[In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Secret Service’s founding, this week I’ll highlight a series of histories and stories related to that unique department within our federal government. Leading up to a new Guest Post on the organization this weekend!]
On unanswered questions, the timing of the agency’s founding, and historical frustrations.
I’ve blogged before about the horrific, gradual, hard to quantify tragedy that followed a much more overt tragic act, Abraham Lincoln’s April 14th, 1865 assassination. As I wrote in that prior post, it’s of course impossible to know what a full Lincoln second term (and possibly beyond, since this was pre-presidential term limits of course) might have meant, for Reconstruction and the African American community and the post-war period and so many other issues. But it’s also impossible for any historian or AmericanStudier (or, y’know, thoughtful human) not to look at the presidency of Andrew Johnson, certainly in the running for the worst president in American history, and see as striking and frustrating a contrast with his predecessor as it’s possible to be for two successive presidents (and from the same administration no less).
The tragedy and frustration of Lincoln’s assassination becomes even more aggravating when linked to the founding of the Secret Service less than three months later, on July 5th, 1865. It’s important to note, however, that it took nearly three decades before the agency began guarding presidents: at first its job was to suppress counterfeit currency, a rampant problem during and in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War; gradually the agency’s purview expanded to include “persons perpretrating frauds against the government”; but it wasn’t until 1894 that Secret Service agents began protecting President Grover Cleveland in a part-time role, and only in the aftermath of the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley did Congress request that the agency formally perform such protective duties. So any sense that the Secret Service narrowly missed out on a chance to protect President Lincoln, while great as historical melodrama, doesn’t hold up to the historical facts.
Yet even if the nascent Secret Service wouldn’t necessarily have helped protect Lincoln from John Wilkes Booth’s bullet, that’s not to say that we can’t be historically frustrated that there wasn’t someone standing out the Ford’s Theater balcony to do just that. For one thing, Lincoln had been the target of an assassination attempt (known as the “Baltimore Plot”) before he was inaugurated in 1861; that plot had been foiled thanks to Pinkerton agents and a private detective named Kate Warne, demonstrating the need for presidential protection to be sure. And for another, even more salient thing, Lincoln did have one official bodyguard on that April evening at the theater: a Washington policeman named John Parker, part of a rotating four-person police detail protecting the president. As that linked article notes, for reasons more likely of dereliction of duty than participation in the assassination conspiracy Parker seems to have abandoned his post at the worst possible time, a failure that makes the inaction of JFK’s Secret Service detail seem far less dramatic in comparison and that adds one more frustration to all the “what if’s” surrounding Lincoln’s killing.
Next story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Secret Service connections you’d highlight?
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