“”Whatever Andrew Johnson may be, he certainly is no friend of our race.
“”Carry out the policy of Andrew Johnson, and you will restore the old order of things, if the Government is not entirely destroyed: you will have the same old slave power, the enemy of liberty and justice, ruling this nation again, which ruled it for so many years.
|—Ebon Ingersoll, Representative from Illinois|
“”This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.
| A guide to|
|Hail to the Chief?|
|Persons of interest|
Andrew Johnson (1808–1875) was the seventeenth President and was one of the worst to have ever served in the history of the nation. Having taken over after Abraham Lincoln's assassination, he wanted to get the southern states back in the union as soon as possible,
even if especially if it meant walking over all of the rights of the newly freed slaves. His horrible handling of what would become known as Reconstruction would be a major reason why civil rights ended up stalling for a hundred years and why things still aren't great for minorities today. Because of this, he was the first President to ever be impeached by the Senate, though he avoided conviction by one vote. This also makes him the only impeached president who had a credible chance of being convicted.
He also bought Alaska from the Russians, or more accurately his Secretary of State did and he took credit for it. He was one of three Democratic presidents during the period of Republican dominance that lasted from the Civil War to the Great Depression, along with Grover "Panic of 1893" Cleveland and fellow racist Woodrow Wilson. Definitely not their finest hour...
The first major question to answer is why Abraham Lincoln, who is famous for abolishing slavery in the U.S., chose a racist (even for the standards of his time), Southerner, and slaveowner to be his Vice President in the first place. First of all, Johnson was not Lincoln's Vice President during his first term, that was Hannibal Hamlin, a vocal abolitionist from Maine who was chosen due to his ability to appeal to Northeasterners and northern Democrats (as he was an ex-Democrat that switched parties over the issue of slavery). To understand why Lincoln wanted to replace this more reasonable VP pick in the 1864 election, we must first understand that the Democratic Party was still divided after the incredibly divisive 1860 election. The main two factions were the "Copperheads", who wanted peace with the Confederate States, and the "War Democrats" who wanted to continue the Civil War. Lincoln's opponent, George B. McClellan, was one of the latter, but he was forced by the party leaders to adopt a Copperhead platform (this naturally led to a lot of flipflopping on the campaign trail). Still, Lincoln couldn't afford having any Copperheads coming into power, as it could mean that the Confederacy could win the war. So he had to choose someone who would appeal to voters who would typically never even consider voting for him to minimize the chances of McClellan winning, and Johnson, a War Democrat from Tennessee, was a good option. Furthermore, McClellan was actually the favorite to win until the Battle of Atlanta, so Lincoln was getting desperate. He couldn't see the future, after all.
Ultimately, the election was a blowout, with McClellan only winning three states (Kentucky, Delaware, and New Jersey). Still though, choosing Andrew Johnson was probably Lincoln's worst mistake. Andrew Johnson had previously lobbied Lincoln to exclude Tennessee (his home state that was largely under Union occupation at that point) from the Emancipation Proclamation, presumably because he wanted to keep his slaves. Besides, the Union victory in the Battle of Atlanta meant that Lincoln probably would have won anyway, as that largely killed off the Copperhead movement. Sure, having a VP that opposes you sounds fine when they have no real official power, with his role as a Senate tiebreaker being largely irrelevant as the Senate was very Republican-dominated at the time due to Senators from Confederate states resigning as a result of the war, but in the hypothetical scenario that you are assassinated and the VP needs to take over at basically the most important moment...
Johnson favored letting the Southern states back in with minimal repercussions for those who fought in the Confederacy. Many Congress members warned that this would just cause the old leaders to just rise back up again and result in minimal changes to the South's way of life. Thus, Johnson's entire term was marked by a continuous battle between himself and the members of the Congress who favored more direct action.
Opposition to Freedman's Bureau
The Freedmen's Bureau was established in 1865 under Lincoln to provide aid for the over four million newly freed blacks, meant to last until one year after the end of the Civil War. It built hospitals and schools, helped establish labor contracts for ex-slaves, and even planned to redistribute former plantation owners' land to the freed laves. Johnson vetoed the Freedmen's Bureau Bill in 1866, which would have extended the Bureau's duration and given it additional powers, claiming it infringed upon states rights. This puzzled a lot of legislators at the time, because they thought he would feel obligated to carry on the legacy of the martyred Lincoln no matter what he thought about it personally. He also had a nasty tendency to obfuscate his views on bills to Congress before they landed on his desk-in this case, when moderate Republican senator Lyman Trumbull talked to him about it he never directly contradicted him or explicitly said what he would do. It would be passed by congress again, and he would veto it again, but this time they overrode his veto so the bill became law anyway. A similar process occurred to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which he vetoed on the grounds that it "discriminated against whites." While the bill would eventually pass, the Freedman's Bureau was left understaffed and underfunded, preventing it from achieving many of its goals, including the redistribution of land, which forced many of the freed blacks into sharecropping, which was slavery in all but name.
Opposing the Fourteenth Amendment
One of the big points of contention between the Congress and Andrew Johnson was the latter's opposition to the Fourteenth Amendment. The Civil Rights Act of 1866, which passed with a veto-proof majority in Congress, had extended citizenship to blacks, but many Republicans wanted this protection to be extended to the Constitution so no one could mess with it in the future. Andrew Johnson was strictly opposed to this, often citing reasons such as "state's rights" and that he didn't want anything to be passed without Southern representation. He refused to even compromise with the most moderate Republicans, which backfired in 1866 when the Radical Republicans crushed the moderates during the midterms due to Johnson's unpopularity, essentially leaving him as a lame duck for the rest of his term. (See the below section "Impeachment" to see how that turned out). Ultimately, it was passed in 1868 when Louisiana and South Carolina had ratified it, but it contained a few compromises such as not securing voting rights for blacks (this would be fixed in the 15th Amendment ratified two years later under Grant).
While Johnson was duking it out with Congress, something more insidious was happening in the ex-Confederate states. Shortly after Lincoln's death, the Southern states had new constitutional conventions which only whites were allowed to vote in. This led to many ex-Confederate leaders returning to power in those states. This led to the start of "black codes", which were designed to limit the rights of freedmen, essentially beginning Jim Crow. Johnson wanted these states back in the Union as soon as possible, so he didn't interfere with any of this. Eventually, with the Radical Republicans winning the 1866 midterms, they used their veto-proof majority to overrule these constitutions, and during this period, there were actually black Senators being elected from the South, but by the end of Reconstruction, all the progress was reverted and the racist laws went back into effect.
“”Sir, the bloody and untilled fields of the 10 unreconstructed states, the unsheeted ghosts of the two thousand murdered negroes in Texas, cry, if the dead ever evoke vengeance, for the punishment of Andrew Johnson.
|—William D. Kelley was not a fan.|
Impeachment was pretty much the inevitable result of these constant conflicts with Congress, where bills could only be passed if you could overrule a veto much like the modern situation with the filibuster.
Disagreements on how Reconstruction should have been handled had Radical Republicans advocating for impeachment as early as 1866, on the grounds his strong southern sympathies were an existential threat to their project. This was at first shot down by moderates who feared the it would cause political instability. Tensions would boil over after the Tenure of Office Act was passed in 1867 (over a veto, natch). This forced the president to seek senatorial approval for removing a cabinet member...like, say, one Johnson inherited from Lincoln who was thus more sympathetic to Republican policies.
This immediately caused an outcry because the act, however well intentioned, was of dubious constitutionality. Many moderates feared it would be struck down by the courts as soon as it was litigated. Johnson first tried to find a loophole-he could still dismiss people when congress was not in session, and used that to get rid of the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. This caused an awkward kerfuffle when congress naturally protested, at the end of which the Secretary of War was...Edwin Stanton. This finally generated enough congressional anger that impeachment became a viable possibility. The House wrote 11 articles of impeachment, nine having to do with the Tenure of Office Act and the last two having to do with Johnson allegedly having violated constitutional norms regarding the presidency and separation of powers. Ultimately, the Senate only ended up voting on articles 2, 3, and 11, thinking that they would have the best chance of a conviction.
During the trial, his main defense was that as a Lincoln holdover Stanton was not protected by the act. A more decisive role in his trial was played by the disillusioned moderate Republicans, who began to see the whole affair as a farce to make a more radical politician president. Under the rules of the time, arch-radical senator Benjamin Wade would have entered the White House which scared a lot of centrists into crossing party lines by voting to acquit. Thus, he was saved by one vote.
Of course, to be absolutely fair to Johnson, the tenure of Tenure of Office Act was almost certainly unconstitutional. The Supreme Court would rule a similar rule was invalid in 1926, even referencing the Tenure of Office Act in the process. Even Republicans turned on the act with Johnson out of office-President Grant wanted to repeal the act, but congress settled on never attempting to enforce it. It would be repealed in 1887, only surviving that long because nobody had any reason to litigate it.
His chief gift to the nation was allowing white supremacy to fester in the south, poisoning the Reconstruction effort before it even had a chance to succeed. Although Ulysses S. Grant's administration was more effective at promoting civil rights, his administration would unfortunately be marred by scandals, and by the time of the election of Rutherford Hayes (who only won because of a corrupt backroom deal that gave him disputed electoral votes in exchange for ending Reconstruction), even the Northerners were tired of Reconstruction, and Hayes ended it in 1877. The result is infamous-the Jim Crow era began and would continue for nearly a century. Of course, the economic and social woes that haunt the black community to this very day might have been greatly reduced had Reconstruction gone forward without the Johnson administration getting in the way. Allowing the traditional southern elite to reassert their power also had profound long-term effects on American history. For these reasons, he often gets listed among the worst presidents ever by modern historians.
This was not always the case, however. Earlier historians writing when Reconstruction was still considered a vile act of federal overreach painted him as well-intentioned, but politically inept. This was during a time when people like Woodrow Wilson were the prominent historians of the day. However, with the rise of the Civil Rights movement, the mostly white historians began to see just how screwed up the effects of Johnson's presidency were. The drop in Johnson's rankings coincides with the rise in Grant's, who was generally seen as corrupt and incompetent by the historians who praised Johnson, but his successes such as getting the Fifteenth Amendment passed, fighting the KKK, and having one of the least hostile policies against Native Americans are more appreciated today.
Johnson has been the subject of some conspiracy theories surrounding Lincoln's assassination, even back in his day, and accusations generally range from Lincoln's assassins killing Lincoln so that the more Southern-friendly Johnson would be president to accusations that Johnson himself was involved. However, this ignores the fact that Johnson was himself a target of the assassins, and the former interpretation is largely the result of hindsight bias. In fact, former Confederate president Jefferson Davis thought the assassination would result in a harsher crackdown on the south.
- Lyndon B. Johnson - A Democratic president named Johnson from the south who helped civil rights. Funny how that works, eh?
- Bill Clinton - The second POTUS to be impeached, for similarly partisan reasons.
- Donald Trump - The third president to be impeached, and the first president to be impeached twice. He deserved it.
- Sarah Fling, The Formerly Enslaved Households of President Andrew Johnson, White House Historical Association 5 Mar. 2020
- Congress Debates the Fourteenth Amendment, Facing History and Ourselves
- Andrew Johnson: The most-criticized president ever?, National Constition Center 31 Jul. 2019
- The Andrew Johnson Administration: 1865-1869, History on the Net
- House votes to impeach Andrew Johnson, February 24, 1868
- Articles of Impeachment of Andrew Johnson, teachingamericanhistory.org
- The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson (1868) President of the United States, senate.gov
- Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories about the Lincoln Assassination, fords.org
- The Hunt for Jefferson Davis, the National Interest 5 Oct. 2020