Cowardly conspirator Hoosier politician, Lincoln successor unscathed

A century and a half ago, on April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, who spent his boyhood in Indiana.

Oddly, had another would-be assassin not lost his nerve that night, Lincoln might have been succeeded by another politician who spent his boyhood in the Hoosier state.

Schuyler Colfax was born in New York City in 1823. His grandfather served under Gen. George Washington in the American Revolution and became a general in the New Jersey militia. Colfax’s father died of tuberculosis five months before his son was born.

In 1836, Colfax moved with his mother and stepfather to New Carlisle, Indiana, in St. Joseph County west of South Bend.

As a young man, he contributed articles on Indiana politics to the New York Tribune and was befriended by its editor, Horace Greeley. At 19, he became the editor of the pro-Whig South Bend Free Press. In 1845, he purchased the newspaper and changed the name to St. Joseph Valley Register.

Colfax was a delegate to the Indiana Constitutional Convention of 1849 and again in 1850. That same year, he ran for Congress but was defeated by his Democratic opponent. He ran again in 1854 and was elected. He would remain in the U.S. House until March 4, 1869, when he took the oath as vice president under President Ulysses Grant.

When the Whig Party collapsed, Colfax joined the new Republican Party. After the party gained a majority in the House in 1858, he was elected a committee chairman. He was elected speaker in 1862.

At 9 a.m. April 14, 1865, Colfax was Lincoln’s first visitor at the White House. The president told the speaker his ideas as to what the future policy should be toward the Southern states. Colfax expressed a concern that Lincoln would proceed with reconstruction without legislative branch consultation.

That evening, while the president and first lady watched “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre, Booth shot Lincoln and fled the theater. Lincoln died the next day.

Meanwhile, other members of the conspiracy were to execute their parts of the plot. Lewis Powell forced his way into the home of Secretary of State William Seward. He fired a gun at Seward, hit him on the head with his weapon and then savagely stabbed him.

Seward was gravely injured, and for several hours people thought he was dead.

Another, conspirator, George Atzerodt, was assigned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson. But he got cold feet and never tried to assassinate the first man in line to become president.

The conspirators were plotting to destabilize the government by killing the president and two of those in line to succeed him. But their knowledge of civics failed them.

Seward wouldn’t have succeeded to the presidency if Lincoln and Johnson both died. According to the Presidential Succession Act of 1792, the Senate president pro tempore (at the time Lafayette Foster of Connecticut) was next in line after the vice president to succeed to the presidency, followed by the speaker of the House.

So had Atzerodt not abandoned his plan and had the conspirators understood the federal government better, Hoosier Schuyler Colfax might have become president.

As it was, though, Colfax was elected vice president during Grant’s first term. Until Bill Clinton and Al Gore took office, Grant and Colfax represented the youngest president-vice president tandem in history.

Colfax died in Mankato, Minnesota, on Jan. 13, 1885, at age 61.