Lincoln's second inaugural address is considered to be the best speech he ever wrote, or at least up there with the Gettysburg Address. But according to firsthand accounts, the day surrounding the speech was largely a fumble -- a rainy, muddy occasion with little organization or order.
"The affair of yesterday, except that part performed by Mr. LINCOLN himself, was almost insignificant in comparison [to Lincoln's first inauguration]," a disgruntled New York Times correspondent wrote. "I do not know whose fault it may be, but it was a very faulty affair."
The reporters' gallery was reserved for its especial purpose, the representative of each paper being admitted by ticket; and there was a sudden increase of strange faces among that class, to say nothing of the acquisition of ladies, who were sandwiched among the gentlemen of the press.
Vice President Andrew Johnson's speech was inaudible, and rambling. He forgot the secretary of the Navy's name. He might have been drunk.
Mr. JOHNSON, before taking the oath of office, made a short speech, which ... was nearly inaudible, owing to the want of order which prevailed among the women in the galleries."...
Then turning toward the Cabinet, [Johnson] said, And I will say to you, Mr. Secretary SEWARD, and to you, Mr. Secretary STANTON, and to you, Mr. Secretary -- (to a gentleman near by, sotto voice, Who is Secretary of the Navy? the person addressed replied in a whisper, Mr. WELLS) -- and to you, Mr. Secretary WELLS, I would say, you all derive your power from the people.
(Several attendees thought the the vice president had been drinking, and the president noticed as well. According to a 1999 feature in The Atlantic, "Lincoln, who studiously avoided looking up during Johnson's odd performance in the Senate, quietly told the parade marshal, "˜Do not let Johnson speak outside.' " Another in attendance said Johnson, while holding a Bible, "slobbered the Holy Book with a drunken kiss.")
But the absolute WORST part about the day was when the sun came out, and someone had the bright idea to usher the whole crowd outside of the Capitol for Lincoln's speech. The scene was a mess. People were crammed through the hallways, and some didn't make it out in time to hear the president talk at all. Not to mention, the Capitol grounds were soaked and muddy, ruining the clothes of many attendees.
When the crowd attempted to get out this was the only door open and the crush was terrible, the stair-cases and corridors became a mass of surging humanity, propelled by the pressure from the rear, and moving not where it wanted to; but anywhere it could find any avenue of escape. Ladies were lifted off their feet and carried down staircases. By the immense pressure from behind, crowds went rushing through the building, trying to get out, and getting out finally on every side but the right side, landing in the mud in the streets, to the great loss of time, temper and patience. Not one in fifty of that immense audience got within hearing distance of the President, on account of this blunder, and very many only got on the ground just as he closed the address, and didn't even see him.
(Conversely, The Atlantic's recollection describes the scene as providing a potent visual metaphor for Lincoln's speech. "A peephole in the dark clouds let some see a bright star in midday. Sun slanted through the lattice of clouds with spotlighting effects.")
There was insane traffic (sound familiar?) getting to the White House for the public reception.
The rush was so great that hundreds of carriages were kept waiting from one to two hours before they could deliver their occupants at the door, and many hundreds after waiting thus long, and hearing of the dreadful crush inside, turned away without entrance.
Many articles of clothing were ruined.
Many ladies, who had the bad taste to attend in full toilette, suffered losses amounting to hundreds of dollars, in having valuable laces, dresses ... torn to pieces by the pressure.
Nearly 150 years later, none of these details really matter. Lincoln's words are what lived on, even if few people in attendance could hear them. Which begs a rhetorical question: How much of yesterday's analysis of President Obama's second inauguration will hold significance 150 years from now? It's impossible to tell.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.