A Jesuit Plot to Assassinate President Lincoln?

The fact that many of the conspirators were Catholic may have helped bring about more anti-Catholic legislation after the Civil War.

An 1865 Currier & Ives lithograph of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From left to right: Henry Rathbone, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth.
An 1865 Currier & Ives lithograph of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. From left to right: Henry Rathbone, Clara Harris, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth. (photo: Source: Library of Congress)

You have probably never heard of a Jesuit plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, because there wasn’t any. But after the capture and death of John Wilkes Booth on April 26, 1865, authorities began to explore the conspiracy Booth and others had planned to murder the President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State on Good Friday, April 14 that year. They discovered one common theme: all the conspirators met at the boarding house owned by Mary Surratt.

Mary Jenkins Surratt was a Catholic, having converted before her marriage to John Surratt in 1840. Everyone who had rooms in her house was a Catholic. Her son John, Jr.—who escaped capture and trial for a time by seeking sanctuary in a Montreal church rectory and then as a Papal Zouave—was a Catholic and had discerned and decided against a vocation to the priesthood. Another accomplice, David Herold, had studied at Catholic colleges including Georgetown. Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set Booth’s broken leg, was a Catholic. One of the main witnesses for the prosecution, Louis J. Weichmann, was a former seminary classmate of John Surratt. Several of the witnesses for the defense were Catholic priests, testifying to Mary Surratt’s Christian character and charity. Another Catholic boarder, Honora Fitzpatrick, was a witness for both the prosecution and the defense at the military tribunal that condemned the conspirators in May and June, 1865.


The Mid-Century Nativist Movement

Perhaps Catholic priests weren’t the best character witnesses in 1865. Since the 1840’s anti-Catholic nativists had been protesting against the influx of Catholics, particularly Irish immigrants. The Native American, American, or Know-Nothing political party—whose members were supposed to reply that they “knew nothing” about the activities or goals of the party—was anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic. They nominated Millard Fillmore, the 13th President (and the last Whig) to run again in the presidential election of 1856. The Democrat James Buchanan won that election and in a way, the American Party won too, since the Republican candidate John C. Fremont was accused of being a Catholic because he and his wife, Jessie, the daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, were married by a Catholic priest when they eloped. Fears that the Pope would control a Catholic president were raised, just as they were when John F. Kennedy ran for the office.

As Mark A. Noll notes in his 2006 study "The Civil War as a Theological Crisis", the “American Catholic community remained small and relatively isolated” during the Civil War period and Catholics “had good reason to be wary of dominant American opinions” about them. When Cincinnati’s Archbishop John Baptist Purcell debated the Presbyterian minister Alexander Campbell, the latter stated that the Catholic laity was enslaved by their priests, bishops, and popes, having no free will to make their own decisions. Campbell further opined that Catholics were “essentially anti-American” and “fundamentally opposed to American freedom”.

The fact that the Surratts and other conspirators were Catholic — his family managed to hide indications that John Wilkes Booth was a convert too — just added fuel to Campbell’s fiery denunciations of Catholics. Those opinions continued to hold sway and resulted in the Blaine Amendments after the Civil War, which are in the news today at the Supreme Court. 


Remember the Blaine

President Ulysses S. Grant and Representative James G. Blaine of Maine were concerned about the mingling of Church and State in public schools. Blaine introduced an amendment to the Constitution which read “No State shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefore, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect; nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations.” 

The amendment failed to pass, but many states took up the cause. While the amendment Blaine proposed seems to affect all religious sects, the states’ versions often included the designation of the King James Bible as the exclusive translation to be used in public schools. The existing Blaine amendments have prevented voucher programs for school choice from going to parents who wish to send their children to Catholic or other religious schools.

The irony could be that the Blaine amendment in Missouri that prevents state funds for religious organizations could be declared unconstitutional on behalf of a Protestant church, Trinity Lutheran. Even if individual state Blaine amendments are changed, anti-Catholic prejudice endures in American society and culture. Although there is absolutely no evidence of any Jesuit conspiracy against Abraham Lincoln, if you search for “Jesuits and Abraham Lincoln” on the internet you will find websites trying to prove that there was one and that Catholics still can’t be trusted to be good Americans.

As part of Jewish-Christian dialogue, a joint concert was given on Sept. 4, 2021, in the Dohány Street Synagogue by the Solti Chamber Orchestra in Budapest. Hungary.

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