Andrew Johnson’s first day in the White House was less than promising. Whether, as his supporters claimed, he was suffering from illness and had attempted to self-medicate or had simply been celebrating his new position as vice president, Johnson was devastatingly drunk. It was 3 March 1865, the Civil War was rapidly drawing to a close, and the recently re-elected President Lincoln was to deliver his second inaugural address. In prose that would eventually be inscribed across the walls of his marble memorial, Lincoln reflected on God, war, and the emerging challenge of how to rehabilitate a divided Union. The vice president’s words that day were barely decipherable and after prostrating himself before a Bible and subjecting it to a long wet kiss, he was quickly ushered away.
Within weeks, Lincoln would be dead and the same Republican congressmen who would later play a leading role in Johnson’s impeachment looked hopefully to the former tailor from Tennessee to guide a nation in mourning through the challenges of peace and Reconstruction. For many, he was the ideal candidate for this task. A Southern Democrat who had owned slaves, yet who had also fought hard and risked everything to stand up against secession and for the preservation of the Union and the Constitution – who else could hope to unite and heal such a fractured, wounded nation?