President Andrew Johnson

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The inauguration went off very well except that the Vice President Elect [Andrew Johnson] was too drunk to perform his duties & disgraced himself & the Senate by making a drunken foolish speech.
—Senator Zachariah Chandler

17th U.S. President Andrew Johnson
President Andrew Johnson.jpg
President Andrew Johnson

Vice President-elect Andrew Johnson arrived in Washington ill from typhoid fever. The night before his March 4, 1865, inauguration, he fortified himself with whiskey at a party hosted by his old friend, Secretary of the Senate John W. Forney. The next morning, hung over and confronting cold, wet, and windy weather, Johnson proceeded to the Capitol office of Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, where he complained of feeling weak and asked for a tumbler of whiskey. Drinking it straight, he quickly consumed two more. Then, growing red in the face, Johnson entered the overcrowded and overheated Senate chamber. After Hamlin delivered a brief and stately valedictory, Johnson rose unsteadily to harangue the distinguished crowd about his humble origins and his triumph over the rebel aristocracy. In the shocked and silent audience, President Abraham Lincoln showed an expression of "unutterable sorrow," while Senator Charles Sumner covered his face with his hands. Former Vice President Hamlin tugged vainly at Johnson's coattails, trying to cut short his remarks. After Johnson finally quieted, took the oath of office, and kissed the Bible, he tried to swear in the new senators, but became so confused that he had to turn the job over to a Senate clerk. Without a doubt it had been the most inauspicious beginning to any vice-presidency. "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," Michigan Republican Senator Zachariah Chandler wrote home to his wife. "I was never so mortified in my life, had I been able to find a hole I would have dropped through it out of sight." Johnson presided over the Senate on March 6 but, still feeling unwell, he then went into seclusion at the home of an old friend in Silver Spring, Maryland. He returned to the Senate only on the last day of the special session, March 11. Rumors that had him on a drunken spree led some Radical Republicans to draft a resolution calling for Johnson's resignation. Others talked of impeachment. President Lincoln, however, assured callers that he still had confidence in Johnson, whom he had known for years, observing, "It has been a severe lesson for Andy, but I do not think he will do it again."

Plebian Roots

Lost in his muddled inaugural was Johnson's celebration of his dramatic rise from "plebeian" roots. He had been born in a log cabin in Raleigh, North Carolina, on December 29, 1808, to Jacob Johnson, an illiterate bank porter and city constable, and his wife, Mary, known as "Polly the Weaver" for her work as a seamstress and laundress. When Andrew was just three years-old his father died. His mother remarried and later apprenticed her sons William and Andrew at James Selby's tailor shop. Young Andy Johnson was something of a hell-raiser and at fifteen he and his brother got into trouble by pelting a neighbor's house with pieces of wood. When the woman threatened to sue, the boys fled from Raleigh, causing their employer Selby to post a ten-dollar reward for their return.
 
Johnson went to Laurens, South Carolina, where he worked in a tailor shop. He fell in love with a local girl, but her mother objected to her marriage with a penniless tailor. Disappointed, he abandoned South Carolina and walked to Tennessee. There he worked in a tailor shop and in 1827 married Eliza McCardle, daughter of a Greenville shoemaker. Eliza did not teach her husband to read, as some stories later had it, but she aided his further efforts at self-education. Short, stocky, and swarthy, but always impeccably dressed, as befitted his trade, Johnson built a solid business as a tailor, invested in real estate, raised a growing family, joined a debating society, and won the title "Colonel Johnson" for his rank in the state militia. With his steadily increasing wealth and status, he also bought a few slaves. A staunch supporter of the Democrat Andrew Jackson, Johnson became active in local politics. In 1829, he won his first race as alderman. He was chosen mayor of Greenville in 1834 and elected to the Tennessee state legislature the following year. In the legislature he introduced a homesteading bill that would give poor men 160 acres of public land if they would live on it—a measure he persisted in pushing when he moved to the U.S. Congress, until it became federal law in 1862.

A Rising Political Star

Tennessee Democrats, spotting Andrew Johnson as a rising star and a pugnacious debater, sent him around the state to campaign for their ticket in the 1840 election. Governor James K. Polk received reports that Johnson was "a strongminded man who cuts when he does cut not with a razor but with a case knife." In 1843, Johnson won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he attracted attention as an outspoken and unbending defender of Jeffersonian-Jacksonian principles. He opposed Whig programs for protective tariffs and internal improvements as unnecessary public expenditures. He proposed cutting the number of government clerks, voted against raising soldiers' pay, assailed military academies as aristocratic, opposed purchasing paintings of past presidents for the White House, and opposed accepting the funds bequeathed to the United States by James Smithson to create a Smithsonian Institution, on the grounds that if the funds were unwisely invested the taxpayers would have to support the enterprise. Among those with whom he served in Congress who had the opportunity to take his full measure were the Whig representative from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, and the Democratic representative from Mississippi, Jefferson Davis. Johnson particularly sparred with Davis, whom he portrayed as part of the South's "illegitimate, swaggering, bastard, scrub aristocracy." In 1852, Tennessee elected Johnson governor. During his term he succeeded in enacting tax-supported public education for his state. He won reelection over intense opposition and served until 1856, when the legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate. Once more, Johnson pressed for passage of a Homestead bill, which he succeeded in moving through Congress in 1860, only to have it vetoed by President James Buchanan. While Johnson was preoccupied with his Homestead bill, his party was breaking up over the issue of slavery in the territories. In 1860, Johnson supported the Southern Democratic candidate, John C. Breckinridge, but he strenuously opposed the secessionists within his party. After Lincoln's election, Johnson fought to keep Tennessee in the Union. To Andrew Johnson, secession appeared simply a continuation of John C. Calhoun's discredited policy of nullification, against which his hero Andrew Jackson had stood his ground. Johnson threw his support behind Lincoln as the new embodiment of Jackson.

War Democrat

In the spring of 1861, Johnson took the train from Washington back to Tennessee and was mobbed at several stops in Virginia. The senator had to pull a pistol to defend himself. Although Union sympathies were strong in the eastern mountains of Tennessee, where Johnson's hometown of Greenville was located, he found Confederate flags flying around the town. There were enough Union sympathizers in Tennessee to defeat an effort to call a state convention to secede, but after the firing on Fort Sumter, sentiment in the state swung more heavily to the Confederates. To avoid arrest, Johnson left Tennessee and returned to the Senate. As the only southern senator to remain loyal to the Union after his state seceded, Johnson became a hero in the North. As a leader of the "War Democrats," he denounced "Peace Democrats" and defended President Lincoln's use of wartime executive power. "I say, Let the battle go on—it is Freedom's cause. . . . Do not talk about Republicans now; do not talk about Democrats now; do not talk about Whigs or Americans now; talk about your Country and the Constitution and the Union."

When federal troops conquered Nashville and its immediate vicinity, President Lincoln sent Andrew Johnson back to Tennessee in 1862 as war governor. Johnson still identified himself as a Democrat, but as one who put the Union before party. He denounced the state's aristocratic planting class who had supported the war, and said that if freeing their slaves would help to end the war, then he was in favor of emancipation. "Treason," he said, in a much publicized quote, "must be made odious and traitors punished." In 1863, Tennessee held elections for a civilian government. Much to Johnson's chagrin, a conservative, proslavery candidate won the race for governor. President Lincoln wired Johnson to ignore the results and not recognize the new governor. "Let the reconstruction be the work of such men only as can be trusted for the Union," Lincoln instructed. "Exclude all others. . . . Get emancipation into your new state constitution." Following Lincoln's advice, Johnson made anyone who wished to vote take an oath of loyalty, which was then followed by a six-month waiting period. Since this meant that only those who had opposed the Confederacy could vote, Johnson's Radical forces swept the next state elections.

Lincoln faced a difficult campaign for reelection in 1864, and he doubted that his vice president, Maine Republican Hannibal Hamlin, would add much to his ticket. Officially, the president maintained a hands-off attitude toward the choice of a vice president, but privately he sent emissaries to several War Democrats as potential candidates on a fusion ticket. General Benjamin F. Butler let the president know he had no interest in the second spot, but Johnson of Tennessee and Daniel S. Dickinson of New York both expressed eagerness to be considered. Secretary of State William Seward, who counted New York as his own political base, wanted no part of Dickinson in the cabinet and threw his weight behind Johnson. The fearless, tough-minded war governor of Tennessee captured the imagination
of the delegates. As John W. Forney judged Johnson's wartime record: "His speeches were sound, his measures bold, his administration a fair success." Johnson won the nomination on the first ballot.

Becoming a Household Word

During the campaign, the great Republican orator Robert G. Ingersoll wrote to Johnson saying: The people want to see and hear you. The name of Andrew Johnson has become a household word all over the great West, and you are regarded by the people of Illinois as the grandest example of loyalty in the whole South. Traveling to Logansport, Indiana, in October, Johnson told the crowd that a Democratic newspaper had accused the Republicans of nominating "a rail-splitter" at the head of their ticket and "a boorish tailor" at its tail. Rather than see this as a rebuke, Johnson took pride in having risen up "from the mass of the people." The aristocrats were offended that he was a tailor, he said, but he had learned "that if a man does not disgrace his profession, it never disgraces him." Johnson acquitted himself well during the campaign but at times had trouble restraining himself in the excitement of facing a crowd, whether hostile or supportive. Late in October 1864 he addressed a large rally of African Americans in Nashville. Johnson noted that, since Lincoln's emancipation proclamation had not covered territories like Tennessee that were already under Union control, he had issued his own proclamation freeing the slaves in Tennessee. He also asserted that society would be improved if the great plantations were divided into many small farms and sold to honest farmers. Looking out over the crowd and commenting on the storm of persecution through which his listeners had passed, he wished that a Moses might arise to "lead them safely to their promised land of freedom and happiness." "You are our Moses," shouted people in the crowd. "We want no Moses but you!" "Well, then," replied Johnson, "humble and unworthy as I am, if no other better shall be found, I will indeed by your Moses, and lead you through the Red Sea of war and bondage, to a fairer future of liberty and peace."

Vice President

Success on the battlefield brought Lincoln and Johnson victory in the election of 1864. As the Civil War approached its end, the equally monumental challenge of reconstructing the Union lay ahead. In Congress, the Radical Republicans wanted a victor's peace, enforced by federal troops that would allow the former Confederate states to return to the Union only on terms that protected the rights of the freedmen. They offered their plan as the Wade-Davis bill of 1864, which Lincoln killed by a pocket veto. Lincoln wanted to be free to pursue a more lenient, flexible approach to Reconstruction. Having gotten the United States into the Civil War during a congressional recess in 1861, Lincoln anticipated ending the war and reconstructing the South during the long recess between March and December 1865. He presumed that his new vice president would be in sympathy with these plans, since in July 1864 Johnson had congratulated Lincoln on his veto of the Wade-Davis bill, saying that "the real union men" were satisfied with the president's approach.

The vice president-elect hesitated in leaving Tennessee, and, in January 1865, Johnson wrote to Lincoln pointing out that the final abolition of slavery in Tennessee could not be taken up until the new civilian legislature met that April. He wanted to remain as war governor until that time, before handing power over to the elected representatives of the people. Johnson suggested that his inaugural as vice president be delayed until April. His friend, John W. Forney, secretary of the Senate, had checked the records and found that several vice presidents (John Adams, George Clinton, Elbridge Gerry, Daniel Tompkins, Martin Van Buren, and William R. King) were sworn in on dates after March 4. With the war still underway, however, Lincoln replied that he and his cabinet unanimously believed that Johnson must be in Washington by March 4. Had Johnson not complied, he might not have taken the oath of office before Lincoln's death on April 14, adding more constitutional confusion to the aftermath of the assassination.
 
An Assassination Plot

During Johnson's six weeks as vice president, he faced greater danger than he knew. The assassination plot that would make Johnson president included him as a target. The circle of conspirators that John Wilkes Booth had gathered at Mrs. Mary Surratt's boardinghouse had at first planned to capture President Lincoln and whisk him off to the Confederacy. But the war was ending sooner than they anticipated, and when the attempted capture went awry, Booth decided to kill Lincoln, Vice President Johnson, and Secretary of State William H. Seward, thereby throwing the North into confusion and anarchy. Booth intended to kill Lincoln himself, and assigned Lewis Payne to assassinate Seward. For the vice president, whom he considered the least important victim, Booth assigned his weakest partner, George Atzerodt. A German carriage maker from Port Tobacco, Maryland, Atzerodt had spent the war years ferrying Confederates across the Potomac River to circumvent the Union blockades.
 
On the morning of April 14, 1865, Atzerodt registered at Kirkwood House, a hotel at the corner of Twelfth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, between the White House and the Capitol. He took a room almost directly above the ground-floor suite occupied by the vice president. So incompetent at conspiracy was Atzerodt that he signed his right name to the hotel register. His notion of surveillance was to spend the afternoon in the hotel bar asking suspicious questions about the vice president and his guard. Sufficiently fortified with liquor, Atzerodt armed himself and asked the desk clerk to point out the vice president's suite. When informed that Johnson had just come back to his rooms, Atzerodt reacted in shocked surprise, and left the hotel. Shortly afterwards, Johnson also left for an appointment with Lincoln.

When Booth arrived at the Kirkwood House and learned that Atzerodt was gone, he lost hope that this weak man would have the nerve to carry out his assignment. If he could not have Johnson killed, Booth improvised a way of discrediting him. He asked for a blank card, which he filled out: "Don't wish to disturb you. Are you at home? J. Wilkes Booth." Booth assumed that Johnson would have a hard time explaining the card, since it suggested that the vice president was himself part of the conspiracy. Fortunately for Johnson, his secretary, William A. Browning, picked up the mail at the desk and assumed that the card was for him, since he had once met Booth after a performance.

A pounding at the door later that evening awakened Andrew Johnson. Rather than George Atzerodt with a pistol, the excited man at the door was former Wisconsin Governor Leonard Farwell, who had just come from Ford's Theater and who exclaimed, "Someone has shot and murdered the President." Johnson ordered Farwell to go back to the theater to find out what he could about the president's condition. Farwell returned with the District of Columbia's provost marshal, who assured Johnson and the crowd that had gathered in his room that President Lincoln was dying and that Secretary of State William Seward was dead, as part of a gigantic plot (in fact, Seward had been badly wounded but not killed). Johnson wished to leave immediately to be with the president, but the provost marshal urged him to wait until order had been restored in the streets. At dawn, Johnson, receiving word from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that Lincoln was dying, insisted on going to the president's side. Flanked by Governor Farwell and the provost marshal, the vice president walked the few blocks to the Petersen house, just across from Ford's Theater, where Lincoln had been carried. Admitted to the bedroom where the cabinet and military leaders were gathered around the president's deathbed, Johnson stood with his hat in his hand looking down saying nothing. He then took Robert Lincoln's hand, whispered a few words to him, conversed with Stanton, and went to another parlor to pay his respects to Mary Todd Lincoln. Somberly, he walked back to Kirkwood House. There, in his parlor, at ten o'clock that morning after Lincoln's death, Johnson took the oath of office from Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase.

A Stormy Presidency

Lincoln's death stunned the nation and elevated the often harshly criticized wartime president to a sanctified martyr. In Washington, some Radical Republicans viewed Lincoln's death as a godsend. They held, as Johnson's friend Forney wrote in the Philadelphia Press, that "a sterner and less gentle hand may at this juncture have been required to take hold of the reins of Government." Johnson's fiery rhetoric in the Senate and as war governor, his early embrace of the "state suicide" theory that secession had reduced the southern states to the status of territories, to be readmitted under terms set by Congress, his call for expropriation of plantation lands, his authorship of the Homestead Act, all suggested that the new president would act more sympathetically toward Radical Reconstruction than would Lincoln. "Johnson, we have faith in you," the Radical Republican Senator Ben Wade told the new president. "By the Gods, there will be no trouble now in running this government."

Johnson also won admiration for his gallant treatment of Mrs. Lincoln, who was too distraught to leave the White House for more than a month after her husband's death. Rather than move into the White House, which served as the president's office as well as his residence, President Johnson worked out of a suite of rooms in the Treasury Department (marked today by a plaque on the door). However, the spirit of good will evaporated almost a soon as Johnson began making decisions regarding Reconstruction.

Showing a strange amalgam of political courage and "pigheaded" stubbornness, Andrew Johnson confounded both his supporters and his adversaries. By the end of May 1865, it became clear that, like Lincoln, he intended to pursue a more lenient course toward Reconstruction than the Radicals in Congress wanted. Members of Congress grumbled when Johnson handed pardons to former Confederate leaders, suspected that the plebeian president took pride in having former aristocrats petition him. Congress was further shocked when the new governments formed under Johnson's plan enacted "Black Codes" that sought to regulate and restrict the activities of the freedmen. There was fear also that the former Confederate states would send Confederate officers and officeholders to reclaim their seats in Congress and undo the legislative accomplishments of the wartime Republican majorities. When the president opposed granting political rights to the freedmen, white southerners looked to him as a defender of white supremacy and as their protector against Radical retribution. The Democratic party considered Johnson as one of their own, who might be induced to return to their fold.

The predominantly Republican Washington press corps had at first embraced President Johnson, assuring their readers that he supported black suffrage and other Radical measures. Forney celebrated his old friend as a "practical statesman" whose policies offered a common ground for "all earnest loyalists." Whatever honeymoon the new Reprinted from Mark O. Hatfield, with the Senate Historical Office, Vice Presidents of the president enjoyed with Congress and the press ended in February 1866 when Johnson vetoed the Freedmen's Bureau bill. The veto shocked Republican conservatives and drove them into alliance with the Radicals against the president. The press and even Forney deserted Johnson. That fall, Johnson conducted a disastrous "swing around the circle," campaigning by train in favor of congressional candidates who supported his policies. Egged on by hecklers, he made intemperate remarks that further alienated the voters and resulted in the election of an even more hostile Congress. The new Congress seized the initiative on Reconstruction from the president—most notably with a constitutional amendment giving the freedmen the right to vote—and passed legislation to limit his responses. Among these laws, the Tenure of Office Act prohibited the president from firing cabinet officers and other appointees without Senate approval. Johnson considered the act unconstitutional—as indeed the Supreme Court would later declare it—and in February 1868 he fired his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, for insubordination.

The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson

Although Johnson's term was coming to a close and he had little chance of nomination by any party, the House of Representatives voted to impeach the president. The New York Tribune's editor Horace Greeley thought this a foolhardy tactic. "Why hang a man who is bent on hanging himself?" Greeley asked. But the Republican members of Congress and their allies in the press wanted to take no chance of the president's sabotaging congressional Reconstruction during his last months in office. Said Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the House impeachers: "I don't want to hurt the man's feelings by telling him he is a rascal. I'd rather put it mildly, and say he hasn't got off that inaugural drunk yet, and just let him retire to get sobered." The House voted for impeachment, and on March 5, 1868, the United States Senate convened as a court to consider removing Johnson from the presidency. As the trial opened, the majority of the northern press favored conviction, but as the proceedings wound on, a profound sense of disillusionment set in among the correspondents, who communicated their dismay to their readers.

Correspondent George Alfred Townsend described Johnson's Senate trial as "a more terrible scene than the trial of Judas Iscariot might be before the College of Cardinals." Not a single Democrat countenanced the impeachment, he pointed out, "It was purely within the political organization which had nominated the offender." Although Townsend was a Republican who considered Johnson a barrier against any settlement of "the Southern question," when he arrived at the Capitol he found none except Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens who seemed excited over Johnson's policies. "It was his abuse of the party patronage which was an unforgiven sin." Johnson took patronage away from his critics and purged over 1,600 postmasters. In addition, Townsend noted: "He had disobeyed an act of Congress, of doubtful validity, taking away from him the power to make ad-interim appointments, or those made between sessions of Congress. This was a challenge to every member of Congress in the regular caucus ranks that off straight come the heads of HIS post-master, HIS revenue officials, HIS clerks, and HIS brothers-in-law." Rather than appear in the Senate chamber personally, President Johnson wisely left his defense to his attorneys. Although Republicans enjoyed a more than two-thirds majority in the Senate at the time, seven Republicans—fearing impeachment's negative impact on the office of the presidency—broke with their party. As a result, the impeachers failed by a single vote to achieve the two-thirds majority necessary to convict the president. In the 1868 elections, Johnson endorsed the Democratic candidate, Horatio Seymour, and was deeply disappointed over the victory of the Republican, U.S. Grant. Refusing to attend Grant's inauguration, Johnson left the White House in March 1869, discredited but not disgraced. Out of office for the first time in thirty years, he could not stay retired. That fall he campaigned for a Senate seat from Tennessee and lost. Never giving up, Johnson tried again in January 1875 and won back a seat in the Senate that had once tormented him.

The only former U.S. president ever to return to serve in the Senate, Johnson saw his election as a vindication and came back to Washington in triumph. He took his oath of office on March 5, along with Lincoln's other vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, reelected a senator from Maine. (Both men had begun their congressional service in the House of Representatives on the same day, thirty-two years earlier.) Hamlin in 1866 had resigned as collector of the port of Boston as a public protest against Johnson's policies on Reconstruction. The oath was administered by Vice President Henry Wilson, who as a senator had voted for Johnson's conviction and for his disqualification from holding future office. When Johnson stepped forward to shake hands first with Hamlin and then Wilson, the chamber erupted into cheers. A reporter asked if he would use his new position to settle some old scores, to which Johnson replied, "I have no enemies to punish nor friends to reward." The special session ended on March 24, and Johnson returned to Tennessee. At the home of a granddaughter, he suffered a stroke and died on July 31, 1875. A marble bust of Johnson, sculpted with a typically pugnacious and defiant expression, looks down from the gallery at the Senate chamber, where he served on three occasions as a senator, briefly presided as vice president, and was tried and acquitted in a court of impeachment.

(Sources listed at bottom of page.)

Recommended Reading: Andrew Johnson : A Biography (Signature Series) (Hardcover). Description: On April 14, 1865, just as the American Civil War came to an end, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by a Confederate actor. The next morning Andrew Johnson was suddenly elevated to the position of president of the United States at a time when the nation was still suffering from the effects of war. This biography explores the enigma of the homeless and uneducated tailor whose spectacular rise to power ended in disgrace. It relates how his term in office undermined the process of reconstruction and left a legacy of racism. Over a century later, Johnson remains the only president of the United States to have been impeached. The author explores Johnson's undeniable skills as a political leader and his stubborn attachment to a mythical view of the America of his youth, which proved to be his undoing. Continued below…

From Library Journal: Known for his Carl Schurz: A Biography (LJ 2/15/82), Trefousse delivers the first Johnson study in years, a definitive assessment of his career and presidency. Johnson's papers and other sources reveal his fatal idealization of the agrarian utopia, his fierce advocacy of strict Constitutional constructionism, and his imprudent insistence upon the Republican Party’s adoption of his views on race. Trefousse demonstrates that Johnson, because of his upbringing, was out of step with the great changes emerging at the end of the Civil War. His stubborn attachment to his increasingly archaic views was responsible for his political and military success, but also for his impeachment. A brilliant, compassionate portrait of a dynamic era of social change and national healing, and of the tragic failure of an American leader. Not to be missed. --Susan E. Parker, Harvard Law Sch. Library. About the Author: Hans L. Trefousse is professor of history at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His other books include The Radical Republicans, a path breaking history of Reconstruction.

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Recommended Reading: Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy. Description: From School Library Journal: One of our more controversial political figures, Andrew Johnson came closer than any other U.S. President to being removed from office through impeachment. This study by Stewart (Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution), a Washington lawyer who has argued against impeachment in Senate proceedings, examines Johnson's rocky relationship with the post-Civil War radical Republicans. Continued below…

He breaks with those historians who have suggested that Johnson followed what would have been Lincoln's path to reconstruct the South, as he discusses the complex impeachment proceedings against Johnson and the effectiveness of the impeachment process in calming political tensions, if not in removing Presidents from office. Readers who wish to broaden their understanding of Lincoln in this anniversary year will do well to select this well-researched work even if their collection already includes such examinations as Howard Mean's narrower The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson and the 45 Days That Changed the Nation.—Theresa McDevitt, Indiana Univ. of Pennsylvania Library. From Publishers Weekly: Fresh from his masterful The Summer of 1787, Stewart takes on one of the seamiest events in American history: the vengeful impeachment of Lincoln's successor as president; the Senate failed to convict Andrew Johnson by a single vote. At issue was the continuation of Lincoln's plans to reintegrate the South into the union after the Civil War. But also at stake, as always, was party politics. Stewart takes readers through a tangled web of motives and maneuverings in lively, unadorned prose. He's skilled at characterizing his large cast of characters and, as a lawyer, has a practiced nose for skullduggery, of which there was much. Corruption deeply marred the entire impeachment effort. Justifiably, Stewart holds his nose about most of the people involved and admires few of them. As he sums it up, in 1868 none of the country's leaders was great, a few were good, all were angry, and far too many were despicable. Stewart offers little analysis and advances no new ideas about what he relates, but he tells the story as well as it's ever been told. Black and white photos.

 

Recommended Reading: The Presidency of Andrew Johnson (American Presidency Series) (Hardcover). Description: Andrew Johnson, who became president after the assassination of Lincoln, oversaw the most crucial and dramatic phase of Reconstruction. Historians have therefore tended to concentrate, to the exclusion of practically everything else, upon Johnson's key role in that titanic event. Although his volume focuses closely on Johnson's handling of Reconstruction, it also examines other important aspects of his administration, notably his foreign, economic, and Indian policies. As one of the few historians to do this, the author provides a broader and more balanced picture of Johnson's presidency than has been previously available. Continued below…

Johnson has always been an enigma: much is known about what he did, little about why he did it. He wrote few letters, kept no diary, and rarely confided in anyone. Most historians either admire or despise him, depending on whether they consider his Reconstruction policies right or wrong. Castel achieves an objective reassessment of Johnson and his presidential actions by examining him primarily in terms of his effectiveness in using power and by not judging him--as most other scholars have--on moralistic or ideological grounds. The book begins with an overview of America at the end of the Civil War and a description of Johnson's political career prior to 1865. Castel recounts the drama of Johnson's sudden inheritance of the presidency upon Lincoln's death and then examines how Johnson organized and operated his administration. Johnson's formulation of a Reconstruction policy for the defeated South comes under special scrutiny; Castel evaluates Johnson's motives for that policy, its implementation, and its reception in both North and South. He descries and analyzes Johnson's quarrel with the Republican dominated Congress over Reconstruction, the triumph of the Republicans in the election of 1866, the president's frustrated attempt to remove Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton from office, his bitter dispute with General Ulysses S. Grant, and his impeachment by Congress. Johnson's impeachment trial is covered in detail; Castel explains how it was that Johnson escaped conviction and removal from office by the narrowest possible margin. The book concludes with a discussion of Johnson's place in history as judged by scholars during the past one hundred years. This study sheds light on the nation's problems during the chaotic period between 1865 and 1869 and contributes a great deal to a much improved understanding of the seventeenth president. This book is part of the American Presidency Series.

 

Recommended Reading: Andrew Johnson: The American Presidents Series: The 17th President, 1865-1869 (Hardcover). Description: The unwanted president who ran afoul of Congress over Reconstruction and was nearly removed from office. Andrew Johnson never expected to be president, but just six weeks after becoming Abraham Lincoln’s vice president, the events at Ford’s Theatre thrust him into the nation’s highest office. Continued below…

Johnson faced a nearly impossible task—to succeed America’s greatest chief executive, to bind the nation’s wounds after the Civil War, and to work with a Congress controlled by the so-called Radical Republicans. Annette Gordon-Reed, one of America’s leading historians of slavery, shows how ill-suited Johnson was for this daunting task. His vision of reconciliation abandoned the millions of former slaves (for whom he felt undisguised contempt) and antagonized congressional leaders, who tried to limit his powers and eventually impeached him. The climax of Johnson’s presidency was his trial in the Senate and his acquittal by a single vote, which Gordon-Reed recounts with drama and palpable tension. Despite his victory, Johnson’s term in office was a crucial missed opportunity; he failed the country at a pivotal moment, leaving America with problems that we are still trying to solve. About the Author: Annette Gordon-Reed is a professor of law at New York Law School, where she has taught since 1992. She is the author of the celebrated Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, co-author with Vernon Jordan of Vernon Can Read!, and editor of Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History. She lives in New York City.

 

Recommended Reading: Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Description: From Publishers Weekly: Almost all the dominant views of the Civil War and its aftermath, including Reconstruction and "reunion," prevalent in this country until the coming of the civil rights movement, were the direct result of an extensive Southern propaganda war, argues Blight (Amherst College professor of history and black studies), remnants of which are still flourishing in various racist subcultures. As W.E.B. Du Bois noted a century ago, shortly after the war, the North was tacitly willing to accept the South's representation of the conflict in exchange for an opening of new economic frontiers. Continued below…

Blight sets out to prove this thesis, surveying a mass of information (the end notes run to almost 100 pages) clearly and synthetically, detailing the mechanics of mythmaking: how the rebels were recast as not actually rebelling, how the South had been unjustly invaded, and how, most fabulously of all, the South had fought to end slavery which had been imposed upon it by the North. His argument that this "memory war" was conducted on a conscious level is supported by the Reconstruction-era evidence of protest, by blacks and whites alike, that he unearths. Yet these voices failed to dissuade the vast majority of Americans both North and South who internalized some version of the story. This book effectively traces both the growth and development of what became, by the turn of the 20th century and the debut of The Birth of a Nation, the dominant racist representation of the Civil War. A major work of American history, this volume's documentation of the active and exceedingly articulate voices of protest against this inaccurate and unjust imagining of history is just one of its accomplishments. (Feb. 19) Forecast: This book will be the standard for how public perceptions of the Civil War were formed and propagated in a manner directly analogous to today's doublespeak and spin control. It will be a regular on course syllabi, and will be glowingly reviewed, but the wealth and diversity of sources may keep some general readers away. From Booklist: The year 1913 saw two separate ceremonies commemorating great events 50 years previously: elderly Union and Confederate veterans shook hands at the Gettysburg battlefield, and W.E.B DuBois staged an elaborate "National Emancipation Exposition." Together they struck discordant chords of memory about the Civil War, which Blight examines in this incisive discussion of how the conflict was popularly remembered in the half-century following Appomattox. He closely examines the types of memorializations of the war, such as the creation and observance of Memorial Day, the erection of statues to Robert E. Lee and Robert Gould Shaw, soldiers' reunions, soldiers' memoirs, popular literature, and anniversary orations by such figures as Frederick Douglass. Within these modes of expression Blight recounts the strong tide in the post-war years for "reunion on Southern terms," politically by the overthrow of the Republican Reconstruction governments in the South, and ideologically in "Lost Cause" writings justifying secession and slavery. Freed blacks suffered the consequence of the ascendance of a sentimental view of the war and amnesia about its central issue.

 
Recommended Reading: A Short History of Reconstruction. Review: In an attempt to document the important issues of reconstruction, Eric Foner compiled his book Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. Foner addresses all the major issues leading up reconstruction, and then finishing his book shortly after the end of reconstruction and the election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876.  In the preface of his book, Foner discusses the historiography of Reconstruction. He notes that during the early part of the twentieth century many historians considered Reconstruction as one of the darkest periods of American history. Foner notes that this viewpoint changed during the 1960s as revisionists shed new "light" on reconstruction. The revisionists saw Andrew Johnson as a stubborn racist, and viewed the Radical Republicans as "idealistic reformers genuinely committed to black rights." The author notes that recent studies of reconstruction argue that the Radicals were actually quite conservative, and most Radicals held on to their racist views and put up very little fight as the whites once again began to govern the south. Continued below...
Foner initially describes the African-American experience during the Civil War and Reconstruction. He argues that African-Americans were not simply figures that took little or no action in the events of the day, and notes the enlistment of thousands of African-Americans in the Union army during the war. Foner also notes that many of the African-Americans that eventually became civil leaders had at one time served in the Union Army. He states, "For men of talent and ambition, the army flung open a door to advancement and respectability." He notes that as reconstruction progressed, African-Americans were the targets of violence and racism. Foner believes that the transition of slaves into free laborers and equal citizens was the most drastic example of change following the end of the war. He notes how African-Americans were eventually forced to return to the plantations, not as slaves but as share croppers, and were thus introduced to a new form of slavery. He argues that this arrangement introduced a new class structure to the South, and states "It was an economic transformation that would culminate, long after the end of Reconstruction, in the consolidation of a rural proletariat composed of a new owning class of planters and merchants, itself subordinate to Northern financiers and industrialists.” The author illustrates how both blacks and whites struggled to use the state and local governments to develop their own interests and establish their respective place in the evolving social orders. Another theme that he addresses in this excellent study is racism itself and the interconnection of race and class in the South. Another subject he addresses is the expanded presence of federal authority, as well as a growing idea and commitment to the idea that equal rights belonged to all citizens, regardless of race. Foner shows how both Northern and Southern blacks embraced the power to vote, and, as Reconstruction ended, many blacks saw the loss of suffrage and the loss of freedom. Foner illustrates that because the presence of blacks at the poll threatened the established traditions, corruption increased, which helped to undermine the support for Reconstruction. The former leaders of the Confederacy were barred from political office, who were the regions "natural leaders," a reversal of sympathies took place which portrayed the Southern whites as victims, and blacks unfit to exercise suffrage. Reconstruction affected the North as well, but argues that it was obviously less revolutionary than it was in the South. Foner notes that a new group of elites surfaced after the war, industrialists and railroad entrepreneurs emerged as powerful and influential leaders alongside the former commercial elite. The Republicans in the North did attempt to improve the lives of Northern blacks. However, there were far fewer blacks in the North, so it was more difficult for blacks to have their agendas and needs addressed in the local legislatures. He states, "Most Northern blacks remained trapped in inferior housing and menial and unskilled jobs." Foner adds that the few jobs blacks were able to acquire were constantly being challenged by the huge influx of European immigrants. Foner's subject is definitely worthy of his original volume. Reconstruction is a subject that can still be interpreted in several ways, including the revisionist school of thought. Foner, however, seems to be as objective as possible on this subject, and has fairly addressed all major issues that apply.

Bibliography: H. Draper Hunt, Hannibal Hamlin of Maine: Lincoln's First Vice-President (Syracuse, NY, 1969); Lloyd Paul Stryker, Andrew Johnson; A Study in Courage (New York, 1929); Hans L. Trefousse, Andrew Johnson: A Biography (New York, 1989); John W. Forney, Anecdotes of Public Men (New York, 1873); Donald W. Riddle, Congressman Abraham Lincoln (Urbana, IL, 1957); Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York, 1988); LeRoy P. Graf, ed., The Papers of Andrew Johnson, vol. 7, 1864-1865 (Knoxville, TN, 1986); Christopher Dell, Lincoln and the War Democrats: The Grand Erosion of Conservative Tradition (Rutherford, NJ, 1975); Joel H. Silbey, A Respectable Minority: The Democratic Party in the Civil War Era, 1860-1868 (New York, 1877); Donald A. Ritchie, Press Gallery: Congress and the Washington Correspondents (Cambridge, MA, 1991); Hans L. Trefousse, Impeachment of a President: Andrew Johnson, the Blacks, and Reconstruction (Knoxville, TN, 1975); Benjamin Perley Poore, Perley's Reminiscences of Sixty Years in the Nation's Metropolis (Philadelphia, 1886); George Alfred Townsend, Washington, Outside and Inside (Hartford, CT, 1873); Michael Les Benedict, The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson (New York, 1973).

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