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.