Monday, April 16, 2007

April 15, 1865:

Andrew Johnson Takes the Oath of Office

Four US presidents have been murdered in office, half the number of those who have died in office -- unless you believe Warren Harding was offed by his wife, who may have had some motive, but otherwise there's no evidence for it. Put another way, four out of the 42 individuals who have ever been president were killed for it, nearly 1 in 10. By that way of reckoning, it's a dangerous job. On the other hand, assassination of the president is something that's happened only four times in 218 years -- less than once every 50 years.

One hundred forty-two years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln died across the street from the Ford Theater at 7:22 am. Vice President Andrew Johnson took the oath of office at the Kirkwood House, the hotel where he was living, a few hours later, with Chief Justice Salmon Chase administering it. By all contemporary accounts, it was a somber occasion, with Johnson behaving in a dignified manner.

Later, however, some of Johnson's enemies began remembering the event differently. "Senator [William] Stewart of Nevada... told a fantastic story," wrote Hans L. Trefousee in Andrew Johnson (1989). "Maintaining that he himself along with the chief justice and Senator [Solomon] Foot were the first persons to bring Johnson news of the tragedy, he alleged that the visitors found the vice president half dressed, dirty, shabby, with matted hair as though from mud in the gutter, apparently trying to overcome a hangover. According to Stewart, the chief justice informed Johnson that the president had been shot and between seven or eight in the morning administered the oath of office. After the callers informed Secretary of War Stanton, they returned, only to find Johnson asleep again. Dressing him, they took him to the White House, where they sent for a tailor, doctor and barber, bathed him, and put new clothes on him...

"The falsity of these assertions is evident. Stewart's account is contradicted by most other contemporary sources, including a memorandum in the chief justice's papers prepared the next day... In order to give the distraught Mrs. Lincoln a chance to move out, [Johnson] did not even occupy the White House for several weeks after his inauguration."

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