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.
Among the changes wrought by Bellingham’s act was one involving the illegal slave trade. Perceval’s aggressive policies toward ending that trade did not survive his assassination. Had his campaign continued, Linklater estimates, “as many as forty thousand Africans a year would have been saved from slavery.”
And yet Perceval, as Linklater portrays him, was not all that unlike his killer. Stepping into a power vacuum caused by the madness of King George III and the acquiescence of Parliament, Perceval had become an autocrat. “Perceval’s hubristic conviction that he acted as a providential agent ensured that he would be met by nemesis,” the author writes, “because sooner or later he was bound to encounter someone else whose conviction of his own rightness was equally fixed. In John Bellingham . . . the Prime Minister met that person.”
WHY SPENCER PERCEVAL HAD TO DIE
The Assassination of a British Prime Minister
Walker, $26, 296 pp.