Poor Andrew Johnson! You know that a President is obscure when a film made 67 years ago, when the average American knew far more American history than the average American does today, has a trailer with a quiz about the presidential subject of the film. This is a shame. Andrew Johnson was a fascinating man and led a fascinating life.
Born on December 29, 1808, (See, his bicentennial was last year and hardly anyone noticed!) his father died when he was three, from the ill effects incurred by his efforts in saving several people from drowning, leaving his mother, young Andrew and Andrew’s elder brother William, in dire poverty. Johnson, along with his brother William, were apprenticed by his mother, not an uncommon arrangement at that time , to a tailor when Johnson was 10 or 14, and he learned the tailor’s trade. Johnson never had a formal education and taught himself to read and write.
In 1826 Johnson opened his own tailor shop in Greenville Tennessee, located in far eastern Tennessee in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. In 1827 Johnson married Eliza McCardle, probably the turning point in his life. His saintly wife instructed him in mathematics and improved his reading and writing skills. She would read to him while he worked. Johnson drank up the knowledge, worked diligently and his business prospered. It quickly became a center for political discussion in the town as Johnson was fond of talking about politics and debating the issues of the day. To hone his debating skills Johnson joined a debate club at a small college.
In 1828 Johnson entered politics by being elected an alderman of Greenville. Johnson quickly realized that politics was his life’s work and he was very good at it, as a list of his elected positions up to the Civil War indicates: alderman (1828–30), mayor (1830–33) of Greenville, state representative (1835–37, 1839–41), state senator (1841–43), Congressman (1843–53), governor of Tennessee (1853–57), and U.S. Senator (1857–62).
Johnson was a Democrat. He defended the interests of his part of the state, largely non-slaveholding small farmers, against those of the slave-holding large plantation owners of the western part of Tennessee. He was intensely class-conscious and often portrayed himself as battling against the interests of entrenched wealth. On the national scene he was always a safe pro-slavery vote in Congress. However, after 1857 his support for the Homestead Bill, opposed by most Southern Democrats, increased the tensions between him and the wealthy plantation owners of his state.
After the election of 1860, Johnson led the fight in Tennessee of pro-Unionists, most powerful in east Tennessee, against the secessionists. On March 2, 1861, he made his stance clear to all: “Show me those who make war on the Government and fire on its vessels, and I will show you a traitor. If I were President of the United States I would have all such arrested, and, if convicted, by the Eternal God I would have them hung!” The only senator from a state in the Confederacy not to resign, Johnson vigorously supported the war effort of the federal government. Eastern Tennessee remained a hotbed of resistance to the Confederacy. 29 counties attempted to secede from Tennessee and join the Union. The Confederacy occupied the area and declared martial law.
Throughout the Civil War Johnson was a fervent supporter of the Union. As this statement indicates, opposition to slavery was not a cause for his embracing the Union. “Damn the negroes, I am fighting those traitorous aristocrats, their masters.” Johnson was appointed military governor of Tennessee after the Union took Nashville in March of 1862. In that capacity he took every effort to eradicate Confederate influence in that state. On August 8, 1863 he freed his slaves. Johnson began to call for negro suffrage on the grounds that a loyal negro was worth more than a disloyal white man.
Lincoln running for re-election 1n 1864 realized that he needed to glean the war democrat votes if he hoped to win. He ran on a Union ticket with Johnson as his veep. On inauguration day, March 4, 1865, Johnson was drunk. He was ill from malaria and fortified himself too well with “medicinal” whiskey. He made a rambling speech, was sworn in which took a fair amount of time due to Johnson slurring and stumbling over his words, and then launched into another drunken speech before a Supreme Court Justice led him away. A pity that C-Span was more than a century and a third in the future! Naturally this drunken escapade was the talk of Washington and Johnson was branded a hopeless drunk, which he was not.
After the murder of Lincoln, Johnson, a Southerner and a Democrat, faced a Northern Congress with Republicans in control. At first no problems were expected. Johnson had made many statements throughout the war which indicated a fiery hatred of the Confederacy, and Radical Republicans who favored a harsh policy towards the defeated South thought they had a firm friend in the White House now, as opposed to the lenient Lincoln.
Much to the surprise of everyone, Johnson embraced what he thought Lincoln’s policy toward the South would have been. Johnson believed, along with Lincoln, that legally the Confederate states had not been out of the Union. Johnson’s Reconstruction plan consisted of the following: pardons would be granted to all forner Confederates taking a loyalty oath, only excluding high ranking Confederates and those owning more than $20,000 in property; the new state governments must abolish slavery in their constitutions and formally repeal their acts of secession. The former Confederate states rapidly took these steps and elected new Senators and representatives to Congress. However, this mild Reconstruction policy found little favor with the Radical Republicans, and they blocked admission of the Southerners to Congress when Congress reconvened in December 1865.
Conflict now loomed between Congress and the President over Reconstruction policy. The Radical Republicans viewed the Southern states as defeated provinces that were no longer in the Union. Their readmission would be contingent upon black suffrage, civil rights for blacks, and governments free from control of former Confederates. A long see-saw battle ensued between Johnson and Congress with Congress the ultimate winner after the 1866 elections increased Republican control of Congress. Martial law was declared in the South, and the South placed under military rule, except for Tennessee which had been readmitted to the Union. All Southern states were readmitted to the Union by 1870 and all were initially under firm Republican control due to black votes, the disenfranchisement of former Confederates, the use of Federal troops to suppress violence against black voters and not a little fraud.
Johnson faced impeachment in 1868 for firing Edwin Stanton, Secretary of War and an ardent partisan of the Radical Republicans. This violated the Tenure of Office Act passed by Congress in 1867, over the veto of Andrew Johnson, specifically to protect Stanton. (In 1926 the Supreme Court found that such laws restricting the right of a President to fire a cabinet officer were unconstitutional.) The House of Representatives, illustrating the hatred that had grown up between the President and the Republicans, impeached Johnson three days after he fired Stanton. The Senate failed to convict Johnson by only one vote. In a last act of defiance to Congress before he left office, Johnson on Christmas day 1868 gave a presidential amnesty to all Confederates, including Jefferson Davis.
In 1874 Johnson was elected to the Senate from Tennessee. A speech he gave about political turmoil in Lousiana earned him a standing ovation from his fellow senators, many of whom had voted to convict him during the impeachment trial. Johnson died on July 31, 1875 and was buried as he wished: his body wrapped in an American flag and a copy of the constitution under his head.
Throughout his career Johnson was friendly to Catholics. In Tennessee he fought relentlessly against the anti-Catholic Know-Nothings and championed religious tolerance. While in the White House he often worshiped at Saint Patrick’s, admiring the Catholic liturgy and the fact that no special pews were set aside for the rich, as was common in many Protestant churches at the time, and that the rich and the poor sat together.
Well what to make of the obscure, through no fault of his own, Andrew Johnson? Has History rendered a verdict on him? Yes it has. Well, actually, History has rendered two verdicts. From the time of the 1890s up to the modern civil rights movement in the Sixties, most historians, apart from a handful of Republican leaning historians and black historians, viewed Johnson quite favorably. He was the courageous President who attempted heroically to carry out the martyred Lincoln’s lenient policy of Reconstruction and save the nation from the disastrous consequences of the the attempt by vengeful Radical Republicans to rule the south with corrupt regimes placed into power at the point of federal bayonets. This view held such sway that in 1955 in Profiles in Courage, the book which was written by Ted Sorenson and which may have been read by the purported author, John F. Kennedy, one of the senators celebrated was Edmund Ross of Kansas whose vote saved Johnson from being impeached. That even an uber-liberal like Sorenson, a pacifist during World War II, regarded Johnson favorably as late as 1955 is telling. Since the Sixties Johnson has usually been portrayed as a drunken racist and his opponents as noble far sighted statesmen who fought a heroic battle for civil rights for blacks.
Which verdict is correct? Both are in part. Johnson was a racist, as his private correspondence indicates. His public comments as President were statesmanlike on the issue of race, but there is no doubt that he opposed negro political equality. On the other hand, there is also no doubt that a large motivation for many Republicans was not only a desire to protect freed slaves in the South but to ensure Republican control in the South by fair means or foul, including by the use of Federal troops. Many of the Reconstruction regimes were amazingly corrupt, although not too much more than the white regimes that followed them. I also have no doubt that Johnson was carrying out a Reconstruction policy quite similar to what Lincoln would have implemented if he had lived. However, I also think that Lincoln would have been diligent in attempting to protect the political rights of blacks. Could Lincoln have accomplished this? Probably not, at least not completely. Too many whites were adamantly opposed to any political role for blacks in the South. Occupation of the South by federal troops would have been necessary for decades to accomplish even the minimal task of protecting the civil rights of blacks, and I doubt if the people of the North would have had the long term patience to persist in this policy. What I do think is that with a political master like Lincoln at the helm Reconstruction would not have been quite the disaster it turned out to be. The Radical Republicans could not have run rough shod over Lincoln, a hero in the eyes of rank and file Republicans, as they did Johnson. There would have been no governments installed by military fiat to leave a legacy of hatred among white southerners that has persisted for generations. Focusing purely on black civil rights, rather than attempting to install Republican friendly governments, might have led to blacks keeping political control, or at least retaining the right to vote, in areas where they were the overwhelming majority. White Democrat politicians, once they regained control of their states, may even have found it useful under such circumstances to court black support, as the white governments that took over after Reconstruction were often riven by factions. If blacks had not been effectively disenfranchised, they could have held the balance of power among such factions. Racial animosities, although still great, might have been less than they were historically. Alas, Johnson was no Lincoln, and in many ways the nation is still paying a price for that sad fact.
One last word about the movie Tennessee Johnson. Like most Hollywood productions it mangled some of the facts, but overall it is one of the better of the presidential film bios, although admittedly that is not saying much. Dr. Robert Orr, a biographer of Andrew Johnson, has a good review of the movie in this YouTube video: