Lincoln’s Second Inauguration

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The big room was filling up rapidly when the Vice President-elect came in, leaning rather heavily on Hamlin’s arm. The galleries were already well filled, and the ladies’ section was even noisier than usual, for the stylishly dressed women seated there had no intention of allowing anyone to hush them up. Several senators had made requests for silence, but the privileged ladies who held official tickets of admission were so engrossed in their own conversation that they did not even hear what was being said on the floor.

A New York Herald correspondent described the scene: “A noise was heard in the diplomatic gallery. All eyes were turned in that direction. The noise that attracted attention arose from one of the representatives of a South American government getting his feet entangled with a mass of crinoline, losing his balance, and rolling down the aisle in the gallery.”

Hamlin took the chair and began his farewell message to the Senate. While he was speaking, members of the Cabinet and seven of the ten justices of the Supreme Court entered the room. Chief Justice Chase was carrying a copy of the Constitution and a Bible so he could administer the oath of office to the President. Heads were turned toward the diplomatic gallery when Mrs. Lincoln appeared there. Reporters noted dutifully that she was wearing “a black velvet dress trimmed with ermine.” Then representatives of various foreign governments, resplendent with medals and insignia of rank, were seated behind the justices of the Supreme Court.

Hamlin’s farewell address was a short and gracious speech in which he simply thanked the senators for their kindness to him. At its conclusion he turned to Johnson and asked him if he was ready to take the oath of office as Vice President. Johnson stood up and said that he was, but instead of waiting for Hamlin to administer the oath, he plunged abruptly into what was apparently intended to be his speech of acceptance. Only the newspaper accounts of the day give a truthful approximation of what he actually said.1

The New York World, an opposition paper which was to plague Johnson with his own words for weeks afterward, reported the speech as follows: “By choice of the people, he said, he had been made presiding officer of this body, and, in presenting himself here in obedience to the behests of the Constitution of the United States, it would, perhaps, not be out of place to remark just here what a striking thing the Constitution was. It was the Constitution of the people of the country, and under it, here today, before the American Senate, he felt that he was a man and an American citizen. … Turning toward Mr. Chase, Mr. Johnson said: ‘And your exaltation and position depend upon the people.’ Then turning toward the Cabinet, he said: ‘And I will say to you, Mr. Secretary Seward, and to you, Mr. Secretary Stanton, and to you, Mr. Secretary — (To a gentleman nearby, sotto voce, ‘Who is Secretary of the Navy?’ The person addressed replied in a whisper, ‘Mr. Welles’)—and to you, Mr. Secretary Welles, I would say, you derive your power from the people.’ Mr. Johnson then remarked that the great element of vitality in this government was its nearness and proximity to the people. He wanted to say to all who heard him in the face of the American people, that all power was derived from the people. He would say in the hearing of the foreign ministers, for he was going to tell the truth here today, that he was a plebeian—he thanked God for it.”

By this time, despite the chattering of the women in the gallery, Johnson’s audience, which was expecting the brief, formal speech that was customary for the occasion, had caught on to the fact that something was very wrong. The speaker’s florid face and peculiar manner of speaking caused the unruly crowd to fall silent. The silence emphasized the lack of meaning in what was being said. The loud, pompous voice went on to boast several times more about its plebeian origin; then it drifted off to Tennessee, where God was again thanked that it was still a state in the Union although “there had been an interregnum, a hiatus.” It was obvious to everyone now that the Vice President-elect was trying to show off his political vocabulary but could not put the high-sounding words together to make sense.

The members of the House were crowding in before anyone could stop the unhappy speaker. The Democrats were secretly delighted at what was happening, but the Republicans took it badly. Senator Zachariah Chandler of Michigan wrote later to his wife: “I was never so mortified in my life. Had I been able to find a small hole, I should have dropped through it out of sight.”

Amid audible remarks of “What a shame!” and “Tell him to stop,” Johnson was temporarily silenced. Hamlin then tried to administer the oath of office quickly. But Johnson was in no condition to be hurried. Hamlin had to read the oath by single sentences and sometimes prompt the befuddled man.