Andrew Johnson’s Remarks Upon Swearing-In (1865)

The United States was facing a time of crisis on April 15, 1865 — the evening prior, President Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth at the Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. — at 7:22 a.m., Lincoln was pronounced dead. Vice-President Andrew Johnson was to take his place. However, Johnson visited Lincoln as he lay on his death bed, incredibly inebriated, causing Mary Todd Lincoln to demand he be kicked out of the room. White House staff struggled to wake him up at his hotel room, finding Johnson asleep, with puffy eyes, and mud in his hair. Johnson successfully took the oath of office at 10 a.m. that day, and gave a short and spontaneous speech regarding his presidency.

Commencing his presidential tenure with controversy, Johnson also ended his tenure the same way, becoming the first president in United States history to be impeached. The odds were stacked against Johnson from the get-go, a states-rights, Southern, Jacksonian Democrat, with a Congress comprised of Republicans. Under Reconstruction, Johnson restored the states that seceded to the Union, as well as pardoned them. However, Johnson did not give protections to former slaves, and soon, “black codes,” or laws to regulate newly freed slaves, began to appear in the southern states. These events dismayed the Radical Republicans, who in response passed legislation to make freedmen American citizens. Johnson vetoed this bill, but the Radical Republicans overrode his veto — the first time in U.S. history that Congress successfully overrode a presidential veto — and passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866. In the following months, Congress would submit the Fourteenth Amendment which states that no state may “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” On February 28, 1868, Johnson was charged with eleven articles on impeachment by the House of Representatives. One of the charges was a violation of the Tenure of Office Act, which Johnson violated by removing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and replacing him with General Ulysses S. Grant. His trial ended in acquittal, but the damage was done. Johnson sought nomination from the Democratic National Convention in 1968, but ended up receiving only four votes, from the state of Tennessee. 

Andrew Johnson's oath of office ceremony in Kirkwood Hotel. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Andrew Johnson’s oath of office ceremony in Kirkwood Hotel. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

 

Andrew Johnson’s Remarks Upon Swearing-In (1865)

Gentlemen, I must be permitted, to say that I have been almost overwhelmed by the announcement of the sad event which has so recently occurred. I feel incompetent to perform duties so important and responsible as those which have been so unexpectedly thrown upon me. As to an indication of any policy which may be presented by me in the administration of the government. I have to say that that must be left for development as the Administration progresses. The message or declaration must be made by the acts as they transpire. The only assurance that I can now give of the future is by reference to the past. The course which I have taken in the past in connection with this rebellion, must be regarded as a guarantee of the future. My past public life, which has been long and laborious, has been founded as I, in good conscience believe, upon a great principle of right, which lies at the basis of all things. The best energies of my life have been spent in endeavoring to establish and perpetuate the principles of free government, and I believe that the government, in passing through its present trials, will settle down upon principles consonant with popular rights, more permanent and enduring than heretofore. I must be permitted to say, if I understand the feelings of my own heart, I have long labored to ameliorate and alleviate the condition of the great mass of the American people. Toil and an honest advocacy of the great principles of free government have been my lot. The duties have been mine — the consequences are God’s. This has been the foundation of my political creed. I feel that in the end the government will triumph, and that these great principles will be permanently established. In conclusion, gentlemen, let me say that I want your encouragement and countenance. I shall ask and rely upon you and others in carrying the government through its present perils. I feel in making this request that it will be heartily responded to by you and all other patriots and lovers of the rights and interests of a free people.

Transcript courtesy of The New York Times.

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