The Bad Old Days

We tend to think of the modern era, at least since the 1960s, as uniquely dangerous for political leaders.  In fact, though, the most dangerous time for U.S. presidents was the era after the Civil War, as I was reminded recently while reading Wilderness Warrior, a biography of Teddy Roosevelt. 

Between 1860 and 1900, seven men were elected President.  And three of them were then shot to death. 

Put another way, half the Republican Presidents elected in that period were assassinated before their term ended.  And at least two of the three killings were overtly political acts of terror — on behalf of the Confederacy and of the anarchist movement.

Compare that to the period between 1960 and 2000, when we elected eight Presidents.  To get a feel for the impact of so many assassinations on our politics, we’d have to imagine that, in addition to Kennedy’s shooting, the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan had succeeded and that George W. Bush had also been killed by, say, someone inspired by al-Qaeda.

All of them with handguns, too. 

Of course, attitudes were a little different then.  A favorite TR story involved an Easterner showing his .32 handgun to a Texan, who observes, “Stranger, if you was to shoot me with that, and I know’d it, I would kick you all over Texas.”

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