Rethinking Johnson

When you ask the person on the street who were the greatest presidents, you usually get a pretty uniform list:  Lincoln, Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, Reagan, Wilson, and sometimes even Kennedy.  But why do these presidents make the list?  Why are they viewed as great in the public mind?  The answer is simple.  Either for good or ill, each of these men accomplished something monumental (with the possible exception of Kennedy).  They have achieved immortality in the American mind.  But, despite what you may think, greatness doesn’t necessarily imply a positive morality or respect for the law.  In fact, in terms of shredding our own Constitution, one could easily make the case that FDR, Wilson, and Lincoln were, in fact, some of, if not, our worst presidents.

I could continue down this rabbit hole, but instead I wanted to focus on one of our forgotten presidents, Johnson.  No.  Not Lyndon Johnson.  He was a disaster for our country with his so-called “Great Society” of expanded meddling by the federal government and reckless handling of the Vietnam War.  Rather, I’d like to discuss our 17th President, Andrew Johnson.  Many people seem to forget about Andrew Johnson given he that immediately followed a powerful and assassinated leader, Abraham Lincoln.  Think about it for a moment, with the twin exceptions of LBJ and Teddy Roosevelt before him, how many vice presidents who assumed the presidency upon the death of the president can you name, much less discuss in any detail?  John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, Calvin Coolidge, do any of these names ring a bell?

A few days ago, I found myself in Greeneville, TN, home and final resting place for Andrew Johnson.  Although, like the rest of the American public, I don’t really think about him much, I certainly don’t believe that he ranks as one of the worst presidents.  Again, the reason he is viewed in such a poor light stems from the question, what did he do?  Did he win a great war?  Did he expand the size of the country?  Did he create new, expensive, and unconstitutional federal programs? No, no, and no.  Well then, what did he do?  The answer is simple.  He stuck to his principles.  First we need a bit of history about Johnson.  At the onset of the Civil War, Johnson served as one of Tennessee’s national Senators.  In the early stages of the war, he held the distinction of being the only Senator from a seceded state who retained his seat.  When Nashville fell to Union forces in early 1862, Abraham Lincoln appointed Johnson as the military governor of the state.  Given his status as a pro-war Democrat, Lincoln selected Johnson as his running mate in 1864, and when Lincoln fell at Ford’s Theater, Johnson became the 17th President.

But what were Andrew Johnson’s principles?  He strongly believed in state rights, limited government, and the Constitution.  Then why, you may ask didn’t he support the Tennessee legislature when the state declared independence from the federal government?  The answer was that he believed secession was unconstitutional and held a higher loyalty to the national government than his home state.  Given these principles, after Lincoln’s death, Johnson often came into conflict with the Radical Republicans.  First of all was the issue of Reconstruction.  Although Johnson preferred a fairly lenient path to reconciliation (simply ending slavery and notions of secession), many of the Republicans demanded far harsher terms, treating the southern states, not as self-governing entities, but as conquered territory.  Then we had the 14th Amendment.  The Republicans wanted the southern states, as well as the rest of the country, to ratify the amendment to give former slaves the benefits of citizenship, but given that most of the white Southerners still didn’t enjoy political representation, Johnson strongly opposed this amendment.  Next came the Tenure of Office Act.  Passed over Johnson’s veto, the law stated that the president would require approval from Congress in order to remove a member of his cabinet.  This law (although repealed several decades later) was later declared unconstitutional in Myer v. United States.  When Johnson violated this act, the Radical Republicans began impeachment proceedings against him.  Thus Johnson was the first president to be impeached, though he narrowly avoided conviction by the Senate with a single vote.  Ultimately, Johnson’s refusal to compromise his principles cost him considerable political influence.  As a final act to show his loyalty to the limits of power and the government, he was buried with the flag and a copy of the Constitution.

Certainly I have a few questions for Andrew Johnson such as:  How, as an advocate for states rights, could he support the occupation of his home state?  And how could he serve as a military governor (and a particularly harsh one at that)?  Regardless of the answers, I believe Andrew Johnson has gotten an unfair assessment from modern historians.  Was he our greatest president?  Certainly not.  Nor should he be in the top five, or likely even the top ten.  Nevertheless, I think his devotion to our Constitution and limited government is a lesson our current politicians could and should take to heart.  Andrew Johnson may not have accomplished “great” things like burdening us with the modern welfare state, the creation of the United Nations, or the income tax, but he did attempt to heal the nation after a period of tremendous turmoil as amicably as possible.  Given the horrors of Reconstruction coupled with the extreme racial prejudice and segregation that dominated both northern and southern society for the next century, one does wonder what sort of world Johnson’s ideals would have created.  Maybe it is time to rethink Johnson.

8 Replies to “Rethinking Johnson”

  1. Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton both were impeached but were acquitted. In Johnson’s case he escaped being thrown out by one vote.

    In Virginia schools back in the 1960-70 era, Johnson was given a fair and even favorable rating. Today’s revisionist historians want us to forget about all of the great Men who built our nation, including Men like Johnson.

    Those who peddle the theme that Southerners should be ashamed of our glorious history should be issued one-way tickets back to West Virginia or whatever holler they crawled out from.

  2. It should be noted that one of Johnson’s principles was a deep-seated racism. A slaveholder himself, his denial of the 14th Amendment can be traced back to his desire to deny expanded freedoms to those he believed were part of a ‘lesser’ race as much as it was because of his beliefs about the south’s representation. When he died, he was just as proud of his defense of the Constitution as he was of keeping the South a “white man’s country.” Johnson was certainly a man of principles, but those principles were varied and intertwined. I’m curious to learn more of how much Johnson’s political beliefs served his racial beliefs.

    1. You are certainly correct. Andrew Johnson did hold many racist views. Then again, so did Lincoln, “I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races—that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this, that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” 1858. History has whitewashed Lincoln and left Johnson as mean and bigoted as ever. Why do you suppose that is?

      Although I don’t condone the racial attitudes of either, one needs to take them in the context of the time in which they lived. Society slowly changed and so did the citizens and their leaders, transitioning from the keeping of human property to free but certainly unequal to somewhat unequal to relative equality. Is it not healthy nor really honest to either ignore past racial prejudices or condemn a person’s works entirely for that point.

      Now I already know a likely reply here. Johnson held racist attitudes, why didn’t you mention that point? The reason I didn’t until now is that I believe the public’s great dislike of Johnson comes as a result of his racial attitudes. He didn’t advocate radical Reconstruction; it must be because of his hatred of the black folk. If he didn’t support the 14th Amendment, it must be because he was a racist a**hole. But wait; could we be misconstruing his main motivation here? Is the rule of law worth anything or should we simply kill, imprison, or expel those who disagree with our philosophy? Is just law achieved through force or reason? Just because there can be a positive outcome to conversion by the sword, does that mean that the ends justify the means?

      1. First of all, using Lincoln’s 1858 quote wasn’t entirely fair to him. He was a different man by 1865 (as even he admitted). During his last speech, Lincoln himself endorsed African-American suffrage – that was why Boothe killed him.

        Contrary to what Ballance would have us believe, Johnson actually (and rightly) came under much criticism from contemporaries and historians of his time for refusing to work with the Republicans in Congress – and lest we forget, in the only election that could be seen as a referendum on Johnson (1866) the Republicans won a 3/4 majority in Congress – still the most lopsided Congressional result since the “Era of Good Feelings”.

        Even in Virginia itself, ex-Confederates and their allies abandoned Johnson and literally made a separate peace with the Republicans to get the Commonwealth readmitted (see the Committee of Nine).

        The Tenure of Office was indeed a bridge too far (in fact, by the time Johnson’s trial hit the Senate floor, the GOP was head-counting to make sure Johnson survived – roughly half a dozen Republican Senators drew to see who would be the deciding “not guilty” vote), but that doesn’t exonerate Johnson from his mistakes prior to that – just as said mistakes don’t tarnish his brave refusal to break up the Union during the War of the Rebellion.

      2. My purpose was not to say that Andrew Johnson’s racist beliefs were his only motivation, but that those beliefs were just as strongly held by him as those of Constitutional fidelity. As a frequent reader of and commenter on this blog, I’ve been disappointed in the dismissive and demeaning characterizations of those who define themselves as liberal or Democratic. I’m even further disappointed by the tendency to gloss over or leave out disagreeable parts of any “conservative’s” actions or opinions.
        In this post, Lyndon Johnson is apparently worthy of only a one-sentence caricature that belittles and vilifies him (interestingly enough, and in contrast to Andrew Johnson’s acknowledged attitudes, LBJ helped to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964). Andrew Johnson’s views on race are purposefully ignored and he is portrayed as a man of depth, conviction and courage. I freely admit that we all have biases and will cater to one side of an argument that serves our beliefs and interests. I also think that deliberately leaving out information in this post because people may “dislike” the person described is at best misleading and at worst deceptive. People shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water in terms of political views, but racism should be viewed as hateful and unacceptable.
        The VA Conservative repeatedly says that people should be trusted to make their own free choices. I say that he should trust us with the whole truth and let us evaluate people and ideas for ourselves.

  3. But, should we elect Presidents that won’t budge from their principles even if it means throwing the country into gridlock and inaction. Compromise is a virtue in politics, not a vice.

    1. Compromise is a hallmark of our system, no doubt. It is very likely that Andrew Johnson was far too inflexible and that is what led to his downfall. Then again, from what I read about them, many of the Radical Republicans were not in a compromising mood and, once they made significant gains in the 1866 election (as D.J. McGuire reminds us), they had no real need to make concessions to the president as they could override just about any veto. This point in history (like the present) highlights the dangers of a massive one-party advantage.

      Then again, one cannot compromise certain principles without abandoning everything that you stand for. Although circumstances are different, I think I would still prefer giving the rigid and principled Johnson a try to all of the presidents of the last two decades. What do you think?

  4. Admittedly, Johnson was a racist, but I don’t think that’s why he’s been unpopular in history. I believe its because he was a bad politician. Quick historiography: contemporary historians of the 19th century criticized him for not being radical. After 1900, when Reconstruction was criticized, Johnson was seen as a reasonable alternative to the Radical Republicans. In the last few decades, revisionists are rethinking him largely because he didn’t do more for the former slaves and that he was a bad politician.

    We have to remember that the Republicans did so well in 1866 BECAUSE Johnson had largely been left to run Reconstruction on his own and he made such a mess of it. Johnson wanted to make it as easy as possible to bring the Southern states back into the Union. A Republican congressman at the time said that if Johnson’s Reconstruction policies had gone through, Southern Democrats, who would’ve had full voting rights and the representation of all the former slaves who themselves would’ve been denied the vote, could join with Northern Copperheads and together they would’ve had the votes to elect Robert E. Lee as president in 1868. While this might thrill you, VA Conservative, you can understand why congressional Republicans were not happy.

    Johnson was a populist. He believed he was defending the poor white Southern farmers against the wealthy plantation owners. Their income was based on slavery. So, without slavery, and secession defeated, Johnson didn’t care about Reconstructing the South. The problem was that Radical Republicans refused to back him and unrepentant Southerners felt he was too tough. Johnson was caught in the center with no support.

    His solution was to appeal directly to the people. On a campaign tour, Johnson alienated even more people. He took to yelling at the crowds who disagreed with him. When it became clear that Northern crowds would not buy his policies, he felt more sympathetic to Southern sympathies.

    In the end, Johnson was a bad politician whose overbearing demeanor did not help him. His policies were on the wrong side of history.

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