Lincoln’s Second Inauguration

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The President had returned and was in the ornately decorated room set aside for him in the Senate wing, so busy reading bills that he had not thought to remove his tall hat. He sat there all morning with it on, reading the bills and affixing the signature “A. Lincoln” to those he wanted to approve. (One of the bills he signed in the closing days of the Thirty-eighth Congress was for extra pensions for the last five survivors of the American Revolution.) Senators Foster and Hendricks were with the President, while pages kept running in and out of the room. They heard the inaugural procession reach the Capitol; then they heard the footsteps and subdued murmurs of many people crowding through the halls.

The President was due to appear in the Senate chamber at noon, but when noon came the Senate was not yet ready for him. One of the pages told the men in the little room that Vice President-elect Andrew Johnson was speaking longer than had been expected. The people around the President grew more and more impatient. They sent a marshal to make sure that Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase was on hand: then they escorted the President down the hall to the Senate chamber. Johnson was still speaking when the presidential party entered the Senate chamber. His face was red and his voice boomed above all the rustle and bustle of the densely crowded room. When President Lincoln unobtrusively took his seat at the end of the clerk’s desk, there was audible whispering from the ladies in the galleries, and there was much craning of necks while comment buzzed everywhere. Johnson spoke even more loudly in order to be heard, and then, as the noise died away, his voice was left stranded on a peak of sound.

Johnson was a stump speaker who could rouse a backwoods audience. He had been the war governor of Tennessee and had had much more experience in Washington in both the House and the Senate than Lincoln. But he had few friends in the Capitol; his uncertain political position as a lifelong Democrat who consented to be elected to office with a Republican President on the Union ticket had made him distrusted and unpopular.

Lincoln had outgrown his log-cabin background, but Johnson was still suffering from a poor-boy complex. He liked to boast of his lowly origin, of being a tailor by trade and a man of the people, but when he spoke, he used long words of Latin or Greek derivation to show how learned he had become. He enjoyed calling himself a plebeian. The word had caught his fancy; it was the kind of word that conjured up images of immense crowds in the Roman forum, where a white-robed speaker swayed the multitudes and through them ruled an empire. He had seized upon this word and made it his own. But the magic word was to betray him on this, the most important day of his life.

He had been seriously ill in Nashville for many weeks with a fever that was probably malarial, and he had not felt well enough to travel to Washington for the inauguration. He had even written to the chief clerk of the secretary of the Senate to find out whether it was absolutely necessary for him to be present that day and was told that six previous Vice Presidents had been sworn in months after Inauguration Day. But Lincoln had urged him to come to Washington, saying that he and several members of his Cabinet had unanimously concluded “that it is unsafe for you not to be here on the fourth of March. Be sure to reach here by that time.”

Once the dutiful Johnson had decided to go to Washington, neither illness nor the very real possibility of assassination could stop him. On the morning of Inauguration Day, Senator J.R. Doolittle of Wisconsin called for him at his hotel and escorted him to the Vice President’s Room in the Capitol, where he met his predecessor, Hannibal Hamlin. What happened that morning is explained in a newspaper clipping from the Boston Commonwealth which was sent to Johnson by one of his admirers and which he carefully preserved for the rest of his life:

“There was nothing unusual in his [Johnson’s] appearance, except that he did not seem in robust health. … Conversation proceeded on ordinary topics for a few minutes, when Mr. Johnson asked Mr. Hamlin if he had any liquor in the room, stating that he was sick and nervous. … Brandy being indicated, a bottle was brought by one of the pages. It was opened, a tumbler provided, and Mr. Johnson poured it about two-thirds full. … When near 12 … Mr. Hamlin rose, moved to the door near which the Sergeant-at-Arms stood, and suggested to Mr. Johnson to come also. The latter got up and … said, ‘Excuse me a moment,’ and walked hastily back to where the bottle was deposited. Mr. Hamlin saw him … pour as large a quantity as before into the glass and drink it down like water. They then went into the Senate Chamber.”

The rain had made everything uncertain, because it was still an open question whether the presidential part of the great spectacle could be staged outdoors. The Vice President customarily took his oath of office in the Senate chamber, and just seven minutes had been allowed for his speech.