Term in Office: 17th president, 1865-1869
Home State: Tennessee
We’re almost at the very bottom of our ranking. For the twelve or so lowest presidents, we have explored a variety of ways that presidents can fail: the unquenchable cynicism of Nixon, the callous unconcern of Coolidge, Buchanan’s blindness to treason, and Van Buren’s contentment in pursuing a deadly and unjust course of action set by his predecessor. Why, then, is Andrew Johnson at the second-lowest spot? I answer in this way: Andrew Johnson’s stubbornness and prejudice sabotaged a singular movement in American history: the chance to incorporate freed slaves fully into the fabric of participatory government as a consequence of Union victory. Instead, Andrew Johnson took every step within his power to limit the expansion of voting rights, property rights, and education. We could have had a functioning democracy with universal male suffrage a century ahead of schedule, but AJ strangled it in the bassinet. When Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” and talked about a check for equal justice having been un-cashed for one hundred years, he was referring in part to the hopes that were dashed and the possibilities that were stymied during Johnson’s presidency.
At the crux of all this were Johnson’s views on race, which were especially symptomatic of his background. Andrew Johnson grew up a fatherless barefoot boy, then a tailor’s apprentice, an escapee from said apprenticeship, and finally a struggling and illiterate journeyman in an unforgiving place- the porous borders between the hill country of North Carolina and Tennessee. There aren’t too many presidents who truly grew up not knowing where their next meal would come from, but AJ was one of them. He was thus at the intersection of the South and Appalachia. And he soaked in his surroundings: the stubbornness, the scrapping for a fight, the hard drinking, the populism, and the stump oratory. As well as the racial prejudice. In much of the South, every poor, luckless white man prided himself on his capacity to take part in the political process, and rested in the assurance that no matter what happened, there would always be a rung on the social ladder so far low that he could not descend to it. This contributed to a fierce belief in white superiority within the South’s white Scots-Irish working class that no wealthy planter could match.
Andrew Johnson was, like much of the eastern Tennessee, committed to the idea of Union. He was the only senator from a Southern state to remain loyal to the Union after secession, an act whose steadfastness and personal risk secured his place among my 100 greatest senators of U.S. history. Lincoln soon appointed him military governor of Tennessee once large chunks of the Volunteer State were under Union purview. With a tough re-election bid on the horizon, Lincoln decided to switch running-mates, and make the election not about the Republican Party, but about keeping the country together. The GOP was rebranded the Union Party for that election, and to nail that theme down, Lincoln deliberately sought out a pro-Union Democrat, ideally a Southerner, to serve as his running mate. Johnson fit the bill, and he might have been a very fine symbolic vice-president– until that fateful night at Ford’s Theatre.
Not only was Lincoln dead- but his sketchy but generally reconciliatory policies for bringing the South back into the country died with him. Without much of a road map, Johnson ran headlong into opposition from Congress- which was trying to reassert itself after an exhausting war that stretched the limits of presidential power. So began a tortuous tug of war with a Republican-dominated Congress, that harbored large numbers of so-called Radical Republicans after the 1866 midterms. (If you think about it, that must have been the most badass midterm election in American history, with most of the South under military rule, and the Union victory buoying Republicans- including many veterans- to victory virtually everywhere except the border states.)
Since Lincoln died during a lengthy recess for Congress, Johnson got a head start in carrying out his own Reconstruction plan, which was lenient to an unseemly extreme, offering pardon to virtually everyone but wealthy planters and Confederate ringleaders, and ignoring any attempts to expand suffrage to freedmen. In this interim, noxious “Black Codes” were passed in former Confederate States, often swindling black labor into peonage debt, with harsh and often strikingly violent penalties. When acts of terror and violence were used to keep freedmen (and other Republicans) from the polls, Johnson did not lift a finger to come to their aid. Johnson neglected the Freedman’s Bureau, claiming that blacks did not deserve, in his words, “special privileges.” (Is this not sounding like the arguments against same-sex marriage just a little bit?) He vetoed civil rights bills on the grounds that they violated states’ rights (Paging Senator Thurmond? Paging Senator Goldwater?) Consistently, he cited a strict interpretation of the Constitution and a desire to reunite the country quickly, and while these were strong elements of Johnson’s political worldview, they were also convenient cloaks for his desire to reinstate the old social order of the South. Black citizens in the South meant that the old hierarchy was upended. A successful black man might, in fact, rise higher than an unsuccessful Scots-Irish dirt farmer, and the prospect filled him with a sickening dread.
Radicals in Congress were horrified by Johnson’s actions. They concluded- correctly, I think- that Lincoln’s landslide victory, and Republican majorities in Congress signaled a mandate for their policies, and as an unelected president, he had best follow their lead. For two anguishing years, Congress would pass a bill, Johnson would veto it, and Congress would usually- but not always- find the votes to override the veto. Did you know that there were 10 Supreme Court justices at the end of Lincoln’s term? When two of them left office, Congress decided to simply let those seats expire, rather than let AJ appoint anyone to the Supreme Court! This ended, of course, with the Tenure of Office Act, forcing Johnson to keep the disloyal Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in office. Johnson fired him anyway, inviting an impeachment trial, where the president was saved from the ignominy of leaving office by only one vote. Perhaps Johnson did not deserve impeachment- the Act was transparently unconstitutional, as the Supreme Court later ruled- but the farcical proceedings were the logical outcome of Johnson’s antagonism, ideological blinders, and his inability to seek out a middle road.
Perhaps the most amazing thing is that earlier in the 20th century, Johnson was portrayed as the good guy in this confrontation! For decades, our understanding of American history was dominated by a small cabal called the Dunning school, named after a Columbia professor and his nursery of graduate students. They were the first historians to really discuss Reconstruction and the figures behind it. You know how you watch “The Birth of a Nation” and a part of you dies? That film was very much inspired by this school of history- and that goes double for the romanticism of “Gone with the Wind.”
Almost without exception, historians from that time- Northern as well as Southern- put forth a pejorative view of Reconstruction that dominated the historiography for decades, and even found its way into my middle school textbook. If you have a good memory, think back to the negative portrayals of traitorous scalawags and the Northern flimflam artists known as carpetbaggers from your schoolchild days. Reconstruction, from this point of view, was a disaster of misrule, military tyranny, and petty corruption. Claude Bowers, influenced by these views, wrote in his 1928 book on Reconstruction: “Never have American public men in responsible positions, directing the destiny of the Nation, been so brutal, hypocritical and corrupt than in the period between 1865 and 1877″ apparently forgetting the years of slave-catchers and gag rules that came before, and the lynchings and Klan terrorism that came afterward. In many of these accounts, Andrew Johnson assumes a nearly heroic role for trying- with limited success- to stem the excesses of Reconstruction.
Andrew Johnson doesn’t have too many defenders these days (they tend to be Lew Rockwell types), but these brave few would come to his defense readily: would not, they might say, have Lincoln been lenient with the South? Did he not view the South as having never seceded, because the Union is indissoluble? Eric Foner, the single most respected historian of this period, dispels that nonsense: “He lacked Lincoln’s broad-mindedness, he lacked his flexibility, he lacked his compassion for the emancipated slaves, he lacked Lincoln’s connection with the Republicans in Congress and Northern public opinion…the idea long embedded in our history that Andrew Johnson was simply following in Lincoln’s footsteps is ludicrous.” Had Lincoln lived, he surely would have butted heads with Congress, who wanted to fundamentally punish and remake the South. And yet it is highly likely that they could have worked together with a bit of horse-trading and cajoling; they had already done so in crafting the 13th Amendment, as well as the Freedman’s Bureau. Lincoln would very probably have cleverly divided moderate and radical Republicans to get his way. Johnson, through his dogged determination to see Reconstruction through only his own jaundiced perspective, drove these two rival factions closer together in opposition to himself.
Nothing can condemn Andrew Johnson more than his own words. Consider the following: “if anything can be proved by known facts, if all reasoning upon evidence is not abandoned, it must be acknowledged that in the progress of nations Negroes have shown less capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.” Holy shit! Now, most 19th century presidents said something contrary to the idea of racial egalitarianism at some point in their career; even Lincoln professed a belief in European stock as the superior race in his debates with Stephen Douglas. The crucial difference is that this drivel appeared in a goddamn State of the Union address setting his agenda for the year! To a Congress that included, for the first time, men- and very capable men- of African descent!
So, maybe Reconstruction wasn’t carried out in the most ethical way imaginable. Perhaps there were shady dealings, attempts to corral the black vote into voting for Republicans, and schemes to use GOP supermajorities to enhance and protect Northern industry. I contend that however dodgy this state of affairs may have been, it was infinitely more preferable to the genteel farce of antebellum Dixie undergirded by violence, racial hierarchy, and chattel slavery. It boggles my mind how some people can view Reconstruction as corrupt, and the “peculiar institution” as somehow less corrupt. Worse, for years, the supposed debacle of “uneducated Negro voters” was, in the decades that followed, used as a justification for the poll taxes, absurdist literacy tests (one black applying to vote in the 1950s was told to name the entire cabinet of the 11th president), and outright violence that often accompanied black attempts to exercise the franchise.
General Lee reluctantly conceded in the aftermath of Appomattox that the “negro franchise” was a logical outcome of the South’s defeat. Even if one accepted Johnson’s belief that the South never seceded because secession is unconstitutional, you can’t deny that they lost a war, and that there ought to be consequences of that loss. Johnson gave the game away. After centuries of complicity in slavery by northern industrialists, black rights and Yankee self-interest coincided, like a rare eclipse. And a tremendous opportunity to further the cause of justice, to bring the reality of America closer to its ideals, was lost. Imagine an America where a solid unbroken generation of African-American citizenship had been not only legislated but also enforced in the aftermath of the Civil War. Imagine an America where George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington were in Congress, and Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens was under house arrest, rather than serving in the House of Representatives. I don’t want to suggest that the millennium would have broken out had Thaddeus Stevens’ Reconstruction policy ruled the day, but the South was so sufficiently damaged and prostrate (thanks, General Sherman!) that it would have accepted much sterner provisions for re-entry into the Union, because there was no other choice. The winners dictate the terms. Coffee is for closers.
Not even the accomplishments of his presidency, including “Seward’s Folly,” his purchase of Alaska from the Russians, can mitigate this mismanagement. Despite the common misperception that the acquisition of Alaska was greeted with ridicule, virtually every active politician of the time accepted the virtues of expansion. And all but the dimmest bulb would have jumped at the opportunity for so much mineral wealth, available for pennies on the dollar. Like Jefferson with the Louisiana Purchase, you cannot call someone a political genius for accepting such a lopsided bargain.
And for the record, lots of historians agree. The first two rankings (1948 and 1962) were before the civil rights movement had reached its zenith, and most historians did not place racial reconciliation on a high priority. Given the influence that the civil rights movement and other social causes had in academia, Andrew Johnson’s ranking in the presidential sweepstakes has plummeted, and with good reason. You won’t find him outside the bottom 5 very often these days. Today, he stands as a warning, and as a reminder that all too often, someone harboring strong racial animosities can explain inaction in the face of injustice with the excuse of “just following the Constitution.”
The Reconstruction years needed both a healer and a firm hand, able to reconcile the South back into the nation, but with the understanding that a very different political order must necessarily result from the Union victory. It needed cleverness and creativity, not rigidity and inflexibility. Unfortunately, Johnson wanted reunification with alacrity, rather then reunification with justice. By any standard you want, he was the wrong man for the job.