By Andro Linklater
Walker. 296 pp. $26
We Americans tend to think of Britons as more peaceable than ourselves. Buthalf a century before an assassin’s bullet killed Abraham Lincoln — the first of four U.S. presidents to die that way — a British prime minister met the same fate. The year was 1812, and the story has now been retold by Andro Linklater.
Spencer Perceval “had to die” only because the twisted mind of his killer thought so. He was John Bellingham, a Liverpool businessman who blamed the prime minister for the failure of a Russian venture. The merchant’s complaint was complex (unjust imprisonment in Russia, financial losses suffered in consequence), but the basic idea was that the British government had failed in its duty to protect a British citizen from devastating harm and that the prime minister must pay. Lunacy ran in Bellingham’s family, and after examining his case, a lawyer concluded that the suspect “possessed an almost infantile refusal to accept the reality of events outside his control.” A week after changing the course of history, he had been tried (without an insanity defense), convicted and hanged.