By Jay Fidell
Conspiracy is a movie you've got to see. It's a serious movie about a serious footnote to the Civil War. It’s a Robert Redford film featuring James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken, and Robin Wright as Mary Surratt. It reflects years of research and is as authentic as Redford could make it.
Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, after Lee had surrendered but before other Confederate armies had surrendered. We all know John Wilkes Booth did it, but perhaps we didn’t know that his group of conspirators had also attempted to assassinate William Seward, Secretary of State in Lincoln’s cabinet, and nearly succeeded. The whole affair was more complex than we thought.
Edwin Stanton, the War Secretary, was really ticked off. After all, he was the Secretary of War, as powerful as anyone in the Lincoln government and more so after Lincoln’s assassination. The war was still going on for him, and he was deeply worried that the South would rise again. His primary concern was, as it had been for the past four years, to keep the Union together.
He and many others in the Union felt that drastic action had to be taken to find and summarily punish those responsible for Lincoln’s death, and he proceeded accordingly. Mercy would not be shown. Justice had to be swift. He found a number of the conspirators and ordered them to trial before a “military commission” composed of Civil War generals and some of their dutiful officers. For Stanton, the future of the country rode on immediate vengeance.
The defendants arrested were not in the military, and there was a substantial question as to whether they could be tried by a military commission. One of them was Mary Surratt, who operated the boarding house where the conspirators had hatched the plot. Mary was charged as a conspirator. Her son John had been active in the conspiracy, and in fact had escaped capture, but Mary herself denied being part of the conspiracy, and maintained her innocence throughout.
These were critical times for the country. We had just come out of a Civil War that had resolved some fundamental issues and redefined the character of the country going forward. This was 150 years ago. We all studied the Civil War, but we never learned, or have forgotten, how the Union handled the assassination conspiracy. The movie takes us back, in frightening detail.
This is a movie that shows you life in that period - how they lived, spoke, dressed, how they socialized and courted each other, their parties, homes, and Washington and the politics of the time, with gravel in the street and large fields and forts nearby, even within view of the Capitol.
Details we never knew, but should have. Like a time machine, Conspiracy transports us to the summer of 1865 and puts us there among those characters, living their lives, feeling their anger and outrage, down to our toes. They are Americans for sure, but living in an America different than the one we know. The movie was color, of course, but somehow it was black and white.
It’s a movie about the lawyers and law of the time, very different than the law we know today. This law had the Constitution and many legal elements we may find familiar, but the law in this movie was rough and ready, brutal even brutish. It was a law that preceded the refinements of the late 19th Century and the growth of the courts and the Constitution in the 20th Century.
You see this movie and you want to go back and explain to them how much they will have to learn to get from the closing days of that war to our modern civil society. And it makes you realize how far we have come, and how important it is that we hold on to the gains we have achieved.
As much as it’s a story about Mary Surratt, it’s also a story of Frederick Aiken, the young lawyer and decorated veteran called to defend Mary Surratt. Mary had asked Senator Reverdy Johnson of Maryland, a former U.S. Attorney General, to defend her, but he soon turned the case over to Aiken, who had little or no experience. Soon enough, Aiken was transformed and in the process lost his friends, social status and fiancee. Washington society was not about to tolerate a lawyer who represented a conspirator in Lincoln’s assassination, veteran or not.
He tried the case brilliantly, although the courtroom process was a lot different than what you would see today. The method of prosecution and examination was different, at times crude, but always forceful. The prosecution engaged in subornation and open tampering that would be found criminal today. Aiken should have won the case, but the commission was predetermined.
Under overwhelming command influence, the commission convicted Mary Surratt and awarded her a prison sentence. Stanton, unsatisfied, imposed further pressure on the commission, and they then changed their vote to death. It was not a happy moment for American justice.
Stanton believed that the Union was more important than the Constitution. Frederick Aiken disagreed. He handwrote a petition for habeas corpus and sought a writ from a federal judge at home in the middle of the night. Aiken’s argument to that judge was the most powerful moment in the movie. It was a perfect argument, and he prevailed on the judge. In the morning light, he delivered this writ of habeas corpus to Stanton and asked him to remand Mary to the judge. One would have expected Stanton to comply with the writ, but it was not to be.
It’s out of Shakespeare, or perhaps a tragic opera. Aiken goes to tell Mary Surratt the good news, but just as he tells her, he is informed that President Andrew Johnson has quashed the writ and that Mary is to be executed after all. Stanton has his day, and Mary is hanged straightaway with the others, the first woman ever to be executed by the federal government. It was the end of Mary Surratt, but it was certainly not the end of the issue over military commissions.
The aftermath brims with irony. A year after Mary Surratt’s execution, the Supreme Court found that civilians could not be tried by military commissions, and were entitled to trials by juries of their peers, just as in the Constitution. It was no less ironic that her son John was captured after that decision, and was never convicted. And we also find that Frederick Aiken, who left the law after Mary’s execution, became editor of a brand new newspaper – the Washington Post.
I'm sure there's much more to find about these rich characters and events, but the movie gives us enough to look into the barbershop mirror and re-examine the lessons of earlier times, and to see into the hearts of our national ancestors and be proud and thankful to them for their courage.
At the same time, we can’t escape comparing these events with those that have followed 9/11, and we can’t help wondering why the lessons of the past 150 years can be so easily forgotten. Redford knew there were parallels with today, but he didn’t have to make any of this up.