Lincoln’s Second Inauguration

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One incident that went almost unnoticed had to do with the strange actions of a man who had a card of admission to the Capitol which he had probably procured through Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire, for he was secretly engaged to marry the Senator’s daughter. This good-looking young man tried to force his way through the line of police as the President passed. He was forcibly ejected from the rotunda, but, oddly enough, was not arrested. Weeks later, when the nation-wide man hunt for the President’s assassin was under way, a photograph of this man was shown to Benjamin B. French, commissioner of public buildings, who had been present when the intruder behaved so oddly. He identified the picture as a portrait of John Wilkes Booth, the celebrated actor of an even more celebrated theatrical family. And one of Booth’s friends testified that the violently pro-Southern actor had said: “What an excellent chance I had to kill the President, if I had wished, on inauguration day!”

Unaware of the presence in the Capitol of the man who was destined to slay him just 41 days later, Abraham Lincoln, now inaugurated as President of the United States for the second time, was led to his waiting carriage to return to the White House. As the President’s carriage was about to leave, his eleven-year-old son, little Tad, scrambled into it, Mrs. Lincoln and their first-born son, Robert Todd Lincoln, who had just been made a captain on Grant’s staff, followed in other carriages.

Walt Whitman wrote about Lincoln’s return to the White House: “He was in his plain two-horse barouche, and looked very much worn and tired; the lines, indeed, of vast responsibilities, intricate questions, and demands of life and death, cut deeper than ever upon his dark brown face; yet all the goodness, tenderness, sadness, and canny shrewdness [showed] underneath the furrows.”

And so ended one of the most memorable inaugurations in American history. The senators re-entered the Senate chamber, paying little attention to the President’s speech but discussing Johnson’s behavior with the petty spite of washerwomen gossiping over a back yard fence. They waited for the new Vice President to appear, so he could officially adjourn the Senate, but he never came and thus brought more malicious comment down upon himself. Finally the senators departed by ones and twos, and the great halls of the Capitol became silent.

Lincoln is sometimes thought of as having been too lenient and easygoing, but he could be firm when the situation required strength and decisiveness. The next-to-last sentence of the address he delivered that day shows how determined he was to finish the stern task to which he was committed. But the unyielding attitude of the Old Testament changes quickly in the famous peroration, which is much nearer to the New Testament in thought and words:

… Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.

The President’s arduous day was not yet over. He had to greet several thousand people at a White House levee that evening. It was still an American tradition that anyone could attend such a public reception who had the patience and the strength to wait for hours to gain admission. It was also a tradition that the President must stand in the receiving line to shake each person’s hand and utter a few meaningless words of greeting.

After dinner Cabinet members and their families began arriving early at the White House in order to have a few moments with the President before the crowd got in. A temporary wooden platform had been erected at one of the East Room windows so the long line of visitors could be channeled past the President, across the room, and then out through the high window to the side street. At eight o’clock, when the gates were thrown open, some two thousand people tried to storm the main entrance. The doors to the White House were opened for only a few minutes at a time in order to control the rate of entry. Even with this precaution the Chronicle reported that “some of the more unfortunate females, who were caught in the surging mass, actually shrieked with pain while several fainted and were carried away.”