The Day After: Andrew Johnson Sworn in as President

Andrew Johnson taking the oath of officeAndrew Johnson taking the oath of office. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (Photo: Library of Congress)

President Lincoln’s death meant that Vice President Andrew Johnson had to be sworn in as the nation’s new president. The New York Times ran a stark account of the event, the very sparseness of the language conveying some of the reporter’s shock at what had transpired in the past two days. Curiously, though, the transition from Lincoln’s presidency to Johnson’s provided a retrospective of Lincoln’s life.

Shortly after President Lincoln breathed his last at 7:22am on April 15, 1865, Attorney General James Speed visited Vice President Johnson at his rooms in Kirkwood House on Pennsylvania Avenue. The newspaper reporter simply recorded that Speed delivered a message informing Johnson of Lincoln’s death and impressing upon him that “the emergency of the government” required that he take the oath of office immediately. What he did not say was that James Speed was the older brother of Lincoln’s best friend Joshua Speed, and that he was quite likely both in shock and in tears.

Johnson replied that he would take the oath at 10:00am in his rooms.

At that hour, eleven men arrived at Kirkwood House for the ceremony.

Some of the men attending were Lincoln’s close friends from the early years in which he had learned his profession and built a political following. James Speed attended, undoubtedly remembering the younger Lincoln who had roomed with his brother and visited the older James at his law office in Kentucky to talk business. Two of Lincoln’s friends from his early days in Illinois also came: Senator Richard Yates, with whom a young Lincoln had plotted for political advancement, and General John F. Farnsworth, who was a fan of the off-color jokes Lincoln told to appeal to rural voters.

Some of the men arriving for the swearing-in were Lincoln’s wartime political rivals, such as Salmon P. Chase, whom Lincoln had recently neutralized by appointing him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Chase had to be there, since he would have to administer the oath of office to Lincoln’s successor.

Also in the room were political associates who understood the difficulties Lincoln had suffered under for the past four years, and who had wished him well. Frank and Montgomery Blair, father and son, former Democrats and strong Lincoln supporters from border regions had come; hot-tempered Montgomery had been Lincoln’s Postmaster General for three years. Also there was Secretary of the Treasury, Hugh McCulloch, who had seen Lincoln the morning of the assassination and was relieved to see that that war-weary president seemed happier and more cheerful than McCulloch had ever seen him.

Solomon Foot, president pro tem of the recently adjourned Senate, and Senator Alexander Ramsey of Minnesota, who was not especially close to the president, lent the gravitas of the party organization to the occasion.

Newcomers eager to underline their connection to the famous president were represented by Senator William M. Stewart, of Nevada, who had shaken Lincoln’s hand outside his carriage as he left for the theater the night before, and who later claimed to have received the very last lines Lincoln ever wrote: a note inviting Stewart to bring a friend to meet the president the next morning, a memo whose significance Stewart could not anticipate, and which he threw away as soon as he had read it.

Finally, staunch Republican Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire was there, an unhappy symbol of Lincoln’s assassination. Hale’s daughter Lucy was a Washington belle, and was romantically involved in some fashion with John Wilkes Booth – possibly secretly engaged to the famous actor.

The eleven men gathered in Johnson’s rooms. Chief Justice Chase read the oath of office, and Johnson repeated it. Chase declared Johnson president, and those gathered gave him their best wishes.

“All were deeply impressed by the solemnity of the occasion,” the New York Times reporter wrote.

Indeed.

About the Author

Heather Cox Richardson

Historian. Author. Professor. Budding Curmudgeon. Heather Cox Richardson studies the contrast between image and reality in America, especially in politics.

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