Andrew Johnson and Strong Drink

Andrew Johnson2

Just about everyone knows of Andrew Johnson’s embarrassing inauguration as Vice President

The Embarrassing Inauguration

But for those who don’t, the gist of it is…

Republican President Lincoln had specifically requested Democrat Andrew Johnson as his running mate in 1864 – on the UNION ticket: neither Republican nor Democrat.

Months before the election, the Civil War was going poorly for the Union, and Lincoln seriously believed he would lose. There was great opposition on many fronts. Running on a “Union” ticket might focus the election platform/principles on the purpose of the War.


President Abraham Lincoln

Andrew Johnson (1808-1875) was a lifelong Democrat. His upbringing had been just as hardscrabble as Lincoln’s, and perhaps more so. He hoisted himself by his own bootstraps, became active in politics since his early twenties, and spent most of his adult life holding public office of consequence. He had served as a Congressman and Senator since 1843. He knew the ins and outs of national government.

But the important thing, at least to Lincoln, was that Andrew Johnson, Democratic Senator from Tennessee, was the only Senator from a Southern state that did not resign his office when the South seceded from the Union in 1861. He remained, absolutely and resolutely committed to preserving the Union.

With Tennessee second only to Virginia as a battlefield, Johnson had performed yeoman service to both Lincoln and Tennessee. This included a personally hazardous position as its Military Governor. His life was frequently threatened, and he even began carrying pistols for self defense. Lincoln was grateful for his loyalty and courage – and his service.

The Union ticket won the election.

lincoln-johnson poster

Lincoln-Johnson campaign poster

But in late February, 1865, the VPOTUS-elect became seriously ill, confined to his hotel quarters. His doctor thought it might be typhoid fever. He could not hold down any food for a few days. Nevertheless, the March 4 inauguration was scheduled, and sick or not, Andrew Johnson had to attend. His doctors prescribed a glass of strong whiskey to ward off the chill.

The upshot was that the glass of strong whiskey (or maybe two) in him, combined with an empty stomach, went straight to his head, and he embarrassed himself (and everyone else) with a rambling and incoherent inaugural speech.

Fortunately, the inauguration of the VPOTUS was held in Senate Chambers, and the audience was private. But everyone present was scandalized.

“Andy Johnson Ain’t A Drunk”

Dr Chas Johnson

Dr. Charles Johnson. He drank.

Lincoln was embarrassed for his running-mate, and was said to have publicly stated (at least to the Congressmen and Senators), that he had known Johnson for several years, and “Andy Johnson ain’t a drunk.”

Robt. Johnson

Robert Johnson. He drank.

A taste for alcohol may have been in the Johnson family genes. It certainly was in the case of Johnson’s two sons, Charles and Robert. Both young men had showed great promise in their youth, but perhaps due to the stresses of their service in the Civil War, both of them battled the bottle. Charles, a doctor in the Union Army died in a fall, exacerbated by alcohol. In the case of Robert, his “problem” was widely known by the time Johnson became Vice President, and some of that taint may have flowed upward to include his father.

But being a drunk and enjoying a few drinks are two very different things.

The Indianapolis Dinner Party

This is said to be a true story, by the way – told in an old long out-of-print book entitled The Funny Side of Politics.

When Johnson served as Military Governor of Tennessee, he was invited to a dinner party at the home of a prominent Indianapolis gentleman and his teetotaling wife.

Even though the gentleman’s wife was an ardent believer in the evils of John Barleycorn, the socially snobbish gentleman insisted on purchasing the finest wines available hoping to impress his notable guest. His wife argued vociferously against violating her dinner table with any kind of alcohol, but the Polite Host insisted that Governor Johnson was undoubtedly accustomed to the best wines. He won out. Accordingly the table was set elegantly, including their finest wine glasses.

But when their servant came to pour the wine, Governor Johnson politely turned his glass over, claiming, “I never drink wine.”

The lady of the house was smug up to her eyelids, and the crestfallen Polite Host knew he would be in for a long temperance dissertation once their guests departed.

Perhaps to prolong the time of the dreaded “I told you so,” the Polite Host offered to drive Governor Johnson to the train station. It seemed that the train was not due to arrive for an hour, and Polite Host stayed to keep Johnson company.

“I refused wine at your dinner today because I don’t like the stuff. Too thin,” said Johnson. “Anyplace around here where we could get a drink of good old whiskey?” A somewhat surprised Polite Host indicated that a saloon was close by. The two men walked over, and Johnson ordered a strong libation – and one for his host. He further surprised his companion by downing the drink quickly, and ordering another.

One wonders if the vindicated Polite Host raced home to tell his wife about the “total abstainer” tossing off a shot or two, and giving her comeuppance.


Hilton, George S. – The Funny Side of Politics – G.W. Dillingham Co., 1899

Donald, David H. – Lincoln – Simon & Schuster, 1995


About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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