23 Apr 2018


Lost Capitol Hill: “Exclusively for Senators”

Two weeks ago, we looked at The Hole in the Wall, a bar on the Senate side of the Capitol. As it turned out, it did not last long past its initial exposure to the public.

The death knell for The Hole in the Wall came just two short years after the Saulsbury incident. On March 4, 1865, Andrew Johnson was sworn in as Vice President. While a number of newspapers, including the New York World, alluded to the “disgraceful scene in the Senate chamber on Saturday” only a few, including the Rutland, Vermont, Weekly Herald, were willing to point a finger at the instigator of this scene:

In the senatorial caucus, Monday, where was some severe talk about the disgraceful exhibition made by Vice President Johnson on Saturday.

For a full account, we must turn to a letter written by Senator Zachariah Chandler (pictured) of Michigan, who wrote a few days later that,

The inauguration went off very well except that the Vice President Elect was too drunk to perform his duties & disgraced himself & the Senate by making a drunken foolish speech.

According to the Senate website, Johnson’s downfall had been in arriving in D.C. with a case of Typhoid fever, which he treated the evening before the inauguration with large doses of whiskey while visiting his friend John W. Forney. He had then repeated the cure the following day in the office of his predecessor, so that by the time he had entered the chamber, he had taken on three tumblers of whiskey. He did manage to give a speech in which he pointedly asserted he was a “plebian boy,” and that his – as well as all other members of the government – power derived from the people. At least when transcribed into the Congressional Record, it did not appear that the new Vice President was terribly incapacitated, but he was be unable to swear in the new Senators, and this job had to be done for him.

Sergeant At Arms Brown hands subpoena to President Andrew Johnson in this detail of a Harper’s Weekly print (LOC)

The Senate, for once, acted swiftly. Just two days later, by unanimous consent, they passed the following resolution:

That the Sergeant-at-Arms [George T. Brown] be, and be hereby, directed to remove forthwith from so much of the Capitol as is under his care all intoxicating liquors, and hereafter to exclude liquors in every form from the Senate portion of the Capitol.

For the rest of the year, various newspapers across the country published their obituaries for the Hole in the Wall, almost all of which containing the detail that the old sign “Exclusively for Senators” had been turned around.

In a small ironic coda to this tale, it was Sergeant-at-Arms Brown who would, in 1868, hand over the subpoena to now-President Johnson, demanding he appear before the Senate for his impeachment trial.

If you want a drink in the Capitol today, you will have to make a date with a Senator: the Senate dining room serves wine, but otherwise the watchword is moderation, at least in the public areas.


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