By Sheli DeNola
Sarah Vowell’s latest book “Assassination Vacation” delves into the dark world of the first three American presidents to be assassinated. Vowell, best known for her work on “This American Life,” uses her biting sarcasm to peel away the layers of history and reveal the core of inherent fables present in American history.
While Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, and William McKinley all held a different era, they shared the same fate. As the pages turn, they unfold the stories of the lives of presidents and their assassins.
The role of U.S. president has not always existed in its current parameter. Originally it was intended to be but a part of the greater formalities of government. U.S. expansions, however, led to both geographic annexation and political extension. As a result, the role of the president began to expand as well.
“It was very much a historic development,” said Daniel Wirls, professor of politics at UC Santa Cruz specializing in American political history. “It stems from the nature of how we have elected the president. The president becomes the single most representative figure of the people.”
Consequently the president comes to embody the democratic ideals of the American people. Furthermore, the constitutional gaps act as a medium for the president to convey his power and responsibility.
“The presidents gradually, over time, asserted their role in domestic and foreign affairs,” Wirls said. “They became the agents responsible for delivering legislation. From Theodore Roosevelt forward, every president tries to lead the world and the country.”
In her book, Vowell travels across the United States in search of the sites which commemorate the assassinations of the presidents. Geographic maps of the presidents’ lives emerge and divulge a tangled web of humanity. While telling these stories, Vowell is able to elicit feelings of empathy toward both the presidents and their assassins.
When presidents are emblematized, their innate corporeality tends to be lost. Vowell returns us to their humanity in the most striking way, by illuminating their mortality. Vowell poses the question of our role in maintaining our own democratic ideologies though never relinquishing our own beliefs to what we believe is the higher authority.
Lincoln’s title as an emancipator has come under attack in recent years, explained Tim Townsend, historian for Lincoln house. His mystique and public appreciation, however, has only been increased by his death.
“Since the time of the assassination, people started coming to places associated with his life. Lincoln the man is gone; through viewing the places he inhabited, they can reconnect with him. In order to get insight, it helps to get Lincoln off of Mount Rushmore and into a more relatable form,” Townsend said.
Vowell closes Lincoln’s chapter with a speech by Fredrick Douglass, which he gave at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Lincoln Park. The memorial depicts a shirtless slave kneeling at Lincoln’s feet. Needless to say, Douglass was not impressed.
To Vowell, Douglass seeks to commemorate the progress Lincoln was forced to undergo as a result of the civil war. His original intent might not have been to free the slaves, but he did accomplish the feat.
Douglass concluded with “Never … shall I ever forget the outbursts of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air when the lightning brought to us the Emancipation Proclamation. In that happy hour we forgot all delay, and forgot all tardiness.”
It is strange that to his dying day John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, believed that his action was for the good of the American people.
James A. Garfield
Garfield, the second president to be assassinated, is best known as the “forgotten president.” Garfield was a quiet man who lacked the valor of the more famous presidents. He spent only six months in office before being assassinated.
“I sympathize with his bum luck of a death,” writes Vowell. “But I find his book addiction endearing, even a little titillating considering that he would sneak away from the house and the House to carry on a love affair with Jane Austen.”
Charles J. Guiteau, Garfield’s assassin, lived a rather sad life himself. It is suspected that he suffered from at least one mental illness. While awaiting his execution he wrote a sad little play in which all the people who have prosecuted him are sentenced to hell by God. It would be comical if it were not so sad.
“Garfield was one of the assassinated presidents. As such, he sacrificed his life for his country,” said Allison Sharaba, operations manager at the James A. Garfield Historical Society. “He was a wonderful public speaker, and had a magnanimous character. Had his life not been cut so short he would have lead the country to greatness.”
McKinley was the third president to be assassinated, and as a veteran of the Civil War McKinley was leery of war. Nonetheless, he played an instrumental role in U.S. foreign expansion.
“I’ve been through one war. I have seen the dead piled up, and I have not wanted to see another,” McKinley once said. And yet McKinley led the U.S. into two wars during his presidency: the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the Philippine-American War of 1899.
The U.S. entered the Spanish-American War after coming into conflict with Spain over Cuba. The Philippine-American War erupted over U.S. occupation of the Philippines.
His assassin, Leon Czolgosz, found this fact disparaging. “It does not harmonize with the teachings in our public schools about our flag,” Czolgosz said of the Philippine-American War.
“McKinley got overshadowed by Teddy Roosevelt, but he’s considered one of the best American presidents,” said Patrick Finan, the director of the McKinley Library. “He gradually increased presidential power. He was able to get the U.S. to look at itself on the international level. Essentially, he brought us out of our isolation.”
Compassionate to the very end, McKinley saved his assassin’s life. After being shot, McKinley looked up to discover his assassin was being lynched by the surrounding mob. He responded by saying “Go easy on him, boys.”