Shots of History: Inaugural Imbibing
Once every four years, Americans witness the swearing in of the President of the United States. When Washington took the first oath in April of 1789, it was the start of a tradition we still enjoy as Americans. The first ones were small, private affairs, only attended by some dignitaries and the local citizenry. George Washington began the tradition of the Inaugural Address, which has continued to this day. He still holds the record for the shortest Inaugural address, speaking only 135 words before he began his second term. The scale of the Inauguration has increased over the years as well, from Jefferson walking over to the ceremony then heading back to dinner to the throngs of well-wishers that have appeared in recent decades. Before technology made it easier spread information quickly, the time between the election of the President and his swearing in was an opportunity for them to finish what they needed to do during their term. This allowed for a smooth transition from one president to the next.
We are approaching the forty fifth time that we have switched Presidents. With all of those transitions, there are going to be a few where the passing of power was not a smooth one. Most of the rough transitions came from the politicians not liking each other. John Adams left town before Thomas Jefferson was sworn in, causing their already strained (at the time) relationship to fray further. His son, John Quincy Adams, did the same thing to Andrew Jackson after a brutal campaign. For one day in 1849, historians argue that David Atchison was president because Zachary Taylor, the president-elect, refused to be sworn in on the March 4th since it was a Sunday. That left a gap in command that is assumed Atchison covered because he was president pro-tempore of the Senate at the time. In some cases the transition went fine, but the Inauguration had some issues. Twice those issues that were alcohol related.
The first time that alcohol took a forceful hand, and possibly the best known one, is the first inauguration of Andrew Jackson in 1829. He had run against John Quincy Adams twice; the first time was decided in Congress. The second one was decided by the voters. Both of the campaigns were caked in mud, with no piece of dirty laundry left unaired. It is said that the viciousness with which Jackson’s wife, Rachel, was attacked caused her early death. Jackson was the first president not born in the colonies, and was seen as the first president of the people. The people were incredibly eager to meet him. At the time, inviting your supporters into the White House after the Inauguration was common. The crowds were small and relatively tame. The estimates of the crowds waiting to greet the President on that day hover around 20,000. And they had been pre-gaming.
The thin cable holding the people out of the President’s home never stood a chance. It broke, and the people surged into the White House. Not all of them were using the proper entrances; many believed the windows were perfectly acceptable substitutes. They were enjoying more punch and finger foods when the President arrived. As he entered the house, he was nearly smothered by the happy horde. This was well before the Secret Service, so his only defense was a small group of police. He shook hands and spoke with as many people as he could before sneaking out a window or a side door. But the masses did not notice. And their sheer mass was wrecking the place. Grinding food into the upholstery, breaking windows and vases, even standing on furniture to get a better view of the man of the hour. The staff was mortified. There was no evidence that they were leaving anytime soon, so the staff put tubs of punch onto the lawn. The ploy worked, and eventually the mass of people dispersed. The Inaugural Ball that night was decidedly toned down.
Abraham Lincoln’s inaugurations are the stuff of legends. He was under heavy guard for his first inauguration, going so far as to suggest his supporters not bring their wives in case violence broke out. He could see Confederate flags being flown on the other side of the Potomac as the country was preparing its descent into the Civil War. His second inauguration in 1865 was a mud-soaked affair, executed in front of a new Capitol dome and nursing its deep war wounds. His future assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was there plotting to kidnap Lincoln, hoping that would turn the tide of the war in some way. The story that most people do not hear is about the man who would be the first Vice President to fill in for an assassinated President - Andrew Johnson. He had also been drinking before the ceremony, but for different reasons.
Nineteenth century medicine was dicey at best. More often than not, liquor was the prescription. If not liquor directly, then a concoction that was mostly liquor. In the days leading to the Inauguration, Johnson had contracted typhoid fever. He was medicating himself with whiskey. Typically a moderate drinker, on the day of the Inauguration he rapidly consumed three glasses of the water of life before the ceremony. One was a “hair-of-the-dog” from the night before, and the other two were to shake off the effects of the cold, rain, and travel. At the end of his own swearing in, he licked the Bible. He then went on to deliver a “drunken foolish speech”, as described by a Senator from Michigan. He was also incapable of swearing in the new Senators, which was performed by a clerk. Lincoln, while asking that Johnson was removed from further festivities, did not have a harsh word for his Vice President. “It has been a severe lesson for Andy, but I do not think he will do it again,” he is quoted as saying.
We have had peaceful, almost amicable, transitions of power for over eighty years. The last time two candidates did not have anything to do with each other was 1933, when Herbert Hoover had to hand the keys over to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Presidential Dram project was prepared for the 2017 presidential inauguration, celebrating the longest era of peaceful transitions in the country’s history. Two distillers in the nation’s capital (Ledroit Distributing’s Michael Cherner and spirits entrepreneur Dave Schmier, formerly of Redemption whiskey) plan on releasing a one term (four year) aged rye and a two term (eight year) aged bourbon to celebrate the upcoming Inauguration, both of which were conceived long before election results were finalizes. After all, if there is any dissent over the spirit of America, it should be bourbon versus rye. The whiskey itself is barrel strength and distilled in Indiana, home of the shortest serving president, William Harrison. He has a story for another article. In terms of timing, they may be on to something. Maybe a good glass of whiskey could bridge the country's gap and help start some dialogue. Just as long as Bible-licking is not part of the conversation.
The end of the 19th century saw several changes in society that curtailed the heavy drinking, heavy partying ways of the American people. If the bloodiness of the Civil War was not sobering enough, the Temperance movement began to gain steam. The cocktailing habits of society were curtailed by perceived evils of the bottle. Since that time, even with the increases in the number of Inaugural Balls, the inauguration of the President of the United States has been a relatively tame affair. It may be a while before there is a truly extraordinary drinking story from this year's affair. Until then, we can still enjoy the majesty of the event as we transition from one era to the next. Best with a dram of whiskey or a strong cocktail.