A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian recounts the tale of 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.
Johnson faced a nearly impossible taskto 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 the author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in History and the National Book Award. She holds three appointments at Harvard University: professor of law at Harvard Law School, professor of history in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. A MacArthur Fellow and a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, she is also the author of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy; the coauthor with Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., of Vernon Can Read!; and the editor of Race on Trial: Law and Justice in American History. She lives in New York City.
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"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 desire to serve his various constituents or make a lasting mark on the offices to which he was elected.
While he attained great success, success that should have nurtured confidence, Johnson never truly embraced the role of leader and acted as though he had to constantly prove himself to those around him—as if he assumed they were all silently questioning his ability. That deep personal insecurity led him to think of "stubbornness" as a synonym for "inner strength." When he took a position, with seeming pride, he stuck to it no matter how catastrophic. He offered his stubbornness as evidence that he was a man of principle when, in fact, he was simply afraid to be wrong. Or, at least, he was afraid to be seen being wrong. If others could make the judgment that he had made a mistake, or if he admitted to it, they might go even further and say, or think, that the onetime homeless tailor's apprentice, who never went to school a day in his life and pretty much taught himself to read and learned to write with his wife's help, did not deserve to be among the elites who more typically held elective office and wielded power.
There was, however, a positive side to Johnson's stubborn resolution. It gave him the strength to remain loyal to the Union when he could have cast his lot with the Confederates. He faced personal threats and threats to his family and angry mobs as he stood firm on the question whether the United States was to remain intact. It is doubtful that he could have risen as far as he did without the ability to forge ahead no matter what the odds.
Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles said of Johnson: he "[had] no confidants and [sought] none."10 It was as though the give and take of talking things over with people, asking questions, might reveal doubt or uncertainty, weaknesses to be avoided at all costs for one so self-conscious about his origins. In this same vein, Johnson eschewed social events, giving the impression that he, hard at work for the common man, had no time for such frivolities. While there does not seem to have been a trace of real humor or lightness in the man—there is no sense of what he did for fun—one suspects that this, too, was a sign of insecurity. How would he handle himself in social settings with people familiar with the etiquette of dinner parties and balls—which fork to use, when to use it, and the parameters of social banter and small talk?
Now, of course, those who are afraid to be wrong are afraid to be right, because leadership and decision making inevitably contain an element of risk. So, in a time that required that overused but very useful and descriptive modern phrase "thinking outside of the box," Johnson was inside a box with the lid shut tight. In the aftermath of a fratricidal war and the destruction of the South's slavery-based economic system, America needed forward thinking—flexible, practical, yet visionary leadership. Lincoln had spoken of a "new birth of freedom" at Gettysburg as he sought to extend the meaning of Jefferson's Declaration of Independence to cover what he knew would be the altered circumstances of the post-Civil War United States. The country had been broken and could not be put back together in precisely the same form as existed before.
Johnson, on the other hand, looked resolutely backward. The South, he believed, had never really left the Union because secession was a legal impossibility. Americans were to pretend that Jefferson Davis and his cohort had never set up something called the Confederate States of America, with Davis as president and Alexander Stephens as vice president; that almost half a million Americans had not died in military conflict and the fallout from it; that the end of chattel slavery, helped along by the efforts of over 180,000 black troops who had served in the Union army, had not changed the nature of southern society and portended no different future for America. Lincoln shared Johnson's view of the legality of secession in the abstract. But he understood that however one wanted to characterize what the South had done, it had in fact done something momentous, something that had to be reckoned with, not only militarily but politically and socially as well.
Johnson believed his job as president was to make sure that things went back to the way they were—except for slavery—circa 1789 when the original Constitution went into effect. This rewinding of the tape fit very well with his preoccupations and beliefs. It was the chance for white Americans to do things over again in what he considered to be the right way. Despite his earlier support for slavery, in the end Johnson was able to feel positive about the war's destruction of the institution, not because of what that meant for black people, but because of what he thought it would mean for the class from which he sprang: poor whites.
In Johnson's paranoid fantasy world, the planter aristocracy and their slaves had been in some version of a conspiracy to oppress poor white people. He actually said this to a delegation of blacks who came to see him when he was in the White House.11 One would love to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation, just to see the expressions on the faces of the delegation as he offered this opinion. They must have thought him mad. Although it is not at all clear what benefit enslaved people got from this arrangement, Johnson was certain that they shared the values of their masters when it came to poor whites, and that alleged universally shared disdain bore the evidence of cooperative effort to keep his "people" down.
Frederick Douglass, who had been in the delegation to the White House, tried to educate Johnson. He told the president that there was a more natural alliance between poor whites and blacks who had both been oppressed by the planter class than between masters and those whom they enslaved. Johnson would have none of that. With slavery gone, the slate was clean, and now poor white people could enjoy the benefits of white supremacy unfettered by the slavery that made only some men the legal masters of black people.
Johnson's hostile attitude toward black people must be reckoned with, although some commentators have deemed attention to his racism as "presentism," that is, applying today's standards to the past and making a negative judgment about a historical figure.12 But to say that Andrew Johnson was a racist and sought to maintain and extend white supremacy in America is a statement of incontrovertible fact, not merely a judgment. How one responds viscerally to that fact says nothing about its truth. Coming to grips with the racial attitudes of powerful and influential figures from the past is discomfiting to many Americans. To ignore racism as a clear facet of an individual's personality—even as other personality traits are discussed in depth—or to make excuses for it, is to miss a central motivation for some of the most important policy choices and acts in American history.
Johnson's attitude toward blacks, or "niggers" as he termed them in private conversation, was resolutely negative. This fact must be counted as a crucial element of his character that mattered to his conduct as president, particularly and tragically in the period when he was in office. There is no wonder that Reconstruction under his aegis proceeded in the way it did. It would be impossible to exaggerate how devastating it was to have a man who affirmatively hated black people in charge of the program that was designed to settle the terms of their existence in post-Civil War America. All of his talk about states' rights, limited government, and low taxes were sideshows compared to his real concern, which was to ensure that "the people of the South, poor, quiet, unoffending, harmless," would not be "trodden under foot to protect niggers."13
Racial enlightenment was certainly in short supply in Johnson's America, both in the South and in the North. Even the recognized friends of blacks had commonplace prejudices and beliefs in white supremacy. But Johnson was too much for some of them, and they saw his hostility toward black people as so warping to his personality that he could never be trusted to step outside of his prejudices to even approach being fair to them. "I have grounds to fear President Johnson may hold almost unconquerable prejudices against the African race," said one constituent of Elihu Washburne, an Illinois congressman. Johnson's own private secretary remarked in his diary that the president had "at times exhibited a morbid distress and feeling against negroes." He fixated on the "problem" of interracial sex. In fact, he believed that slavery promoted it because it brought blacks and whites into such intimate and daily contact with one another. In the days when the writing was on the wall, and he knew that slavery would die at the hands of the Civil War, Johnson adopted an antislavery stance and began to denounce the institution. All his speeches on the subject "dwell almost obsessively on racial miscegenation as the institution's main evil."14 As we will see, the slaveholding Johnson may have used all this hard talk against racial mixture as a cover for his own circumstances. He would not have been the first, or the last, southern white man to travel this tortured psychological route.
On paper, no one seemed better prepared to be president than Andrew Johnson. A courageous man, he had overcome obstacles that would have stymied a lesser individual, and he had climbed the ladder to the highest office in the land rung by rung: alderman, mayor, state representative, state senator, governor, United States representative, United States senator, vice president, president. Each step gave him the opportunity to gain valuable experience in the science of government and the art of politics. And yet, when his moment arrived, and it was time to bring to bear the lessons that should have been learned in all those years in public life, it became abundantly clear that Johnson had not learned them. He was like the student too proud to admit that he is lost in a given subject, and who won't seek help or advice, and then fails the test. Johnson failed the test of the presidency with lasting consequences for the nation, some that resonate to this day.
All the caveats that should be offered about the "great man" theory of history apply almost equally to the situation when a "less than great man" is the subject of study. No single person should be given credit for all the good things that happened during a given period of history, and no one person can be held accountable for all the bad things. In many ways, Johnson's weaknesses mirrored those of his era. But in the American system of government—even with three supposedly coequal branches—the executive is the prime mover, the so-called energy of the government.15 In times of national crisis, citizens look not to the members of Congress or the justices of the Supreme Court, but to the president to provide leadership, actual and symbolic. It is at these moments that presidential character matters most.
Andrew Johnson took office at a time when the country was in acute need of effective presidential stewardship, and when the president's character mattered immensely. Perhaps at another moment in American history, when the stakes were not so high as they were in the aftermath of the bloodiest war the nation had ever known, a war that ended slavery for 4 million people whose lives and futures hung in the balance, having Johnson at the head of the government would not have mattered so much. He could have simply joined the succession of merely lackluster and nearly forgotten presidents who shuffled across the national stage during the nineteenth century. Fate did not allow that.
After Lincoln's successful prosecution of the war, and his initial steps toward dismantling the system of chattel slavery that had propelled the nation into conflict, Johnson was faced with the herculean task of putting things back together with a good and workable plan for how that might be done. It is always easier to destroy than to build, or even rebuild on a sound basis. In many ways, Johnson faced circumstances that were trickier to maneuver than Lincoln had faced. The American populace had been traumatized by war, and supporters of the Union were reeling from the murder of their leader. The white South had been battered into submission (seemingly) and had to be reincorporated into the country, somehow. And there were the millions of formerly enslaved African Americans still living among whites who viewed them either as their lost property or as property they had hoped to possess someday as part of their version of the American dream, a dream that had died with the defeat of the rebel army. It is a useless enterprise, for we can never know, but one wonders what Lincoln would have done in these circumstances. It would have taken every ounce of his intelligence, humanity, and political skills to make his way through Reconstruction after the Civil War. Instead, there was Johnson.
And that is precisely why Andrew Johnson's life matters so much. He may not have been the right man at the right time, but he was there at a time so critical to the American story that we simply cannot turn our eyes from him, no matter how painful the view. History is not just about the things we like or the people we want to love and admire—a fantasy date with our favorite dead person. It is about the events in the past that have mattered greatly to a given society and its culture. At the core of Johnson's life is the story of class and race in America, how they shaped the country in ways familiar and unfamiliar. It is also a story of roads not taken, by him and by the country as a whole. It is a useful, though often maddening, thing to see the choices that were available to people in the past and why they chose one route over another. Through the benefit of hindsight we are able to see the results, good and bad, of those decisions. They have made us who we are. And for better or worse the poor tailor boy from North Carolina and Tennessee helped to make us who we are. We should get to know him.
Excerpted from Andrew Johnson by Annette Gordon-Reed
Copyright 2010 by Annette Gordon-Reed
Published in 2010 by Henry Holt and Company
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.