sentiments, and in battle. Accordingly, whatever edge of acrimony was wanting in the temper of Powell he gained at the houses of ruined slaveholders in Leesburg, Aldie, Middleburg, and Upperville.
IV. But there is a fourth: the school of necessity.
Picture to yourself the condition of this unfortunate victim of Southern fanaticism, suddenly again cast into the street and exiled from Baltimore, a stranger, sundered from his only friends, in a strange land. He thinks of big own home in far-off Florida, but between him and it are a thousand miles and a rebel army on whose rolls he is a deserter. He thinks of rejoining that army, but between him and it is a Union army. He thinks of the unknown North into which he is banished, but his fingers refuse the spade; he thinks of a profession, but the very dream of one is now a mockery; be thinks of going where no one knows him, but he fears that after all the curse of secession will follow him; he thinks of eluding the authorities and staying at Baltimore, but then he is afraid of compromising his friends, and leaves them. Everywhere the sky is dark. Among Northern men he is persecuted, for be is a rebel; among Southern men at Baltimore he is despised, for he is a recreant Southerner; among Southern men at home he is a by-word, for he is a deserter. The earth seems to reject him, and God and man to be against him.
Now, if there be any man in this Court who has ever wandered, penniless, houseless, friendless, in that worst of solitudes, the streets of a strange city, with hunger at his stomach, and school before him a great sense of wrong at his heart, in rags, and these very rags betraying him as a, thing to be despised and spurned; afraid of meeting at every corner the peering eyes of a Government detective; too proud to beg, and, when hunger overcame pride, rejected with a frown, that man will understand how the prisoner felt in the beginning of March, 1865. If there be any man who has ever been hunted down by misery in his youth, and before much sorrow had made the burden easy, until he wondered why he was born, and hid his face in his hands, praying to God to end his pain forever, he also can understand how, in the fullness of suffering, he has been brother to the accused.
Well, indeed, had it been for him if some angel of mercy had on that day, as he wandered a hungry specter through the streets of Baltimore, with flashing eyes and disordered hair, stretched forth her band and said: "Here is bread; take, eat, and live." A loaf of bread might have saved him; a single word of kindness might have saved him; the gracious lick of a friendly dog might have saved the glow of a once generous heart from going out forever. We have all, my friends, had these turning points in our lives, and we all reckon back to a time when we stood in the midst of gloom, and suddenly it was glorious day, for we found a plank and reached the shore. His Creator, in His inscrutable wisdom, thought it good there should be no ray of light, no beckoning band, no hope for the prisoner. Perhaps it had been better if he had dragged himself to the pier and ended his career in suicide. It was ordered that his very weakness should make him the prey of a human devil. We can already fore see the consequences. He is desperate, an you; for death, only he is a soldier, and he will not die ingloriously, after having faced death an hundred times. He is pursued by the Government in which he had confided, and for which he had deserted his own; pursued, tracked, followed like an outlaw among mankind will show that Northern Government that he is, not a dog, and that Southern Government, that he is not a traitor; and give him but a chance, and he will, with one stroke, pay off the scores he owes the abolitionists, restore himself in the eyes of his comrades in arms, and throw himself into the arms of a pitiful eternity.
And who is to blame that he was urged to desperation and consequent revenge? I answer, this civil war. The civil war took him from the magnolias and orange groves of Florida, and left him a waif upon the pavements of a Northern city. The civil war took the independent farmer from his fields, and left him a beggar among strangers. The civil war took, him from honest pursuits and professions, and left him to make his living without ar 'he, accomplishments than dexterity in murder. The civil war forbade him a home among Northern men, after it had taken him from his home in the South. The civil war made him an outcast and a fugitive on the face of the earth; took the bread out of his mouth, and gave him the alternative of dying obscurely by his own hand, or notoriously by the, death of a public officer.
V. The education of our farmer's boy is now complete. He has been in four schools. Slavery has taught him to wink at murder, the Southern army has taught him to practice and justify murder, cavalry warfare has taught him to love murder, necessity has taught him resolution to commit murder. lie needs no further education ; his four terms are complete, and he graduates an assassin! And of this college we, the re-united people of the United States, have been the stern tutors, guides and professors. It needs now only that some one should employ him.
I need not pursue this dolorous history further. You know the rest. If you did not know it, you could infer it from what has gone before. That he should meet Booth at Barnum's Hotel, enter into his plans eagerly, and execute them willingly, are matters of course. That he should care nothing for money, but only for revenge; that he should hate the Lincoln Government like a slaveholder; that be should enter the house of a cabinet officer like a guerrilla; that lie should try to murder, and justify his murder like a Southern soldier; that he should then give himself up willingly, as one who exchanges the penalties of assassination for suicide; that lie should sit here like a statue, and smile as one who fears no earthly terrors, and should tell the doctors, calmly and stoically, that he only did what he thought was right--all these things are as certain to follow as use, education and employment necessity.
Now, in considering the condition of Powell at this crisis, I do rot ask you to believe he was insane. That is a declaration of mental disease of which I am no judge. I only ask you to believe that he was human?& human being in the last stage of desperation, and obeying self-preservation, nature's first law. It is acknowledged by all that the possession of reason only makes man responsible for crime. Now, there are two ways in which reason is vanquished. One is when the passions make war against reason and drive her from her throne, which is called insanity. Another is when the necessities of the body overcome the suggestions of the mind, a state in which the reason is a helpless captive. And if you find that while his reason was so in captivity, he surrendered to temptation, I am sure you will set it to the credit, not of reason, but of the body, whose wants were imperious while there was yet no reason in it, in childhood, and which will again exist without reason after death.
At the beginning of the war, Powell, one night,
secured a pass and went to the theater at Richmond. It
was the first play that Powell ever saw, and he was
spellbound with that magical influence wielded by the
stage over such, to whom its tinsel is yet reality. But
he was chiefly attracted by the voice and manner of one
of the actors. He was a young man of about twenty-five,
with large, lustrous eyes, a graceful form, features
classical and regular as a statue, and a rich voice that
lingered in the ears of those who heard him. Although
only a private soldier, Powell considered himself the
equal of any man, and after the play was over sought and
gained an introduction to the actor. Never were two
natures thrown together so different, yet so well
calculated, the one to rule, the other to be ruled. The
soldier was tall, awkward, rough, frank, generous and
illiterate. The actor was of delicate mold, polished,
graceful, subtle, with a brilliant fancy, and an
abundant stock of reading. Each was what the other was
not, and each found in the other an admirer of the
other's qualities. The actor was pleased to have a
follower so powerful in his muscles, and Powell was
irresistibly drawn to follow a man so wondrously
fascinating and intellectual. They saw enough of one
another to form a close intimacy, and confirm the
control of the actor over Powell, and parted, not to
meet for nearly four years.
In the twilight of that memorable day in March, which I have described, Powell was dragging himself slowly along the street past Barnum's Hotel--a poor creature overcome by destiny. Suddenly a familiar voice hailed him looking up the steps, he saw the face of the Richmond actor. The actor on his side expressed astonishment to find Powell in such a plight--for the light in the eyes of a desperate man needs no translation--and in that distant city. Powell answered him in few words: "Booth, I want bread--I am starving." In ordinary circumstances, I do not doubt but Booth would have said, come in and eat; but just now he was filled with a mighty scheme, for he had just been to Canada, and was lying in wait for agents. So he did not give him to eat; he did not tell him to go and die, but he seized with eagerness upon this poor man's hunger to wind about him his accursed toils, saying, "I will give you as much money as you want, but first you must swear to stink by me. It is in the oil business." An empty stomach is not captious of oaths, and Powell then swore that fatal oath, binding his soul as firmly to Booth as Faust to Mephistopheles, and went in and feasted. Next morning Booth gave him money enough to buy a change of clothing and keep him for a week. Powell now became anxious to know what plan it was that was to make; him rich, but Booth answered evasively that it was in the oil business. He knew well enough that he had to do with a desperate man, but he knew, also, that any proposition of a guilty character might as yet be rejected. He must get full control of this desperate tool, and instil into his nature all the subtle monomania of his own. Accordingly he proceeded to secure every thought and emotion of Powell. With a master pencil he painted before the eyes of this boy the injuries of the South and the guilt of her oppressors. He reminded him of devastated homes, Negroes freed, women ravished, the graves of his brothers on a thousand hillsides. He reminded him that he was a traitor to the Southern cause, and that it was necessary he should regain the favor of his country. He pointed out to him his desperate condition--a fugitive from his friends, and an exile among strangers. He touched him upon his pride, and showed him how he was born a gentleman, and ought to live as a gentleman. He touched upon his helplessness, and showed him that there was no hope for him, in peace or war, in heaven or earth, except by rendering a great service to the South. He touched upon his melancholy, and said if he must die, he should offer up his life in a manner that would bequeath his name as a blessing to posterity. Powell now awoke from the depth of' despair to the highest pinnacle of agonized excitement, It was as if he had been breathing that subtle Eastern poison, wherein the victim sees swimming before his eyes a vision of more than celestial felicity, but far off and unattainable. What wonder he swam in dreams of delicious pain I Instead of that former melancholy, he felt an eager desire to live. Instead of that long torpor, he felt all the old wounds bleeding again, and burned to avenge the South. Instead of laboring like a negro, he saw a vague vision of rolling in boundless wealth. Instead of being coursed by his kinsmen, he was fired with zeal to be cherished as one of her chief martyrs. Instead of being the toy of fortune, he dreamed of being her conqueror. But yet he saw no avenue to all this, and, spell?bound as he was, turned to his tormentor, who held him as firmly as ever Genii did their fabled imps, for the explanation, for the means and quick road to happiness. Booth saw his victim was ready, and hastened to impart his mysterious plans. The first plan was to go to Washington, take a ride with confederates, on horseback, to the Soldiers' Home, capture the President, and deliver him to the Rebel authorities. This failed. The second plan was to kill the heads of the State--a plan first broached to Payne on the evening of the 14th of April, at eight o'clock.
Booth, on the evening of the 14th, at eight o'clock, told him the hour had struck; placed in his hands the knife, the revolver, and the bogus package of medicine; told him to do his duty, and gave him, horse, with directions to meet beyond the Anacosta bridge; and he went and did the deed. I have asked why he did it. His only answer is: "Because believed it my duty."
VI. Now, let us not be deceived by the special name of assassination, and confound it with the conscientious killing of what is believed to be an oppressor. When we read of is assassination we involuntarily bring to mind examples of men hired by statesmen to make away with princes....I say he is the fanatic, and not the hired tool; the soldier who derived his orders from conscience, and who, in the applause of that tribunal, smiles at all earthly trials. How else do you explain his bearing? He smiles at all that you can do against him. To him the clanking of these chains is the sweet music of his triumph. The efforts of the prosecution and its bitter witnesses to convict him are but the confirmation of his glory. The power and majesty of the Government brought upon his head seem but clear and pleasant praise's of his deed. He lives in that land of imagination where it seems to him legions of the souls of Southern Soldiers wait to crown him as their chief commander. He sits here like a conqueror; for four weeks he has held his head erect when all others have quailed; he meets the stare of curiosity as a king might face his subjects; he keeps his state even in his cell, and the very keepers, in admiration, acknowledge him their master. Now, I know I dare not call him mad--the doctors have forbidden it. I might say that if ever man fell within that definition of Chief Justice Shaw of insanity, "A very common instance is where a person fully believes the act he is doing is done by the immediate command of God, and lie acts under the delusive but sincere belief that what he is doing is by command of a superior power, which supersedes all human laws and the laws of nature," this is the man. But the doctors have said he is not insane, and though he fills the legal definition he does not fill the medical, and, therefore, I can not hope that you will hold him insane.
But I appeal from medical definitions and from legal definitions to your good sense, and I ask you to explain for me the riddle of this man's conduct in any other way than that he is a political fanatic; a monomaniac on the subject of his duty--call him sane or insane--yet one who is responsible only to that God from whom he derives his commandments. Before another tribunal, where all his previous life might be inquired into, and where time would be given for all this mystery to be unraveled, I do not hesitate to say I could convince the judges beyond a doubt that he is no more responsible for what he has done to the laws of the United States than a Chinaman whom custom and religion give the right to strangle his daughters. You have not the time, and I must end the inquiry. But as you are sworn to try this man on your consciences, so I charge you to give him the benefit of his, Gentlemen, when I look at the prisoner, and see (as it has been my duty for four weeks to see) the calm composure with which he has gone through the horrors of this trial; the cheerful and firm fortitude with which he has listened to the evidence against him, and with which he has endured the gaze of the public, as well as the ignominy of fetters; the frank and honest way in which he speaks of his crime, as a thing revolting in itself, but due to a cause which he thinks holy; and, more than all, the settled conviction, which robs the trial of all terrors, that he has but obeyed the voice of custom, education, and conscience; and the calm serenity with which he regards all pains that men can inflict upon him as contemptible, and part of his duty to endure, I can not help being proud--though blood is on his hands?that such fortitude, unparalleled in history, is the growth of American soil; and I can not help wishing that throughout all the coming vicissitudes of life, in all perplexities and doubts, on all occasions of right and wrong, in all misconstructions and trials, I may have so cheering, so brave, so earnest a conviction that I have done my duty.
And what is this duty? What is this doing right? Ask the Indian, as he returns to his wigwam, laden with the dripping scalps of the dispossessors of his soil, why he has done it, and he will answer you, with a flourish of his tomahawk and his face turned toward Heaven, that lie is doing right? The Great Spirit has commanded it. Ask the Hindoo, as he disembowels some English officer by the Ganges, and riots in his blood, the reason of his crime, and, he will tell you it is his duty, he is doing right--the Brahmiris have decreed it. Consult the records of Vendee, and see why Charette and Gastou murdered the Republican soldiery in ambuscades and thickets, and you will find they entered, at the bar of the Parisian Court, the plea that they were doing right; it was their duty. Now go through the devastated South; speak with a few of the five millions, and ask them why they have thirsted for and taken Northern blood in secret places, murdered stragglers, waylaid orderlies, and killed by stealth, and they will answer you, pointing to the charred remains of some ancestral home and sonic neighboring bill dotted with graves Because it was our duty; because we felt bound in conscience to do it.
Let us not undervalue the force of conscience. It is man's sole director, his highest judge, his last resort. Without it he is but an erring wanderer, tossed by every wind of passion, interest, and caprice. With it, his course is as certain and regular as the stars. In labor it cheers him; in pleasure it restrains him; to all manner of good it prompts him; from all manner of evil it defends him. In peace it teaches him to labor; in war to fight; for religion it tells him to fear God; for his country it says, protect and defend it; for himself it says, thy country, thy home, thy friends first, and thyself last. It is this spark of heavenly fire which has supported martyrs at the stake; which has sustained good men on the scaffold; which brought liberty and preserved it in this land for you and me and all of us. Let us, then, respect it, even when it speaks in a voice which we can not understand. Let us honor it as the same voice which directs us, even when it directs others to a grievous fault We are but men. The same God who created us all, may reconcile all that, and find in our difference but ignorance on the one side and ignorance on the other. And if we dare to judge the dictates of conscience, do we not arrogate to ourselves the prerogatives of the Sovereign Lawgiver of the Universe, who gave the rule, "Judge not, that ye be not judged?" Therefore, considering that we have the limit set, and that we can not go beyond without becoming in turn transgressors, let us leave that cause with Him who measures the conduct of men by no standard of success, but by obedience to the invariable dictates of conscience. For us it is enough that we are weak judges of weak men. If we were beasts, unconscious of the sacred limits of right and wrong, we might excuse him; if we were Gods and superior to destiny, we might destroy him; but as we are men who know our duties, but also our weakness, often seek good but do evil, therefore let us do the work of man to man--punish and reform him.
VII. Gentlemen, I have done with narrative and reflections. We now know that this Florida boy is not a fiend, but an object rather of compassion. We now know that slavery made him immoral, that war made him a murderer, and that necessity, revenge, and delusion made him an assassin. We now know that in all regards he is like us, only, that he was taught to believe right what we were taught to believe wrong; and that if we had been taught in his school, we would be like him, and if he had been taught in ours, he would be like us. We know that, from his point of view, he justifies the murder of our Secretary of State; we know that, from our standpoint, we would gladly have seen, for four years, the death of the rebel Secretary of State. We know that we were on the side of the Government, because we were born North; we know that he was against it, because he was born South; and that had we been born South we would have been in his place, and had he been born North he would be in ours. We know, also, that all the enemy desired the death of the President, and that he surpassed them only in courage; and that if we forgive them who killed our brothers, we must, in consistency, forgive him who tried to kill Mr., Seward, because he thought Mr. Seward guilty of murdering his brothers.
We know, further, that this man desires to die, in order to gain the full crown of martyrdom; and that, therefore, if we gratify him, he will triumph over us; but if we spare him, we will triumph over him. We know, also, that the public can gain nothing by his death from the example; for if he die as he lived, there will be more anxious to emulate his bravery….
But if he is suffered to live, he will receive the worst punishment—obscurity—and the public will have nothing to admire. We also know, and we can not consider it too much, that he has killed no man, and that if he be put to death we shall have the anomaly of the victim surviving the murderer; and that, under the laws, this man can be punished only for assault and battery with intent to kill, and, therefore, imprisoned. We know, also, that we are at the end of a civil war, a time when it is desirable there should be no farther mention or remembrance of fraternal strife. If we put this man to death, he will live forever in the hearts of his comrades, and his memory will forever keep our brethren from us. If, moreover, we put his to death, we will show that war is still in our hearts, and that we are only content to live with them because we have subdued them.
Finally, we know that if we let him live and teach him better, we show the whole world that this war was carried on to undeceive a deluded people and to maintain the supremacy of the laws, so that, now that the laws are supreme, we may begin with reform; but if we put him to death we show only that we are vindictive, and use our victory only to gratify our anger. Let him, then, live. His youth asks it, fraternity asks it, the laws ask it, our own sins ask it, the public good demands it. Because you and I taught him the code of assassination in slavery; because you and I brought about a civil war, which practiced him in assassination and made him justify it; because you and I spurned him from us when he sought refuge with us, and bade him destroy himself, ignobly, by his own hand, or grandly, by assassination; because, in short, you and I have made this boy what he is, therefore, lest we who are really ourselves guilty of this attempt at murder, should perpetrate a real murder, let him live, if not for his sake, for our own. Take from the refugee his desperation, and you have the cavalryman; take from the cavalryman his hate, and you have the soldier of Hill; take from the soldier his martial habits, and you have the slave-holder; take from the slaveholder his slavery, and you have again the pure and simple child, who, four years ago, went singing in innocence over the land.
Before I close, one word from myself. I have heretofore spoken of the prisoner as his counsel; I may also speak of him in my character as a man; and I can testify that in the four weeks’ acquaintance I have had, hearing him converse with freedom and explain all his secret thoughts, in spite of the odious crime with which he is charged, I have formed an estimate of him little short of admiration, for his honesty of purpose, freedom from deception and malice, and courageous resolution to abide by the principles to which he was reared. I find in him none of that obstinacy which perseveres in crime because it is committed, and hopes to secure admiration in a feigned consistency. Neither is there about him a false desire of notoriety, nor a cowardly effort to screen himself from punishment; only one prominent anxiety—that is, lest people should think him a hired assassin, or a brute; an aversion to being made a public spectacle of, and a desire to be tried at the hands of his fellow-citizens.
Altogether, I think we may safely apply to him, without spurious sympathy or exaggeration, the words which were said of Brutus—
“This was the noblest Roman of them all
I commit him, then, without hesitation, to your
charge. You have fought on the same fields, and as you
have never been wanting in mercy to the defeated, so I
know you will not be wanting in mercy to him. You have
all commanded private soldiers, and as you could
estimate the enthusiasm of your own men, so you will
know how to estimate the enthusiasm of those who fought
against you. The lives of all of you have shown that you
were guided in all perplexities by the stern and
infallible dictates of conscience and duty, and I know
that you will understand and weigh in your judgment of
the prisoner, dictates and duties so kindred to your
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