Monday, July 30, 2012

The Drunk Vice President

On November 8, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln won re-election, defeating Geogre B. McClellan, former commander of the Union Army of the Potomac. The race was extremely lopsided, with Lincoln winning all but three states (Kentucky, New Jersey, and Delaware) and securing 212 electoral votes to McClellan's 21.

Four months later, on March 4, 1865, inauguration day arrived. It was raining heavily in Washington, but that didn't deter the festivities and the gathering of roughly 50,000 people. The day began, as it did back then, with the swearing in of the vice-president in the Senate Chamber. The room was packed with various House members, justices, diplomats, and other high-ranking governmnet officials, including President Lincoln himself, who sat himself down in the front row.

Andrew Johnson
At noon, the room was gathered into order, the doors opened, and Lincoln's first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, entered with Lincoln's second vice president, Andrew Johnson. Lincoln's decision to replace Hamlin with Johnson had been based on three factors: Hamlin had been a very ineffective vice president during Lincoln's first term; Hamlin had strong ties to the Radical Republicans, a group of politicians who strongly opposed slavery during the Civil War and now, after the war, distrusted ex-Confederates, demanded extremely harsh policies for the South, and strongly opposed Lincoln; Johnson was a southerner and having him on the ticket spoke volumes more for reconciliation than any speech by Lincoln ever could.

After Hamlin's remarks, it was Johnson's turn to speak, and it was obvious that he was drunk. The night before, Johnson had been drinking with the secretary of the Senate and this day had consumed three more glasses of whiskey before the ceremony, in an effort to cure an "illness."

With Lincoln simply closing his eyes and his jaw visibly tensed, Johnson's speech rambled on from topic to topic. Sometimes he whispered, other times he shouted. At times he seemed to forget where he was altogether. Hamlin attempted to get Johnson to leave the dais, but he refused, or ignored him. According to the US Senate website, Johnson said, "I am a plebian. I glory in it! I am going to tell you here today, yes today, in this place, the people are everything." At the end of the speech, he grabbed the bible and said, "I kiss this book in the face of my nation of the United States."

Later, President Lincoln would write to a cabinet member, who had concerns over Johnson and his ability to lead, and tell them that everything was just fine and that Andrew Johnson "ain't a drunkard."

A little over a month later, on April 15, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Johnson became president. He is considered to be one of the worst presidents in American history.

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