Andrew Johnson never expected to be president. But just six weeks after becoming Abraham Lincoln's vice president, the events at Ford's Theater thrust him, unprepared, into the nation's highest office.
Johnson faced a nearly impossible task--to succeed the nation's greatest chief executive, to bind the nation's wounds after the Civil War, and to work with a Congress controlled by the 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 Republican 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.
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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.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"The True Index of His Heart"
Frederick Douglass saw it in a brief glance he exchanged with Andrew Johnson during one of the most important rituals in the life of the American nation, performed at the most trying time in the country's history. It was March 4, 1865, and Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson were about to be sworn in as president and vice president, respectively, of the United States of America. The forty-seven-year-old Douglass, the former enslaved man who had become a world-renowned abolitionist, had joined the throngs that descended upon Washington to witness the result of a seeming miracle. Four months earlier, the country had held a national election in the midst of a civil war and was now ready to return to office the man whom they had resoundingly reelected. Crowded conditions—there was not a room to be had in all of Washington—and a steady rain that produced "a sea of mud at least ten inches deep"1 plagued the festivities. Even with the horrid surroundings, Douglass would not have missed this for the world. His high hopes for the future of black Americans and the country as a whole rode, in large measure, on the man now returned to the helm of state. He had not hoped from afar, for he and Lincoln were well acquainted. Over the course of their association Douglass determined that while there might be differences in policy between them (he had, in fact, opposed Lincoln's renomination in 1864), the president, unlike the majority of whites he had encountered in his life, viewed black people as human beings.
Douglass did not know Andrew Johnson when he came to Washington that day. But the inaugural proceedings gave him a chilling look at the man from Tennessee. Douglass wrote:
There are moments in the lives of most men, when the doors of their souls are open, and unconsciously to themselves, their true characters may be read by the observant eye. It was at such an instant when I caught a glimpse of the real nature of this man, which all subsequent developments proved true. I was standing in the crowd by the side of Mrs. Thomas J. Dorsey, when Mr. Lincoln touched Mr. Johnson and pointed me out to him. The first expression which came to his face, and which I think was the true index of his heart, was one of bitter contempt and aversion. Seeing that I had observed him, he tried to assume a more friendly appearance, but it was too late; it is useless to close the door when all within had been seen. His first glance was the frown of the man; the second was the bland and sickly smile of the demagogue. I turned to Mrs. Dorsey and said, "Whatever Andrew Johnson may be, he is no friend of our race."2
No friend of our race. The phrase likely falls quaint on modern ears, fixed in a past when blacks in America had to cultivate white "friends" to act as their surrogates in the political arena and make the case for fair, or at least not hostile, treatment. The overwhelming majority of the 4 million blacks in Douglass's America were enslaved, and those who were not lived as second-class citizens, or worse, in communities throughout the country. Despite some very real and persistent problems, their twenty-first-century descendants, who have the right to vote and hold public office, even the highest one in the land, exercise a degree of political, social, and economic power that would have stunned Frederick Douglass. If the man whom Douglass observed that day had had his way, none of this would ever have happened. Throughout the entirety of his political career Andrew Johnson did everything he could to make sure blacks would never become equal citizens in the United States of America. Tragically, he was able to bring the full force and prestige of the American presidency to the effort.
The Sage of Anacostia got it exactly right: Johnson was no friend to black people, at a time when blacks needed all the friends they could get. Because he believed that Lincoln would be the one to guide the United States to victory in the still-raging war, and help bring blacks to a new day, Douglass could afford to remark calmly to his companion when he came face-to-face with Johnson's true nature. He would have wailed (and probably did when it happened) had he any inkling that just a few weeks after that telling moment, an assassin's bullet would place the political fate of African Americans into the hands of a man who despised them.
Were it not so thoroughly steeped in mindless tragedy—the first assassination of an American president, the destruction of the hopes of a people long treated as property who thought they were finally going to be able to live in dignity and peace, the lost chance to make the promise of America real to all who lived here—one might be content to cast Andrew Johnson's time in the White House as a form of cosmic joke. The gods were playing tricks on us, giving us Abraham Lincoln exactly when we needed him, having him cut down by an inconsequential person, and then giving us Andrew Johnson to teach us the folly of even imagining that we controlled our own destinies. But the effects of Johnson's presidency were too profound, too far ranging—reaching into twenty-first-century America—to be considered anything approaching a joke or trick, even one to teach an important lesson.
To be fair to Johnson, any man would have had a tough time following Abraham Lincoln, particularly under the circumstances that ended his presidency. Even before mythology set in and added further luster to his image, many Americans well understood that Lincoln was an extraordinary man who had risen admirably to an excruciatingly difficult occasion. It is hard to imagine one better suited by temperament, experience, talent, and intellect to be at the head of the government as the United States faced its long-postponed day of reckoning about the place of chattel slavery in the American republic. The founding generation that brought forth George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton had been unwilling to grapple with the issue at the country's beginnings, and now it fell to the former rail splitter and lawyer from Illinois to see matters through. "Did the times make the man, or did the man make the times?" it is often asked. The answer, in Lincoln's case, seems to be yes on both counts. He brought astral political skills to the presidency but did not stop there. He continued to grow and change as new problems and circumstances presented themselves. He was brilliant enough to know when to be flexible and was then supple in executing the revisions to his thoughts to meet challenges as they arose. Although he had moments of doubt and suffered from crushing depression, he had enough basic confidence in himself not to feel threatened by required changes of heart and of direction.
Andrew Johnson was a different specimen altogether, a near polar opposite of Lincoln in his leadership style and temperament—even though on the surface he and Lincoln had much in common. They began life in roughly the same social position: both were born toward the bottom of the social ladder in the hierarchical world of the nineteenth century. Women—in Lincoln's case his mother and stepmother, and in Johnson's case his wife—played pivotal roles in furthering their educations and preparing them for their later roles in public life. Although they had different styles of presentation, both men were natural communicators who could hold and impress audiences—Lincoln with his gift for storytelling, perfect pitch for the instructive anecdote, and eloquent speech writing; Johnson with his fiery, from the gut, extemporaneous oratory that could whip audiences into a frenzy. The two men used these gifts to rise above their humble origins, powered by the force of their incandescent ambition, competitive natures, and native intelligence (though Johnson was not Lincoln's equal on this score).
But what made the difference between them? Why was Lincoln the right man at the right time? Why did Johnson fail so miserably when fate handed him the reins of power? Lincoln tops almost every list of the greatest American presidents, admired by conservatives and liberals alike. Johnson, on the other hand, is almost always found among the worst, if not the worst3—the man who botched Reconstruction, who energized and gave aid and comfort to the recently defeated enemies of the United States, the first president to be impeached by the House of Representatives, escaping conviction by a hairsbreadth, one vote, in the Senate. America went from the best to the worst in one presidential term.
In his influential work The Presidential Character, the political scientist James David Barber posited that character was the essential ingredient to making a president and that one could predict "what potential presidents might do" if one understood the man's character by looking at "the man whole." "Character," Barber explained, "is the way the president orients himself toward life, not for the moment, but enduringly." In addition, "presidential personality is patterned. His character, world view, and style fit together in a dynamic package understandable in psychological terms."4
Even in a study of Andrew Johnson, whose defining personal traits—preternatural stubbornness and racism—so clearly influenced the outcome of his presidency, one hesitates to raise the term character because the word has been so much abused in recent discourse about American political life. The so-called character issue is too often a cover for obsessions with the private behavior (very often sexual) of politicians. Did he (and it's usually a he) cheat on his wife, and what does that say about whether or not he can effectively govern the country/state/city/local zoning board? Human mistakes, even onetime errors, become tea leaves for reading, bones thrown on the floor, that give evidence of some supposedly immutably twisted nature that might put the electorate in peril.
At the same time, other traits that more directly affect policy decisions do not appear on the radar screen as aspects of a given person's character. For example, the critics of former president Bill Clinton, a much more successful president than Andrew Johnson, but who like Johnson was impeached, worked their vein of character-based condemnation of the forty-second president to absolute exhaustion. His sex life, real and imagined, emerged as evidence of a supposedly endemically flawed nature that made him an unfit president, even as he conducted the actual business of the presidency quite competently. At the same time, in a country where race has been an enduring problem since before the days of the founding, and presidential leadership on that question has almost always been lacking, Clinton's ability to connect to many members of the black community was not considered relevant in judging his character. Being relatively free of racism is treated more like a preference for one type of ice cream over another than a character trait that actually matters in a president.
Despite the hazards of potentially misleading amateur psychoanalysis, and the tendency for Americans to see character through the prism of bourgeois sexual mores, Barber did have a point. While we can debate what types of actions can be said to reveal a basic character, and how many transgressions make a pattern of behavior, the idea that one's character matters seems intuitively right, and may be a starting point for explaining what made an Abraham Lincoln and, for purposes of this book, what made an Andrew Johnson. It is clear that Johnson's character—his basic personality if one prefers—made him spectacularly unsuited for the task handed to him on April 15, 1865, the day President Lincoln died. But, again, why?
The evidence indicates that Johnson's early hardscrabble existence and struggle to climb into what would have been considered "respectable" society affected him differently than Lincoln. Whereas Lincoln's struggle and experiences made him stronger in important ways, "produced wit, political dexterity and sensitivity to the views of others,"5 along with a supreme confidence that was sorely needed when almost unimaginably hard decisions had to be made, Johnson's struggle wounded him, marking him with indelible weaknesses—weaknesses that went to the heart of his eventual failure as president. Johnson simply appears to have had it too hard early on. As we will see, his words and actions indicate that he never got over his childhood deprivation and the experience of being looked down upon by his so-called social betters. The experience crippled him inside, even if by all outward appearance he "overcame" his origins.
The circumstances of Johnson's early life present problems for his biographers to overcome as well. As the editors of volume 1 of The Papers of Andrew Johnson noted in their introduction to the series, "Literacy came slowly for Johnson; not until the late thirties was writing comparatively easy for him."6 Indeed, the numbers of letters "From" correspondents to Johnson in The Papers overwhelms the number of letters that Johnson wrote "To" individuals. Even after he became comfortable writing, Johnson apparently did not like to do it very much. The historians John Abel and LaWanda Cox, after a careful analysis of Johnson's formal papers, noted the paucity of written statements from the president "in the vast collection of manuscripts he preserved." They also noted that most of his addresses were written by aides or associates, no doubt with his input, but with the major work of composition done by ghostwriters. "During his presidency," they observed, "Johnson seldom used pen or pencil." They go on to note that "this reticence" to put things down on paper was "attributed to a broken arm that Johnson suffered in an accident in 1857." Abel and Cox were skeptical, saying that Johnson's lack of writing "may also have arisen from a sense of inadequacy due to his late and labored mastery of the skill of writing. . . . Whatever the explanation, there is nothing to suggest that Johnson sat down with paper and pen and composed this [they were writing of Johnson's veto of the Freedmen's Bureau Bill] or other messages and there is considerable evidence to the contrary."7 They show very clearly that his formal messages were written by others. One can only speculate about the provenance of Johnson's other, less formal, writings. Did he have help? Once he became a public official he had secretaries who could have prepared or at least looked over written material that he wrote and sent out. In any event, the relative lack of Johnson's voice in personal letters will make him forever enigmatic.
We can say this: Johnson's life was "one intense, unceasing, desperate struggle upwards,"8 with seemingly little attention to what the climb was all about. Except for his insecurities, he appears an empty vessel. The historian Eric Foner has noted that "apart from education law . . . Johnson's political career was remarkably devoid of substantive accomplishments, especially in light of his long tenure in various offices."9 He did work hard for the passage of the Homestead Act. But others did as well, even though Johnson is known in some circles as the "father" of the act. More than thirty years in politics—what were they all for? It may be unfair, for no one can truly know another's heart, but all outward appearances suggest that Johnson's life in public service was as much an attempt to exorcise personal demons as it was a des...
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