Lew Wallace and Presidential Assassinations

Lew Wallace knew each of the three American presidents assassinated during his lifetime. Abraham Lincoln had known Wallace and members of his family for years and was personally involved in aspects of Wallace’s Civil War career. James Garfield had come to know Wallace during the Civil War, through Republican Party politics, and was so impressed when he read Ben Hur that he appointed Wallace Minister to the Ottoman Empire. Wallace also knew William McKinley through Civil War service and Republican Party politics. Preventing presidential assassinations was clearly a personal issue to Lew, as well as a political one.

Prevention of Presidential Assassinations

Lew Wallace in his personal Study, ca. 1901

Wallace had been booked to be a guest speaker at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, in 1901 where McKinley was assassinated. Lew continued to be concerned about the betterment of the country. The 74-year-old Wallace pondered the question of presidential assassinations. In December of 1901, he wrote an article for the North American Review entitled: “Prevention of Presidential Assassinations.” His article began, “The duty of doing something to stop the assassination of our Presidents is upon us heavily.”

Lew noted the impact of presidential assassinations on the populace. He mentioned the phases of shock, panic, daze, and sorrow assassinations brought. A popular leader, McKinley was assassinated in September. By the publication of this article in December, people wondered what Congress would do to protect the president. Lew’s training as an attorney gave him a different perspective. He wondered not what Congress would do, but what they could do.

For each point Wallace heard publicly raised, he penned a reply in the article. Some wanted Congress to declare assassination a murder. Wallace dismissed this as an unnecessary action. Others wanted the immigration commissioner to double the guard at immigration gates. They thought immigrants should prove themselves, with a goal of separating the anarchists to send them home. Wallace mused about how our international friends would react to such action. However, his real concern was about the anarchists already in the United States. He pointed out that the assassins of both Lincoln and Garfield were native born.

Military Protection of Presidents

Wallace next addressed the desire for Congress to give the president soldiers to watch over him at every waking (and sleeping) moment. Wallace argued that while Congress might have the authority to impeach a president, it could not control him personally or dictate his movements under the pretense of a guard of honor. He also pointed out that the president, as commander-in-chief, could order the entire regular army to camp out at the White House if he so chose.

Wallace followed this with a short aside about how such a protective screen might work for Teddy Roosevelt:

Then I had to smile, for to the eyes of my fancy there rose a vision of the utterly impossible—a vision of Teddy the Strenuous about to go in search of a breath of sweet, outdoor air. The big, black horse so in his love is brought to the door; along with it comes a detachment of mounted guards, high-booted, sabred, and in far-flashing yellow splendor. Now the cavalcade is starting. It stretches out in lengthened column. The Strenuous looks back over it, and asks himself: “What’s this for?”

His cheeks begin to burn, and feeling equal to his own salvation against any solitary anarchist in hiding somewhere on the road, he bids the chief of the escort: “Halt the guard, Now send it to quarters.” And so it is done, for the order is from the Commander-in-Chief direct. Then, while the Hero of Santiago pursues his way alone, he thinks the American thought: “The ways of the great and good Emperor William are for Germany; our American skies are not favorable to them. We are satisfied to patronize his beet sugar, without imitating his style of mustache or borrowing his idea of a nickel-helmeted bodyguard.”

Secret Service to Prevent Presidential Assassinations

Wallace reminds the reader that while Congress could not make assurance of absolute protection, they had alternatives. Congress could make an annual appropriation of money for the President to maintain a secret service. Wallace felt this discretionary fund would help protect the president without loss of dignity or personal humiliation. Further, it would not bow to the appearances of Imperialism. Finally, it would not interfere with the president’s ability to interact with the American public. At the same time, this secret service would provide as much security as possible.

He also felt that Congress could reform regulations that governed the admission of immigrants and he outlined the five improvements he deemed appropriate. Wallace then closed his article with the issue that he felt most important for Congress to address—an amendment to the definition of treason against the United States. In 1901, there were only two acts treasonable acts—levying war against the United States and adhering to its enemies giving them aid and comfort. Wallace felt that the forefathers could not have anticipated in America that a day “would dawn hideous with open proselyting [sic] in aid of societies founded upon assassination as a means of promoting an era of Chaos. In other words, Nihilism and Anarchy were in a sense unheard of…”

Proposing a Constitutional Amendment

Wallace follows his argument with a detailed discussion of nihilism, anarchy, murder and revolution and their impacts on society. He raises anarchy from an atrocious principle to the highest possible crime against society and the state. His arguments touch on crimes of passion, torture, retribution, Christian belief, and punishment. Wallace closes wish his suggestions for the wording of a Constitutional amendment defining treason against the United States. He believed that with this amendment, “government would never again be compelled to sit helplessly by, knowing a conspiracy is making ready to destroy it.” This amendment would also give Congress the opportunity to unite with other powers to pursue the obliteration of Anarchy—something that was not clearly possible under the existing definition of treason.

The Espionage Act of 1917

Congress didn’t pursue Wallace’s amendment to the definition of treason against the United States. However, since 1901, in times of national stress and unrest, Congress has passed or discussed statues reflecting Wallace’s thoughts. In 1917, Congress passed Espionage Act, allowing for a broader interpretation of crimes against the country. As a result, spies are often convicted of espionage rather than treason.

During the Cold War and the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, treason loomed again in public discussion. Lee Harvey Oswald, John F. Kennedy’s assassin, professed himself a communist. Nevertheless, after JFK’s death, people expressed little interest in revisiting what constitutes treason and how it relates to presidential assassinations.

Throughout his life, Wallace pondered many of the issues of the day, always with an eye to strict interpretation of the law. Congress did not pass his Constitutional amendment regarding treason. They did not adopt his plan for immigration reform. However, the Secret Service now exists to protect the president and other high ranking government officials. Immigration laws changed in the early 20th century to reflect some of his concerns. Wallace proved himself a forward-thinking man. More than a hundred years after Lew penned his article, we still struggle to protect the president without separating him from the people. We still worry about treason and attacks on America. And the issue of immigration continues to be in the news.


North American Review. No. DXLL, December 1901. “Prevention of Presidential Assassination” by General Lew Wallace


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