Home chapters Chapter 5 - From Socialist Terror to the Civil War
Home chapters Chapter 5 - From Socialist Terror to the Civil War

Chapter 5 - From Socialist Terror to the Civil War

The year before John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln, he spent time with George Sanders. Heavyset, sporting a dramatic beard with bushy eyebrows overshadowing his fierce gaze: Sanders had a compulsive habit of writing angry letters to major newspapers and courting leftist European radicals who he believed shared his obsession with a revolution—anywhere.

In 1854, Sanders, appointed as President Pierce’s consul-general in London, had hosted a Washington’s Birthday dinner where then-Ambassador James Buchanan—a few years away from becoming president— rubbed shoulders with European revolutionaries, assassins, nationalists, and socialists.

Alongside a future president of the United States were Garibaldi and Mazzini, along with Arnold Ruge, one of the Young Hegelians who had briefly collaborated with Karl Marx, and Felice Orsini, the Carbonari leader who would later bring down the British government over his assassination attempt on Napoleon III. And at least one of the Confederate conspirators who later plotted to kill Lincoln would model himself on Orsini.

French revolutionary Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, a collaborator of Pierre Leroux who was credited with mainstreaming the term “social ism,” and who had dealings with Marx and favored government control over the means of production and wealth redistribution, was at the dinner.

As was Alexander Herzen, the Father of Russian Socialism, who had sardonically described it as a “red dinner given by the defenders of black slavery.”

Ambassador Buchanan, the future president of the United States, turned to Sanders’s wife. “I asked her if she was not afraid that the combustible materials about her would explode and blow us all up.”

While Buchanan survived, the resulting scandal from that evening and others killed his host’s consular nomination. Sanders did not just hobnob with European revolutionaries; he moved their correspondence through American diplomatic mail399 and publicly called for the death and destruction of European kingdoms. Only a deeply radical party would have considered appointing such a man as a consul, and that is what the Democrats had become.

 Distrusted by the Confederate government because of his history of radical views and risky behavior, Sanders turned to Southerners and Northern sympathizers with a weakness for secret societies and implausible plots. After failing to mobilize support for the Confederacy in Europe—which he more than made up for in needless drama—arriving “disguised as a miner, carrying an old carpet-bag, wearing green goggles and a shaggy mustache,” he turned to grandiose schemes from a peace conference at Niagara Falls to a campaign of terrorism in New York.

A British journalist later claimed that Sanders had told him “of the plotting of atrocities which would make the world shudder.” While he had a gift for drama, any number of murderous schemes from the plot to burn New York to the Lincoln assassination could have fit the bill.

 In the fall of 1864, John Wilkes Booth met up with George Sanders, and the two men were frequently seen together in Montreal.  A witness would later claim that Sanders worried that Booth “would make a fizzle of it; that he was dissipated and reckless, and he was afraid the whole thing would prove a failure.”

Learn how the radical socialist roots of the Democratic Party led to violence and the Civil War in Chapter 5 of Domestic Enemies: The Founding Fathers Fight Against the Left