Presidential Inaugurations

Watching the inauguration of Joe Biden today, and joining in his prayers for America, I was thinking about some of the inaugurations in which Salmon Chase participated.

The first was the first inauguration of Andrew Jackson, in 1829. Chase was a young law student in Washington at the time, reading law with William Wirt, attorney general for John Quincy Adams. Chase supported Adams in the 1828 presidential campaign and lamented the arrival of Jackson as president.

On inauguration day, Chase noted in his diary that Wirt and the other members of the Adams cabinet were invited but did not attend, for they did not wish “to hear themselves abused by insinuation.” After delivering his inaugural address, which according to Chase nobody in the audience could hear, Jackson mounted his horse and rode to the President’s House, followed by the crowd. “The people rushed into the building,” Chase wrote. “They swarmed in every room. They pried into every corner. Those who entered first into the building were obliged to find their way out through the windows for to return through the doors was almost an impossibility.” Jackson had to spend the night in a hotel “so that the ravages of the mob might be repaired, and the building prepared once more for his habitation.”

(By the end of his life, Chase had changed his mind about Jackson: he was fond of quoting Jackson’s toast: “Our federal Union, it must be preserved.”)

Chase had hoped to be in Washington on March 5, 1849, for the inauguration of Zachary Taylor, and for Chase’s own swearing-in as a senator from Ohio. But the transport system failed Chase. A steamboat trip up the Ohio River which should have taken twenty-four hours took thirty hours. Then a short stagecoach ride took more than a day, so Chase missed the train to Washington. Chase did not arrive in Washington until late on the day of the inauguration, so it was the NEXT day that Chase took his oath of office and joined the Senate.

Not all inaugural days are happy days. Chase was in Washington on July 10, 1850, the morning after the death of Taylor, when Fillmore was inaugurated as his successor. Church bells tolled sadly, and Chase wrote to his wife that Washington was “full of rumors about Mr. Fillmore, the new cabinet, and the effects of the change of administration upon the slavery question.” After attending the Taylor funeral services in the East Room, Chase wrote her that “nobody knows what Mr. Fillmore will do but the general opinion is that he will be controlled by the Clay and Webster influence.” Indeed: Fillmore would be guided by Clay and Webster, and like them would support the Compromise of 1850.

Chase was in Washington, and part of the process, for perhaps the most dramatic inauguration in our nation’s history, the first inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, on March 4, 1861. Although Lincoln and Chase had discussed the possibility that Chase would be part of Lincoln’s cabinet, and although the papers were asserting that he would, nothing was certain; Lincoln had not officially named his cabinet choices. What was certain was that the Ohio legislature had selected Chase as one of its federal senators, and so Chase was part of the group of senators that took their oaths of office on this morning, before the whole group processed out to the east side of the Capitol for Lincoln’s inauguration.

Just as there were fears of violence today, in 2021, there were fears of violence in 1861; seven states had seceded from the Union and there were rumors that secessionists would try to disrupt the event, even kill the president-elect. Chase was among the senators, on the platform, as Lincoln gave his address and took the oath. In those days, the address came BEFORE the oath.

Chase, sitting with the other senators behind Lincoln, probably could not hear much of what Lincoln said as he read his inaugural address. But Chase surely heard the applause at some of Lincoln’s key lines, such as when he declared that he would “take care, as the Constitution itself expressly enjoins upon me, that the laws of the Union shall be faithfully executed in all the states,” and then added a few lines later that he would use “the power confided to me” in order to “hold, occupy and possess the property and places belonging to the government and to collect the duties and imposts.” Chase would not have liked a few sentences in which Lincoln blessed the proposed constitutional amendment to solidify the status of slavery. Lincoln closed with an emotional plea, drafted by Seward and revised by Lincoln. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

By the time of Lincoln’s second inauguration, March 4, 1865, Chase was the Chief Justice of the United States. So Chase had a better seat, and a larger role, in this inauguration, for he was the one who administered the oath of office—the same oath which Chief Justice Roberts just administered to President Biden. Sitting immediately next to Lincoln, Chase would have heard and approved the president’s words.

Lincoln started by recalling how, when he was inaugurated four years earlier, a dreadful civil war seemed imminent. The cause of the war, Lincoln said, was the dispute over slavery. “To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.” Neither side had expected that the war would last so long or cause such fundamental change. Both sides “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” It might seem odd for men to “ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces,” Lincoln said, but “let us judge not that we be not judged.” Lincoln closed with soaring words. “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

As the cheers died, and the sun emerged, Lincoln approached Chase, laid his hand on the Bible in Chase’s hand and repeated after Chase the solemn presidential oath. Later in the day, Chase sent this Bible to Mary Todd Lincoln, with a cover note saying that he prayed that the “beautiful sunshine, which, just at the time the oath was taken, dispersed the clouds that had previously darkened the sky, may prove an auspicious omen of the dispersion of the clouds of war, by the clear sunshine of prosperous peace.”

Six weeks later, on the morning of April 15, 1865, after the assassination of Lincoln, Chase was part of the inauguration of Andrew Johnson. As he entered the Kirkwood House, Johnson’s hotel, where the event was to take place, Chase encountered Francis and Montgomery Blair, among Chase’s fiercest critics. “With tearful eye,” Chase approached them and told them that “from this day will cease all anger and bitterness between us.”

There were about a dozen men in the Kirkwood parlor as Chase administered the solemn presidential oath to Johnson. “You are president,” Chase then told Johnson, “may God support, guide and bless you in your arduous duties.” After the others had come forward to tender their “sad congratulations,” Johnson asked Chase if he should make remarks to those present. Chase said that he thought it would be “better to make a brief announcement to the people in the public prints.” Johnson asked Chase to prepare something and Chase left for an hour to write.

Chase’s draft was short and eloquent, suggesting that Johnson lament the “revered and beloved president” and ask for the “cooperation of all patriots and the prayers of all Christians.” Johnson did not wait for Chase’s draft; the brief comments he released to the papers were less about Lincoln, more about himself.

Four years later, on March 4, 1869, Chase administered the oath of office to Ulysses Grant. This was the first time, and almost certainly will be the last, that a chief justice participated in the inauguration after trying and failing to win the presidency for himself. Chase had been a leading contender first for the Republican and then for the Democratic presidential nomination. Chase had hoped, as Democratic nominee, to bring that party around to his approach to reconstruction: restoring the southern states to their place in the Union but alsoprotecting the rights of southern blacks. Instead, the Democrats continued their approach of courting southern whites and ignoring southern blacks.

As many papers have reported, Andrew Johnson did not attend the inauguration of his successor Ulysses Grant. This was not because Grant had beaten Johnson in the election; Johnson was so unpopular that there was no serious consideration of even nominating him for president. No: Johnson just did not want to honor Grant. As I describe in my Seward book, Johnson called a cabinet meeting for the morning of the inauguration, and kept his cabinet members there, so that they could not attend the inauguration either, much to Seward’s distress.

Chase must have reflected, during this 1869 ceremony, on the differences among Lincoln, Johnson and Grant. Chase liked and admired Lincoln while he was alive and still mourned his death; he was deeply disappointed by Johnson although he did not agree with those who had tried to remove Johnson through impeachment; and Chase was simply unsure at this point about Grant, fearing that a man whose only successes were military might not prove a good president.

The inauguration ceremony took place on a raised platform on the east side of the now-finished Capitol building, with an immense, mixed-race audience filling the lawn and using the trees as vantage points. After Chase administered the oath to Grant, while the cannon were booming and the crowd cheering, Grant whispered a few words to Chase; the Herald noted that Grant “certainly seemed to wish that the boisterous demonstration would end.” Then Grant rose and delivered his brief, plain address, including a plea for the states to ratify the pending constitutional amendment to grant black men voting rights. On the day after inauguration, Chase sent Grant’s wife the Bible on which her husband had taken the oath, writing that he trusted the American people would remember the “auspicious day” because of the “restoration of peace” and the “renewal and increase of prosperity throughout our land.”

Four years later, after surviving and recovering from a severe stroke, Chase administered the oath once again to Grant, on March 4, 1873. As was usual in those days, events started in the Senate chamber, which Chase entered a little before noon, leading the eight other justices down the aisle to the chairs allotted for them. One paper said that Chase, “having recovered much of his physical vigor, and showing a snow-white beard of several months’ growth, was scarcely recognizable.” Grant entered soon thereafter, to watch as the new vice president, Henry Wilson, took the oath, and as the new senators took their oaths. Then all the officials processed from the warmth of the chamber to the bitter cold outside, to a temporary platform on the east side of the Capitol. When the cheers subsided, Grant and Chase rose. “As Chief Justice Chase held the holy book in his hand and repeated the text of the oath, every head was uncovered, and deep silence pervaded the multitude.” After the oath, and the cheering, Grant delivered his short inaugural address, inaudible to all but a few because of the strong cold wind. But Chase would have heard and approved Grant’s comment that although the former slaves were now citizens, they were “not possessed of the civil rights which citizenship should carry with it. This is wrong and should be corrected.”

Two months later, after a second stroke, Chase died. President Biden quoted a bit of a song today: “Let me know in my heart, when my days are through. America, America, I gave my best to you.” If he could form words as he lay dying, Chase could have said that. He gave his best to America.


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