Lew Wallace and Presidential Assassinations

Lew Wallace was personally acquainted with each of the three American presidents who were 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.

Wallace had been booked to be a guest speaker at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York in 1901 where McKinley was assassinated. After the assassination, because he continued to be concerned about the betterment of the country the 74-year-old Wallace began to ponder the question of presidential assassinations. In December of 1901, he wrote an article for the North American Review entitled: “Prevention of Presidential Assassinations.”

Lew Wallace in his personal Study, ca. 1901

He opened the article with the statement: “The duty of doing something to stop the assassination of our Presidents is upon us heavily.” He noted the impact of presidential assassinations on the populace and the phases of shock, panic, daze, and sorrow that people went through. A popular leader, McKinley was assassinated in September and by the time this article was published in December, people were wondering what Congress was going do to protect the president. With his training as an attorney, for Wallace the real question was not what Congress would do, but what they could do.

For each point Wallace heard publically raised, he penned a reply in the article. There were some who 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 and make incomers prove themselves worthy, separating the anarchists so that they could be sent home. While Wallace mused about how our international friends would react to such action, 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.

The argument that Wallace next addressed was the desire for Congress to give the president all the soldiers he needed 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, already had the power to order the entire regular army to camp out at the White House if he so chose.

Wallace pursued this line of logic with a short aside about the how such a protective screen might work for Teddy Roosevelt, writing:

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.”

Wallace then reminded the reader that while Congress could not make assurance of absolute protection, there were opportunities available to it. He suggested that Congress could make an annual appropriation of money that would be placed at the President’s disposal sufficient to enable him to maintain a secret service. Wallace felt this discretionary fund would help protect the president without loss of dignity or personal humiliation, would not bow to the appearances of Imperialism, and would not interfere with the president’s ability to interact with the American public, while it provided 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 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. . .”

Wallace follows his argument with a detailed discussion of nihilism, anarchy, murder and revolution and their impacts on society. His argument lifting anarchy from an atrocious principle to the highest possible crime against society and the state touched on the issues of crimes of passion, torture, retribution, Christian belief, and punishment. Wallace closed by offering 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.

While Wallace’s amendment to the definition of treason against the United States was not pursued by Congress, since 1901 in times of national stress and unrest statues have been passed or discussed that reflected Wallace’s thoughts. In 1917, the Espionage Act was passed which allowed for a broader interpretation of crimes against the country. This is why spies are often convicted of espionage and not of treason. During the Cold War of the 1950s, the issue was again much in the public mind with the McCarthy hearings. Perhaps because of the fallout from the McCarthy hearings, when our fourth president was assassinated by a man enamored of other forms of government, there was little interest in revisiting the broader issue of 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. While Wallace’s Constitutional amendment regarding treason was not passed and his plan for immigration reform was not implemented, it is worth noting that the president and other high ranking government officials are now served by a secret service with expanded powers, and changes were made to immigration laws in the early 20th century that reflected some of his concerns. Wallace was not just a man of his time. One hundred and eleven years after he penned his article, we still struggle with the issues of how to adequately protect the president without separating him from the people, we 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

The General Lew Wallace Study & Museum celebrates and renews belief in the power of the individual spirit to affect American history and culture.


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