Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

July 6, 2009

Chopping Down Old Hickory

Filed under: Civil War Era,Conspiracy theory,Jacksonian Era,Television — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 3:16 pm

I imagine a lot of readers here already subscribe to H-SHEAR, the Early Republic historians’ email list, but for those who don’t, here is a notice for a bit of worthwhile historical television that is airing tonight, from Dan Feller, director of the Andrew Jackson Papers project:

This coming Monday, July 6, the PBS show “History Detectives” will air a segment featuring the work of the Andrew Jackson Papers project at the University of Tennessee Department of History.  The episode concerns a letter threatening Jackson’s assassination, signed with the name Junius Brutus Booth (a famous actor and father of Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth) and sent to Jackson on July 4, 1835.  Housed in the Library of Congress and long known to scholars, the letter has been presumed by Jackson biographers and political historians (following the lead of John Spencer Bassett, who printed it in his Correspondence of Andrew Jackson with Booth’s name in quotation marks) to be the work of a pseudonymous writer, while some Booth biographers and theater historians have accepted its authenticity but considered it a gag among friends. As “History Detectives” will show, the Jackson Papers staff were instrumental in proving that neither is correct.  Booth really wrote the letter, apparently in one of his legendary choleric rages.  He later apologized.  Killing presidents, or threatening to, seems to have run in the family.

I will be interested to see how the show handles the Booths. One of the cardinal points in my History of Conspiracy Theories course is that Lincoln’s was perhaps the only truly political assassination of all the presidential assassinations. I was not aware of the elder Booth’s threat against Jackson, but I would not have put the letter’s attribution in quotation marks. A guy named Brutus who named his son John Wilkes obviously had some extravagant, self-dramatizing ideas about fighting for freedom.

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