As Barack Obama and Joe Biden prepare for Inauguration Day, they can allay pre-ceremony jitters with the calming thought that it will be difficult to perform worse than Andrew Johnson of Tennessee did when he took the oath of office as vice president on March 4, 1865. That occasion — with a Union victor in sight after four years of civil war — marked the low point of American inaugural ceremonies.
Johnson felt shaky that morning. He had celebrated hard the night before. With determination and talen but not formal schooling, he had found success as a tailor, prospered in real estate deals, and served as alderman, mayor, state senator, congressman, governor, and senator. he was proud of his plain origins and high achievement. He had a right to be.
Johnson (left) was added to the Republican ticket in 1864 because he was a Southerner and a Democrat, yet stood with the Union during the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln was looking past battlefield victory toward the challenge of governing a reunited nation.
The inaugural procession stepped off from the White House at 11 a.m. in a cold rain. The military escort included units of white soldiers and some of negro troops, followed by brass bands, fire companies, and the Lodges of Odd Fellows and Masons. Lincoln and Johnson were at the Capitol, sixteen blocks away, out of the nasty weather.
The vice president’s ceremony, slated for the Senate chamber, came first. Arriving early, Johnson waited with Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, the man the Republicans dumped to make room for Johnson.
Sitting with Hamlin and Hamlin’s son, Johnson was out of sorts. “Mr. Hamlin,” he said, “I am not well, and need a stimulant. Have you any whiskey?”
Hamlin, a teetotaler, sent out for a bottle. When it arrived, Johnson tossed down a tumbler of whiskey, straight. Feeling reinforced, he announced that his speech would be the effort of his life. Then he polished off a second glass.
Word came that it was time to start. Hamlin (right) offered Johnson his arm. The two passed few steps down the corrider when Johnson turned back to Hamlin’s office. he poured out a third glass of whiskey and drank it down. Hamlin looked on in amazement: “[K]nowing that Johnson was a hard drinker, [Hamlin] supposed that he could stand the liquor he had taken.” Unfortunately, on his Inauguration Day, he could not.
Arm-in-arm, the outgoing and incoming vice presidents took their places in the Senate. Hamlin began with a few remarks, then yielded the podium to Johnson.
A solidly-built man of medium height, Johnson was an experienced and confident orator. He spoke without notes, but could not be heard well at first. The audience sensed that something was wrong. Johnson’s face glowed a luminous red. His sentences were incomplete, disconnected. At the biggest moment of his life, the man was drunk.
“Your president is a plebeian,” he announced. “I am a plebeian – glory in it – Tennessee has never gone out of the Union – I am going to talk two and a half minutes on that point, and want you to hear me – Tennessee has always been loyal.”
Hamlin tugged on Johnson’s coat from behind. “Johnson,” he hissed, “stop!”
Johnson looked down at the Cabinet members before him. Calling to each by name, he advised them to remember that their power came from the people. When he reached the Navy Secretary, memory failed. Leaning toward a Senate official, Johnson asked in a stage whisper, “What is the name of the Secretary of the Navy?”
Hamlin tugged Johnson’s coat again. The new vice president rambled on.
Sitting closest to the dais, the Cabinet Secretaries began to mutter. “All this is in wretched bad taste,” complained the Attorney General, adding, “The man is certainly deranged.” Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, whose name had eluded Johnson, whispered, “Johnson is either drunk or crazy.”
Some senators and congressmen smirked. Most fidgeted. One placed his head on the desk before him.
After President Lincoln entered the Senate, Hamlin abruptly stood to administer the oath of office. Johnson mumbled the oath, then grabbed the Bible from Hamlin. Brandishing it, he cried out, “I kiss this Book in the face of my nation of the United States.” The mortifying spectacle was over.
Because the rain relented, Lincoln could take his oath on a platform on the east side of the Capitol. As the tall president stepped forward, an observer wrote, “the sun burst forth . . . and flooded the spectacle with glory and light.”
With biblical cadences and a triumphant sadness, Lincoln gave Americans the reasons for their terrible sacrifices during the war. He cautioned that God’s justice might impose even greater loss, 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.”
He closed with a prayer: “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 lasting peace. “
But Lincoln’s eloquence could not wash out the stain of Johnson’s rant. According to the correspondent from the London Times, Johnson spoke “in the language of a clown and with the manners of a costermonger, adding that he would have been arrested “before any other legislative assembly in the world.”
Johnson retired from sight for several days. When he returned to Washington, he rarely presided over the Senate until the fateful day when he succeeded Lincoln as president. Through nearly four years in the White House, whenever Johnson made a controversial statement, many assumed he had been drunk again.
So a final, probably obvious reminder to Obama and Biden staffers: on the morning of January 20, keep the bar closed.