[This weekend marks the 150th anniversary of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1866, one of many such Reconstruction sesquicentennials over the next decade. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five Reconstruction histories, leading up to a special weekend post on the Civil Rights Act.]
On three telling stages in the life and career of one of our worst presidents.
Maybe it’s just a coincidence that Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches young adult novels first became bestsellers with 1868’s Ragged Dick, Fame and Fortune, and Struggling Upward, but I don’t think so. In many ways, these works can be seen as Reconstruction texts—their protagonists tend to begin their stories at the lowest possible point, after all, and struggle to work their way toward a more stable, successful, and even ideal future. Seen in that light, Andrew Johnson was a perfect president for the start of the Reconstruction era, as his life to that point seemed to mirror an Alger story. Born into abject poverty in Raleigh, North Carolina, where his father died when Andrew was only three years old, he began his professional life as a tailor’s apprentice before running away to Tennessee, entering politics at the most local level, and working his way up to Governor and then Senator. And it was his bold and impressive choice at one crucial turning point, his decision to side with the Union when Tennessee seceded (he was the only Senator not to give up his seat when his state seceded), that cemented his national status and led to his appointment as Military Governor of Tennessee and then his nomination as Lincoln’s running mate in the 1864 election.
As I wrote in that hyperlinked piece on 1864, however, “impressive” is one of the least likely words that historians would apply to Johnson’s term as president, which began when Lincoln was assassinated only a month into his second term. It’s not just that Johnson was an overt white supremacist—he had never tried to hide that perspective, which of course he shared with many of his fellow Southerners and Americans. Nor is it that he advocated for a different form of Reconstruction (Presidential, as it came to be known) than Congressional Republicans—policy disagrements are part of governance and the separation of powers, and Johnson did seek to uphold the Constitution as he understood it. Instead, what truly defines the awfulness of Johnson’s presidency was how far out of his way he went to oppose even the most basic rights for freed slaves and African Americans, a stance exemplified by his veto of the 1866 bill that would have renewed the Freedmen’s Bureau. Johnson’s concludes that veto by arguing that in taking this action he is “presenting [the] just claims” of the eleven states that are “not, at this time, represented by either branch of Congress”—yet of course, the veto served only the claims of the white supremacists within those states. The question of whether Johnson deserved to be impeached for actions such as his veto (and other similar stances taken in opposition to Reconstruction) is a thorny one, but I have no qualms in saying he deserves our condemnation for it, and all that it illustrates about his presidency.
Johnson survived the impeachment trial (by one Senate vote), and continued his destructive policies for the remainder of his presidential term (although he did also support the proclamation that nationalized the 8-hour workday, evidence that even the worst presidencies are not without their complexities). Yet his life and career did not end with Ulysses Grant’s 1868 election to the presidency, and two 1870s moments reflect how both sides of Johnson’s American story continued into his later life. In 1873, Johnson both nearly died of cholera and lost $73,000 in the national Panic, but recovered from both of these traumas to successfully run for the Senate once more in 1875, becoming the only past president to serve in the Senate and adding one more rags-to-riches moment to his legacy. Yet in his brief stint as a Senator (the seat was only open for one special session), Johnson’s only significant contribution was a speech attacking President Grant for using federal troops as part of Reconstruction in Louisiana; “How far off is military despotism?,” Johnson warned, one final mythologized and destructive critique of Reconstruction from the man who did as much to undermine it as any American.
Last Reconstruction remembrance tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Reconstruction histories you’d highlight?
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