The Second Inauguration of Abraham Lincoln

March 4, 1865 – Abraham Lincoln began a second term as U.S. president in Washington, D.C.

Much had changed since Lincoln’s first inaugural just four years ago. Lincoln had begun his presidency when the country was on the brink of war, and now he was beginning his second term when the country was on the brink of peace. As part of the ceremony, Lincoln left the White House escorted by military bands and a cavalry guard. They rode to the Capitol, where the new dome had been under construction in 1861. It was now finally completed.

The ceremony began in the Senate chamber, where Andrew Johnson replaced Hannibal Hamlin as vice president. Notable attendees included Major General Joseph Hooker (representing the army), Rear Admiral David G. Farragut (representing the navy), the governors of most northern states, Lincoln’s cabinet members, and the nine Supreme Court justices. Lincoln sat in front between the justices and the cabinet.

Hamlin began by delivering a farewell speech. He was followed by Johnson, who delivered a rambling, barely coherent inaugural address; he had taken whiskey to relieve his typhoid fever and the room was overheated. Johnson repeatedly cited his poor upbringing and reminded the stunned audience that they too were “creatures of the people.” Hamlin pulled on Johnson’s coattails but could not stop him.

The officials then proceeded to the east portico of the Capitol for the presidential inaugural ceremony at 12 p.m. An estimated 50,000 people gathered to witness the proceedings, an unexpectedly large number considering that it was a rainy and dismal day. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton placed sharpshooters at every window and rooftop for safety. Guests invited to attend the ceremony included famous actor John Wilkes Booth, who had an excellent view of the podium where Lincoln would speak. The sun appeared between the clouds as the president began.

Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inauguration | Image Credit:

Lincoln’s address, the shortest since George Washington’s second inaugural in 1793, lasted less than five minutes and contained just 703 words on a single sheet of paper. Lincoln did not discuss future policies; he instead focused on restoring the Union, blaming the southern states for starting the war, and expressing his belief that the war had been God’s punishment for the sin of slavery.

When the speech concluded, U.S. Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase summoned the Court clerk to present the open-faced Bible. Lincoln placed his hand on top, and Chase administered the oath of office. The crowd cheered, cannons fired a salute, and bands played as the ceremony ended. Lincoln returned to the White House with his 10 year-old son Tad, no longer feeling the need to use the security escort that had surrounded him during his first inaugural.

Lincoln takes the oath of office | Image Credit: Harper’s Weekly, Vol. IX, No. 429, 18 Mar 1865

The White House gates opened to the public for a three-hour reception at 8 p.m., which became one of the largest gatherings ever held in the Executive Mansion. Lincoln greeted an estimated 6,000 people, with some cutting fabric from the expensive draperies for souvenirs. When Lincoln learned that White House guards had barred civil rights leader Frederick Douglass from participating, he ordered them to escort Douglass into the East Room where Lincoln could meet him.

The Inaugural Ball took place two nights later at the Patent Office building. Tickets cost $10 per person and were sold to 4,000 guests, with the proceeds going to aid the families of fallen military personnel. The midnight supper included beef, veal, poultry, oysters, salads, jellies, cakes, chocolate, and coffee.

Once Lincoln settled back down to business after the inaugural festivities, his cabinet underwent some changes. William P. Fessenden resigned as treasury secretary to reclaim his seat in the U.S. Senate. Lincoln tried to replace him with New York Senator Edwin D. Morgan, but Morgan declined, so Lincoln then picked Hugh McCulloch of Indiana. McCulloch was the current comptroller of the currency with good experience in the Treasury.

Interior Secretary John P. Usher then resigned, citing the tradition that a president should not have more than one man from the same state in his cabinet (McCulloch and Usher were both Indianans). Lincoln, who did not think highly of Usher, quickly accepted his resignation and replaced him with Senator John Harlan of Iowa. Harlan had been one of Lincoln’s strongest supporters in Congress, and Harlan’s daughter was engaged to the Lincolns’ son Robert.

These changes, combined with the inauguration process and the stress of wartime, pushed Lincoln to the brink of exhaustion. He was bedridden for several days, which led many to question whether he would remain healthy enough to serve four more years.



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