March 4, 1865
Early on March 4, 1865, approximately 50,000 people swarmed a rain-soaked Capitol Hill to witness President Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration. The day's formal program began with the traditional swearing in of the vice president in the Senate Chamber. Crowded together on the floor were senators, House members, Supreme Court justices, diplomats, and the cabinet. President Lincoln sat in the center of the front row. At high noon, the president pro tempore gaveled the proceeding to order. Out-going Vice President Hannibal Hamlin entered arm-in-arm with his successor, the former senator and military governor of Tennessee, Andrew Johnson.
After delivering brief farewell remarks, Hamlin yielded to Johnson. As Johnson stood to address the Senate, shock waves swept the chamber. It was immediately apparent that the man about to become next in line to the presidency in those dangerous closing weeks of the Civil War was seriously intoxicated. He had spent the previous evening drinking with the secretary of the Senate. Before reaching the Chamber that morning, Johnson stopped by the vice president's office. There, to ward off travel fatigue and the lingering effects of a bad cold, he reportedly consumed three glasses of whiskey.
On the dais, Johnson veered illogically from one subject to another. In tones ranging from a shout to a whisper, he described his humble roots. "I am a plebeian. I glory in it. . . . I am a-going for to tell you here today, yes today, in this place, the people are everything." He ignored Hannibal Hamlin's repeated tugs on his jacket. Jaws dropped; faces reddened. President Lincoln closed his eyes and sat motionless. Reporters penned dispatches that telegraph wires sped to an astounded nation. After 20 minutes, Johnson turned his back to the audience to take his oath. Holding up the Bible, he said, "I kiss this Book in the face of my nation of the United States." After newly elected senators took their oaths, President Lincoln led the stunned party out of the chamber, to the Capitol Rotunda, and onto the East Front inaugural platform to greet the cheering multitudes and deliver possibly the greatest inaugural address in American history.
After the ceremony, the new vice president went into seclusion as he struggled with the poor health that had prompted his unfortunate overindulgence. Both of Massachusetts' senators introduced a resolution calling for him to resign. This prompted an unconcerned President Lincoln to write a cabinet member, "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."
Trefousse, Hans L. Andrew Johnson: A Biography. New York: W.W. Norton, 1989.
U.S. Congress. Senate. Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789-1993, by Mark O. Hatfield, with the Senate Historical Office. 104th Congress, 2d sess., 1997. S. Doc. 104-6.