Presidential Review: Andrew Johnson

23 Jun



Andrew Johnson was precisely the wrong man to be president after Lincoln.   While Lincoln had incredible political acumen, Johnson had none.  As a symbolic vice-presidential candidate, he was mostly put on the ticket as a show of unity, however Johnson managed to be distrusted by both northerners and southerners at the same time.  On top of that he took on the republican congress at a time where they were completely unified, and thus nearly got himself impeached.

The whole issue was over suffrage for the ex-slaves.  Congress, as part of reconstruction, wanted full suffrage–Johnson, who saw a great deal of power at stake, did not.  His first act as president was setting up a hasty reconstruction for the south before congress had a chance to convene, awarding amnesty, and allowing states to join the union if 10% of the citizens swore a loyalty oath.  Congress would have none of it.    At Congress’s opening, they refused to admit the southern representatives, some of whom were ex-confederate office holders.  Also, the south had made a number of laws, called black codes, which basically kept slavery intact, albeit under another name.

The tipping point was over the Freedmen’s Bureau.  This was a national organization that was intended to help ex-slaves adapt to a life of freedom.  The Bureau was not perfectly run, however it provided education, job training, tracked down family members, as well as helped feed and clothe the ex-slaves who suddenly were out of a job.  They also were in charge of making sure that ex-slaves weren’t taken advantage of, and that they got fair contracts for their jobs.  Johnson felt like the Bureau had too much power, and vetoed the bill.  Congress overrode his veto.

Shortly afterward Johnson during a speech on Washington’s birthday, wandered off topic and mentioned that members of congress were trying to assassinate him.  This particularly bizarre gaffe really worked against him, because not only were they not, but it was considered in exceptional bad taste so shortly after a presidential assassination.

After this, Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights act, which was a set of laws that indicated that members of the United States would have equal treatment in law and employment regardless of race.  Johnson felt the states should decide civil rights for themselves.  The problem with this is that it was completely out of tune with the times, where Congress and most Americans wanted to get away from the very concept of state rights, feeling that that idea started the war in the first place.  Congress overrode his veto and stopped attempting to work with him to pass laws.

Congress placed the Civil Rights act directly in the Constitution, partially because ratifying a constitutional amendment bypassed the president entirely.  Johnson did a tour during the mid-term elections to try to turn congress in his favor–it failed disastrously, filled with hecklers and on multiple occasions Johnson compared himself with Jesus Christ.

Congress passed a law forbidding Johnson to fire someone on his cabinet without Congress’s approval after hearing his intentions to do so.  Johnson, who did not get along with some members of the Lincoln cabinet fired secretary of war Edward Stanton anyway.  Congress began impeachment proceedings.

Johnson did some back room wrangling, but made no public response to the impeachment process.  The senate acquitted him by only one vote.

Johnson was racist, ill-tempered, unable to compromise, mulish, and thought a lot of himself.  His stance on state rights was firmly not in accord with the times or congress either, and by trying to block congress’s reconstruction policies he inadvertently opened the door to a much harsher reconstruction than probably would have happened had Johnson simply made deals with congress in the first place.    Also there’s a huge sense of a wasted chance–Johnson was the only southern voice in government in post-reconstruction America, he certainly could have used that to not only his own advantage but also to the advantage of all Americans, instead he got into a political war and basically cut himself out from the dealmaking process entirely.

Despite all this, I have a small measure of empathy for him–after all, rebuilding a country after a war is no easy task.  Don’t get me wrong, I completely disagree with his aims, in fact, Johnson is a big reason that racism continued in the south after reconstruction, providing pardons for all ex-confederates, which allowed them to pretty much move back into the same realms of power that they held before the war.    Johnson was held as a laughingstock and an embarrassment to the post, with rumors of drunkenness and poor speaking abilities.  The thing is, he wasn’t an idiot, though people saw him as such.

That being said, Johnson wasn’t pro-slavery–in fact he was for ending it while the war was still on, and even recruited black men to fight in the war when he was Union governor of Tennessee.  Johnson also loathed the southern upper class who he blamed the whole war on in the first place.

As it is, Johnson is one of the worst presidents we’ve had, the only good thing he did as president was buy Alaska, but he was even made fun of for that.  Oh well, next up is Grant, who managed to do only slightly better.

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