the fiasco at johnson's inauguration -- 5/09/16
Today's selection -- from Andrew Johnson by Annette Gordon-Reed. Andrew Johnson was drunk during his March 4, 1865 inauguration as Vice President. Moments after his disgraceful performance, Abraham Lincoln uttered the words of his immortal Second Inaugural Address. Six weeks later, Lincoln was dead and Johnson was the 17th President of the United States:
"[On the eve of the inauguration, Andrew Johnson was] in the midst of a very tense and draining time, having fought and won an election and worked to bring normality back to his home state [of Tennessee]. It is not at all surprising that when he arrived in Washington to be sworn into office he was not in the best shape. On the night before the inauguration he was in a good enough mood, however, to have a number of drinks with a friend. ... The next day, upon stopping in at the office of [outgoing] Vice President [Hannibal] Hamlin, he drank several glasses of whiskey just before going to the ceremony. ...
Lincoln sitting beside Vice President Andrew
Johnson at the second inauguration.
"Johnson and Hamlin arrived to a scene that presented the battered American democracy in its fullest glory. All the notables of the government were in place: senators, members of the House of Representatives, the president's cabinet, Lincoln, members of the Supreme Court. This was an enormous feat given all that had been happening in the country -- was still happening -- as they gathered for that solemn occasion. Johnson rose to do what he had done hundreds of times before, could probably do almost in his sleep. This time, however, he was about to give the most important speech of his life, when the eyes of the world were upon him. And he was drunk.
"It probably did not take people long to figure this out. The newspaper correspondents caught it all in its tragicomedy. Johnson was like a drunken best man at a wedding giving an interminable and embarrassing toast. The people present were mortified but knew that the ceremony had to go on. In the midst of one pompous section, in which he told all the officials assembled that they owed everything they were to 'the people,' he turned to address the cabinet members specifically.
And I will say to you, Mr. Secretary Seward, and to you, Mr. Secretary Stanton, and to you, Mr. Secretary -- (to a gentleman near by, sotto voce, 'Who is the Secretary of the Navy?' The person addressed replied in a whisper, 'Mr. Welles') -- and to you Mr. Secretary Welles ...
"On and on in that vein. Johnson's biographer Hans Trefousse describes the reaction to this display. 'Seward and Welles seemed bland, Stanton appeared to be petrified, Attorney General James Speed sat with his eyes closed, and Postmaster General William Dennison was red and white by turns,' he wrote. 'Senator Henry Wilson's face flushed, Sumner 'wore a saturnine and sarcastic smile' [by one account he put his head down on the desk after a while], and Justice Samuel Nelson's lower jaw dropped in sheer horror.' Lincoln just looked terribly sad. The cherry on top of this little confection was Johnson's 'loud and theatrical' action when taking the oath of office. He picked up the Bible and said, 'I kiss this Book in the face of my nation of the United States,' ... After Johnson came Lincoln, who proceeded to give his sublime Second Inaugural Address, which must have made what had gone before seem even more imbecilic.
Andrew Johnson swearing-in ceremony in the Kirkwood House.
"As everyone surely knew it would, Johnson's performance drew scathing commentary from the enemies of the new administration. What made matters worse, if they could be any worse, was that his failure to rise to this occasion gave ammunition to those who belittled those of his background. The lowly tailor's apprentice had clawed his way to the top, claiming all the while that he was just as good as the elites who felt it was their right to lord it over people of his class. And yet when his moment in the sun arrived he acted in a way that justified every single thing they said about people of his type. There was no mincing of words about this. He was a 'drunken boor,' a 'low sot' -- the word low suggesting that everyone should have known that class will out.
"Some suggested Johnson resign, that he had disgraced the office of vice president and damaged Lincoln when there was still so much work to be done. And yet the president himself seemed unperturbed. He told Hugh McCulloch, the secretary of the treasury, who confessed to Lincoln that the president's life was even more precious to the country now that he had had the chance to see Johnson in action, 'I have known Andy Johnson for many years; he made a bad slip the other day, but you need not be scared; Andy ain't a drunkard.' ...
"Alcoholic or not, Johnson was miserable about what had happened. It must have been hard for a man so conscious of his background to bear the ridicule and know that he had, in fact, fallen very far short."
|Andrew Johnson: The American Presidents Series: The 17th President, 1865-1869
|Copyright 2011 by Annette Gordon-Reed