Andrew Johnson as the pinch-penny senator from Tennessee opposed free stamps for Congress but favored free land for homesteaders; Andrew Johnson as the visionary President had the gumption--while the nation’s skeptical press guffawed--to pay Russia’s must-sell price for Alaska.
To be his own man and to persevere against daunting odds was, indeed, second nature for Johnson. Though a states-rights, slave-holding, Tennessee Democrat, for example, his common-man passion for his country and the Constitution made him such an implacable foe of Civil War secession that in 1864 he became, improbably, Abraham Lincoln’s vice presidential running mate, and, just a few months later, his successor.
Ultimately, though, that stubborn streak would lead him to dishonor the nation that he so loved.
For, as a once-indentured, self-educated tailor from the North Carolina slums who scrabbled his way into the White House, he remained all his life an unfailing champion of the poor--but only if they were white.
And rather than assist his own party in building a just, postwar society of Southern whites and emancipated blacks, Johnson contrarily dug in against the reform-minded Congress and fought its proposals tenaciously. He cast aside a matchless creative opportunity, and his impermeable racist legacies, biographer Hans Trefousse maintains, poison U.S. culture to this day.
We can admire, perhaps, the remarkable homespun grit Johnson displayed in becoming our 17th President; for the shortcomings of his social views, we certainly could wish that he had failed. As Trefousse concludes,
notwithstanding the political promise he brought to his critical presidency, “his Administration was a disaster. Johnson was a child of his time, but he failed to grow with it.”
Over other obstacles Johnson, child and man, had achieved surpassing victories--to such an extent that he himself once characterized his life as the fulfillment of the American Dream.
Born in 1808 to a Raleigh janitor and washerwoman of the meanest circumstances, he never attended a single day of school. Rather, as a “wild and harum-scarum” teen-ager, he ran away to frontier Tennessee to escape the drudgery of servitude bound to a tailor--a kind of early American white slavery.
Safe in Tennessee, he let down roots and began to flower. He married a shoemaker’s daughter, and 16 years later whom do we find in the Halls of Congress but the Honorable Andrew Johnson. The well-read, prosperous sometime-tailor and full-time politician is now shrewdly representing the East Tennessee Democrats from around Greeneville, his adopted hometown.
Having already served in Tennessee’s state legislature, he had honed contentious skills, and cultivated a rigid Jacksonian mind-set. These traits he displayed in Washington reliably, standing unabashedly against aristocrats, public prayer, railroads, banks and $1 bills, excessive public expenditures (those free penny-stamps; the acquisition of the manuscript of George Washington’s Farewell Address; an appropriation to view an eclipse of the sun), and protective tariffs.
On the affirmative side, likening American democracy to his view of Christian morality, Johnson consistently voted for the poor people, for the taxpayer, for freedom of speech and, always, for white supremacy. Disputing one day with a historian extolling to Congress the successes of certain black men, Johnson sneeringly asked if the speaker would allow his daughter to marry such a man. (Ordinarily, his rhetoric ran to more originality; he fancied sprinkling a classical quotation or two into his spontaneous remarks.)
When secessionist Tennessee had been largely reconquered by Federal troops early in the second year of the Civil War, Lincoln perceived Johnson as almost perfect for the job of its military governor. He had already served a term as elected governor of the state, and at the war’s outbreak was a U.S. senator so staunchly pro-Union (the only Southern senator to be that at all) that he had declared in a speech he would rather live in Russia under the heel of the czar than as a citizen of the Southern Confederacy.
(As a slave owner himself, human bondage did not then seem to distress Johnson; his peeve was that the Confederacy was an illegal and unconstitutional cabal of Southern planter aristocrats, the gentry he so roundly despised.)
Eventually, swallowing hard, Johnson ingratiated himself completely with Lincoln by endorsing the President’s Emancipation Proclamation. Slavery is a “cancer on our society,” he would come to say, and he took to calling slave owners “tyrants” (though off stage could still pronounce Abolitionist Frederick Douglass a “nigger”). Lincoln’s response was to pray God’s blessings upon the Tennessean and to welcome him onto his 1864, second-term ticket. “Humble and unworthy as I am, I will be your Moses,” Johnson, catching the fever, told a crowd of black Tennessee well-wishers. They gave him a gold watch.
Still, as Trefousse writes, “whatever his motives . . . he had not overcome his ingrained prejudices.” That would become evident when, with Lincoln’s assassination in April, 1865, the once penniless runaway was suddenly chief executive.
From the evidence presented, it is hard to say which sentiment President Johnson nursed more lovingly: his esteem for the Constitution or his disdain for black Americans. Given his Reconstruction policies, the two were at least complementary.
Persuaded that the seceded Southern states had never in fact been out of the Union (the Constitution forbade it!) Johnson routinely vetoed any congressional legislation benefiting the economic welfare or the enfranchisement of the South’s freed slaves. He argued that since the old Confederate states had as yet no U.S. representatives or senators, the federal government could not pass laws affecting them. That, Johnson declared, was manifestly unconstitutional, too.
Besides, said Johnson, the whole thing was Republican bleeding-heart politics: His party fellows in Congress, radicals and moderates alike, were merely determined to beat down the South’s white Democrats, not to lift up its blacks.
Southern lawmakers in their statehouses, conditioned by war’s end to accept significant social changes, picked up the scent of the Washington winds. In short order they had begun to legislate free-rein against the civil rights of their black populations. Restrictive black codes, says Trefousse, came “to constitute a virtual re-establishment of slavery under a different name.” From such dregs Americans North and South still drink.
Tearing its hair, Congress at last designed to impeach the President--itself a spurious and cynical strategem--and Johnson slipped that snare, too, barely breaking stride. Like the old knotted and twisted Wembley neckties, he emerged from his fractious four years in office a proud, unwrinkled hero to the conservative Southerners who in 1860 had called him traitor. Seven years later, forgiving Tennesseans even sent its white-race guardian back to the Senate.
Johnson was not a merry man, and Trefousse, if never less than an astute and literate historian, is not a merry stylist. “Professorial” comes to mind when defining his technique. This biography, then, while scarcely a summery entertainment, is, for Americans concerned to know more about how we came to our sorry racial pass, bleakly illuminating.