In the wake of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, former vice president Andrew Johnson was faced with a tremendous challenge: How do you mend relations between the north and south, two regions that had spend the past four years killing each other on the field of battle? And what do you do about the south's 3.5 million newly freed former slaves who owned no land or property and who were surrounded by 5.5 million whites who feared and resented them. And, oh yeah, all those white guys have recent military experience?
It wouldn't have been easy for any president to navigate these challenges peacefully. Unfortunately, when it came to the freedmen Johnson had no interest in that "peacefully" part.
Follow along as Johnson rises from poverty so deep, he was sold into indentured servitude, to city alderman, to the state house, to the White House. Along the way, we'll see how he put himself in a position to replace Lincoln's first-term vice president, how his influence during reconstruction helped cement a post-slavery racist society we're still haunted by today, and how he became the only president in our first 200 years to face an impeachment trial in the senate.
1. Andrew Johnson – Annette Gordon-Reed
2. Grant – Jean Edward Smith
3. Abraham Lincoln – David Herbert Donald
4. Rutherford B. Hayes – Hans. L. Trefousse
Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/AbridgedPresidentialHistories)
17.) Andrew Johnson 1865-1869
Welcome to the Abridged Presidential Histories with Kenny Ryan. Episode 17, Andrew Johnson, the Tennessee Tailor.
How would you have rebuilt the united states after the Civil War?
I mean, you’re asking two regions that were just killing each other on the field of battle to get back together and be a country again. In one of those regions, you’ve ended the old economic way of life. And you now have 3.5 million recently-freed former slaves who have no land or possessions, living among 5.5 million whites who resent, distrust, and fear the former slaves. And, oh yeah, most of these white guys have military training.
Forget north and south. What do you do with that?
The years immediately after the civil war would have been an incredible challenge for our best presidents. Unfortunately, our best were not in office.
Andrew Johnson was. And under his watch, a new wave of white terror will rise, and a battle for the fate of the freedmen will begin.
So… Andrew Johnson is easily one of the most racist presidents we’ve ever had. And the story of his life and administration is kind of the story of one man’s hate. Where it comes from. How it grows. How it consumes and destroys him. So this episode will basically be the story of that hate. We’ll see it begin in his childhood, we’ll see it fuel his political career, and we’ll see it destroy his administration when he lets it guide his policy on reconstruction. Andrew Johnson is the only president in our first 200 years who will face an impeachment trial. And the hate he carries in his heart is a reason why.
This isn’t a feel-good story, but it is an important story.
Andrew Johnson was born Dec. 29, 1808, in a log cabin in Raleigh, North Carolina. And he had a very impoverished childhood. His father died when Andrew was just three years old, leaving his family destitute. His mother, Mary, got what work she could as a maid, but rumors began to swirl that she was having an affair with her employer – an affair that might have been rape – and then folks started to notice that young Andrew looked more like this employer than her dead husband. Which led to her being ostracized and only made it more difficult for Mary to support her children. Somewhere between 1818 and 1822 – I’ve seen both dates – she was forced to sell her sons into indentured servitude when Andrew was either 10 or 14 years old.
Now, indentured servitude wasn’t slavery, but it was the lowest rung of the white man’s totem pole. You may have heard of indentured servitude almost as a form of apprenticeship. You work for someone for a while to learn their craft and then you go off on your own. Well. It wasn’t quite that for Andrew. His mother indentured him and his brother to a tailor for, I’ve seen anywhere from 11 to 20 years, that’s right, 11 to 20 years of being someone else’s free labor, which is probably more time than you need to learn how to sew.
And this is how Andrew grew up. Everyone was constantly reminding him that he was the dirt under the boot that is society. And he was trapped in this tailor’s shop, doing menial labor for no pay, year after year after year.
And he started to get angry.
He’d see the idle rich wearing the nicest clothes, leisurely passing their days, and then going home to the nicest houses. And he saw his own situation, and his family, and everyone else who was working menial labor around the clock and barely managing to put food on the table. And it all seemed so unfair to him. Why did the rich have so much when they appeared to work so little? And why did the poor have so little when Andrew knew they worked so much?
And then he came up with the answer – it was the slaves’ fault.
That’s right. Johnson is growing up in the south where slavery was everywhere. And, as he saw it, slaves were hurting the poor white man because, why hire a poor white man to do a job when you can buy a slave and make them do it for free?
This doesn’t mean slaves had it better than white men. Heck no. It just means he thought their existence hurt white men like himself, and he hated them for it.
Johnson will learn, at times, to cloak his hate, but it will always be there.
In 1824, after five years of humiliating apprenticeship, Johnson ran away when he was 15-years old. The man he was apprenticed to put out a wanted ad out for his return, just like you would for an escaped slave. It read, “TEN DOLLARS AWARD,” in all caps.
But Johnson was never caught. Because he was a white man. And running away in the south was far easier for a white man than a black one.
Two years later, Johnson settled down in Greeneville, Tennessee, where he met and fell in love with 16-year-old Eliza McCardle. Eliza was almost as poor as Johnson, but better educated. She reportedly taught him how to be a better writer and speaker, which would come in handy. They married on May 17, 1827, and went on to have five children together.
1827 was also the year Johnson began to tiptoe toward politics. Johnson had always been attracted to that American pastime. When he’d been an apprentice back in North Carolina, one of the customers frequently read from a book of great American speeches that they carried around. Johnson so enjoyed the speeches that the man gave him the book, and he had cherished it. Now, Johnson began to use what he learned from it in friendly games of debate with his neighbors. They had so much fun with the debates that, with Eliza’s encouragement, they organized a debating society and began to travel around debating each other before crowds for entertainment. In 1829, 20-year-old Andrew Johnson decided to take things up a notch and run for town alderman – which is basically a councilmember – and he won. From there, he was off and running.
Over the next 31 years, Johnson gradually climbed the rungs of Tennessee state politics. From 1829 to 1860, he went from alderman, to mayor, to state congressman, to governor, to U.S. congressman, to Senator. Around the time of his election to Congress, he became a slave owner when he purchased a 19-year-old-girl named Dolly, who he *may* have fathered three children with. It’s unsure, but those kids were the only African Americans he ever showed any kindness to.
Johnson also became a Democrat during his rise to power. Not because he believed in their platform, but because he thought they could help him reach higher office. He’d always be a bit of a renegade and the party never really trusted him, which will be important in a bit.
Johnson developed a platform that basically had three components – improving education for poor whites, making western land more accessible to poor whites, and otherwise spending as little money as possible. He voted against anything with a price tag, and he was a leaf in the wind on all other matters. Whichever way he had to vote to get to that next rung on the ladder, he cast that vote.
But Johnson was most known for his aggressive debate style. This is where the angry, populist Johnson shone through. In an era where debates were typically civil disagreements, Johnson was a fire breather. He interrupted his opponents, talked over them, was rude to them, insulted them – frankly, his debate style reads a lot like Donald Trump’s. And it was equally as effective with his target audience. By 1860, his continued electoral success over 30 years made Johnson the most experienced Democrat in Tennessee.
And then the Civil War came along, and Johnson was thrown for a lurch.
When the union started to fall apart after Lincoln’s election in 1860, Johnson found himself at a crossroads. Yes, he was a southern Democrat, and pretty much all southern democrats were throwing their lot in with the confederacy. But… none of those guys really liked Johnson. They looked down on him. The confederate leaders were the old white aristocracy, and to them, Johnson was just an angry former indentured servant who had already risen way too high above his class. There was no role for him in the confederate government.
When Johnson did the political math, he saw his best way up the political ladder lay with the north. If he could keep Tennessee in the union, the north would owe him big, so he began campaigning around the state for just that.
But then Fort Sumter happened and everything changed as pro-confederate sentiment was supercharged across the south.
In the town of Lynchberg, Tennessee, and a crowd of pro-secessionist Lynchbergians tried to lynch him when he came to town with his pro-unionist message. Johnson only escaped by pulling a gun on the crowd and then fleeing the state, leaving his wife Eliza and their children behind. When he made it to union lines, he became the only senator in D.C. from a seceding state. And he supported the north in the war. Probably because he knew that was the path to power.
Sure enough, when the union liberated Tennessee in 1862, Lincoln turned to Johnson to lead the state as its military governor. Now this was power. Military governors could enact or repeal any law and remove or appoint any public official they liked. They could throw people in jail, shut down newspapers they disagreed with, and pretty much rule as kings. Johnson used his new-found authority to support the war effort by shutting down anti-union papers and arresting anyone who didn’t swear loyalty oaths. In Tennessee, Johnson was the law
But he wanted more.
Johnson was crafty. He knew that being the most preeminent loyal southerner gave him tremendous cache. I mean, how much do you love it when a member of the opposing party says you’re right? And as long as Johnson played ball, there was no knowing how far he could go. So when Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation in 1863, Johnson went along with it. And when Lincoln began enlisting the freed slaves, Johnson refused to arm them, but he said he’d let them do menial labor for the army in Tennessee.
In 1864, this “loyal southerner” act paid off big time. The republican party was nervous in 1864. The war was going poorly and Lincoln’s re-election was far from certain. They decided a national union ticket was the best chance to win in November. As in, the top republican, Lincoln, at the top of the ticket, and a loyal democrat, Johnson, at the bottom of the ticket. Lincoln’s first-term vice president, Hannibal Hamlin – I just love that name – was jettisoned. And Johnson took his place.
Johnson spent the 1864 campaign playing his part perfectly. He traveled the north making speeches on Lincoln’s behalf and rallying support. At one point, he came across a crowd of escaped slaves in Nashville and gave a speech where he said they almost deserved a Moses to come free them, and then one of the freed slaves in the crowd shouted Johnson should be their Moses, and he took to the idea, saying, “If no other better should be found,” he would be their Moses, and “Lead them through the red sea of war and bondage to a fairer future of liberty and peace.”
Oh, if he’d only meant in.
That November, Lincoln and Johnson swamped the Democratic ticket and won the white house in a landslide. And then inauguration day came… and Johnson gave the north its first reason to think maybe trusting him was a bad idea. Asked to give a speech at the inauguration ceremony, Johnson approached the lectern clearly sloshed out of his mind. As Johnson veered from one subject to another, saying, quote, "I am a plebeian. I glory in it. . . . I am a-going for to tell you here today, yes today, in this place, the people are everything.”
And it kind of went downhill from there.
Outgoing vice president Hannibal Hamlin reportedly began tugging on Johnson’s jacket to get him to sit down, but Johnson could not be stopped.
Johnson biographer Hans Trefousse described the reaction of Lincoln’s cabinet, “Stanton appeared petrified, attorney general james speed sat with his eyes closed, and postmaster general William Dennison was red and white by turns.” Lincoln just looked sad.
It finally ended when Johnson, who was supposed to swear in the incoming senators, asked a clerk to do so instead.
It was embarrassing.
But hey. He’s only vice president. It’s not like the guy’s actually going to be in charge of anything.
Roughly one month later, on April 11, 1865, Lincoln gave a speech in favor of limited African American suffrage. At least one man the crowd decided Lincoln had gone too far. Three days later, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in the back of the head in Ford’s theater, killing the great emancipator. A second assassin attacked the secretary of state, William Seward, and nearly murdered him in his bed. A third assassin went after Johnson, but as he walked the dark D.C. streets, searching for his prey, his nerves gave out on him, and went to a bar instead.
As the sun rose on the tragedy-struck nation, Andrew Johnson became the third vice president to inherit the presidency because his predecessor had died, and the first to do so as the result of an assassination.
If John Wilkes Booth’s goal had been to stop the march toward black equality, the nation was about to find out he’d succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
On April 15, 1865, 56-year-old Andrew Johnson, the Tennessee tailor and war democrat who’d bet his political future on the union, was sworn in as the 17th president of the United States of America three-and-a-half hours after the death of Abraham Lincoln. Johnson faced a challenge rivaling the secession crisis that had greeted Lincoln – the rebuilding of a shattered nation. It was not going to be easy.
Let’s take a closer look at the nation, and the world, that he inherited.
In Asia, China was continuing to be picked apart by European powers that were carving it into spheres of influence to be exploited. But those European powers couldn’t so easily be sated. In the 1860’s, their explorers were mapping the wealth and territories of Africa, preparing the way for the second wave of colonialism that would devour that continent in the decades to come. But even some European cultures couldn’t escape domination by imperial powers. From 1863 to 1865, the Poles – whose nation, Poland, had been consumed by Prussia, Austria, and Russia in 1795 – launched a failed bid for independence against the Russians.
In the America’s, too, European adventurism was evident. In 1863, while the United States was distracted with Civil War, France invaded Mexico and installed an puppet state with a European monarch as its figurehead. The French-controlled Mexican Empire had then offered limited support to the confederates during the Civil War. Now that the war was over, France and Mexico had to be dealt with.
But all of that was small fries next to the troubles in the United States. Four years of civil war had devastated large swaths of the south and exhausted the nation’s resources. Well over one million northerners and southerners were enlisted at the end of the war – they had to be demobilized and reintegrated into the civilian workforce. But not all at once, 11 southern states – the former states of the confederacy – were occupied by union armies. Someone had to come up with a process by which those confederate states would become American states again.
And what of the 3.5 million former slaves who were now free in the south. They owned no land. No possessions. Nothing but the clothes on their backs. And they were surrounded by 5.5 million whites who feared and resented them.
Reconstruction is an incredibly complex topic. I’m going to try to give you an abridged version - and an abridged version centered around Johnson’s role in reconstruction at that. There is so much more to this story, and if you’re interested in learning it, I strongly recommend you swing by your nearest library and see what they have on the shelves.
So, Reconstruction. Things are going to go crazy fast, and it will basically boil down to three questions:
1. How hard or easy do we want to go on former confederate states and officials?
2. To what extent does the north owe protection to the 3.5 million former slaves it has set free?
3. Who, exactly, is in charge of reconstruction anyway? Congress, or the president?
On April 15, 1865, the answer to that third question was that Johnson was in charge. Congress had just gone to recess in March and wasn’t scheduled to return until December. So, for the next eight months, Johnson was the most powerful he’d ever be, able to exert near absolute control over the opening months of reconstruction through executive acts or his powers as commander in chief.
Initially, northerners and freed blacks were hopeful. He’d done a really good job playing the role of unionist southerner the past four years and, did you see that speech where he called himself a black Moses?
Well, the impression got corrected fast. Before the summer was even over, southern newspapers would be calling him “the savior of the south.” Let’s see why.
Johnson began to show his true colors his first month in office – which, remember, is basically the first month after the fall of Richmond and Lee’s surrender – when the readmission of Virginia came up for discussion.
The idea was starting to emerge in the north that southern states shouldn’t be allowed back into the union until they’d granted their newly freed African American citizens the right to vote – something Lincoln had tip toed toward in his final public speech before his assassination. But then, on May 9, less than a month into office, Johnson jumped the gun and declared Virginia was back in the union without really asking them to concede much of anything. And then he proclaimed six other former confederate states, including South Carolina, the first to secede, were also back in. He didn't require any protection of black voting rights or equality. The former confederate states just had to ratify the 13th amendment ending slavery and they were in. And, oh yeah, he appointed some pretty racist guys as temporary governors.
The consequences of this lenient policy were quick and terrible.
The old white southern power base said, fine, slavery is over. But we’re going to do everything we can to keep the former slaves trapped in a servile class. Southern states refused to grant the freedmen the right to vote and then they started passing a series of laws known as the “black codes” to create a system of racial apartheid across the south.
Blacks couldn’t testify against whites in court.
They couldn’t carry firearms
They couldn’t gather after sunset
In South Carolina, blacks had to pay a special tax if they held any job other than farmer or servant.
In Louisiana, blacks couldn’t live in certain parishes.
In Florida, Blacks were blocked from holding elected office.
In Mississippi, if an African-American was unemployed come January, they’d be jailed, fined, and forced into hard labor. And if they had a job and quit it before their contract ended, they’d forfeit all earned wages and were subject to arrest.
And the thing is, this is just what was on the books. Off the books, a wave of white terror began. A wave of lynchings swept the south. African American settlements were burned and their inhabitants hung. Reports reached the north of black men being hunted for sport. In south Carolina, a white reverend shot a black man through the heart in his church after the man complained that he’d been told to leave.
Now, Johnson didn’t sign any of those racist laws, but he appointed the governors who did, and then he cleared the way for former confederates to resume their old positions of power by issuing blanket pardons and amnesties. When a general was sent south to investigate the cause of the chaos, they produced a report that said Johnson’s leniency was encouraging the massacres of African Americans. Johnson didn’t care.
“This is a country for white men,” Johnson wrote, “And, by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a Government for white men.”
To some in the north, this treatment of the freedman was horrifying. To the rest of the north, the first election results were the real fire drill. 16 former confederate officeholders, four generals, and five colonels were elected to the US Congress and Senate from the south, including the former confederate vice president – remember the guy who gave the cornerstone speech in the Jeff Davis episode? That guy! These are men the north had just lost 360,000 lives removing from power. And now, Andrew Johnson wanted to put them back in charge?
Congress refused to seat the southern representatives.
And when I say congress refused to seat them, I should be clear, Congress was not a hive mind. It didn’t have one will. Congress was very fractious after the Civil War. There were members who supported Johnson’s few-strings-attached reconstruction, but they were a small minority. There were members who wanted to defend the rights of the freedmen and advocated black equality. These members were called Republican Radicals, and they were also a minority. And then there were a great number of moderates. Members who were trying to find a balance between full racial equality and a return of the confederate aristocracy.
And Johnson probably could have built a ruling coalition with these moderates and worked together with to find that middle path, but he didn’t. Because he refused to give an inch to the freed blacks of the south.
This is when reconstruction entered a new phase. Those first eight months that Johnson was in charge and all the black codes were enacted. That was presidential reconstruction. And it was basically 8 months of, “The south will rise again.” Now that congress is back in session, they’re going to start calling some shots. And a period known as “Congressional” reconstruction will begin.
Congress is basically going to wage a level of political war on Johnson that the country has never seen before or since. They’re going to pass laws that restrict his powers, they’re going to override his vetos at a rate that will make your head spin, and they’re going to turn to union general Ulysses S. Grant, the hero of the civil war, to be their champion and the champion of the freedmen within Johnson’s administration.
Let’s start with those vetoes.
In 1866, Congress passed the first Civil Rights Act, which would grant citizenship to anyone born on american soil – basically, this would grant citizenship, and therefor the right to vote, to all those disenfranchised freedmen in the south. It was very popular with radicals AND Moderates in Congress, and Johnson vetoed it. Which kind of permanently pushed the moderates into the radical camp.
And then, Congress did something it had never done before in American history. It passed a major piece of legislation over a presidential veto. By a vote of 33-15 in the Senate and 122-41 in the house, Congress passed the Civil Rights act and put it on track to become our 13th amendment. And the thing is, once congress overruled one Johnson veto, it kind of got a taste for it.
Johnson would attempt 21 vetoes during his three years in office, and 15 would be overridden by Congress. That’s a significantly higher rate of overridden vetoes than any other president in American history.
Historian Eric Foner called Johnson’s attempted Civil Rights veto "the most disastrous miscalculation of his political career." All those vetoes, all that congressional resistance, it happened in part because this first veto irreparably damaged Johnson’s relationship with moderates in Congress. If the moderates weren’t driven into alliance with the radicals by Johnson’s veto here, the rest of his vetoes probably don’t get overridden.
But, overriding vetoes isn’t everything. Sure, congress passes laws, but the executive branch executes them, and if the executive branch chooses not to execute them, it can be kind of hard for Congress to force the issue.
For example, have you ever heard the phrase, “40 acres and a mule?” As in, all freed African Americans were supposed to be given 40 acres of land and a mule to help them get off to a successful start? Well, Congress passed a Freedman’s Bureau act over a presidential veto to, among other things, give the freedmen land in a rent-to-own scheme that would have turned all those freed slaves into independent land owners instead of sharecroppers. But when Union generals tried to acquire land for the scheme, Johnson twice uses his powers as commander in chief to void their orders. There’s no knowing how different american history would be if the freed blacks had been given that land, and, if giving them land seems unfair to you, let me provide some perspective. In 1862, Lincoln had signed a homestead act supported by Johnson that said any non-rebel citizens (so, no blacks initially) could head west and lay claim to 160 acres of federal land, for free, if they improved it and lived on it for 5 years. So, white folks are getting 160 acres of free land. Black folks, nada.
And then Johnson got really crazy. He started sounding out colleagues on straight up dismissing the 39th congress. He wanted to seat a new one composed of southerners and friendly northern Democrats. It was an idea as brazen as it was unconstitutional, and it earned him a new and powerful opponent –Ulysses S. Grant, the union hero of the Civil War, and still the highest ranking officer in the United States army.
When Johnson asked Grant if he’d support such a move, Grant said "The army will support the Congress as it now is and disperse the other." As in, try to organize a new congress, and the army won’t let it into the capital building. Grant became so concerned Johnson would attempt a coup that he quietly removed arms from federal arsenals in the south and stayed in Washington D.C. to watch the president instead of attending an aide’s wedding in Illinois.
As the conflict intensified, both Congress and Johnson started to look for ways to outflank each other, and they realized the midterm elections of 1866 were the next big chance. Johnson may not be able to dismiss Congress unilaterally, but if he could rally voters to replace republicans with Democrats, he could break that veto-proof radical majority and reassert control over reconstruction.
Johnson embarked on a national “Swing around the circle” tour to campaign against his opponents, but his hot and angry rhetoric that had once won him cheers now earned him jeers. The President who had showed up at the 1865 inauguration ceremony drunk now appeared as unhinged as ever, and his tour did him more harm than good.
And events in the south weren’t helping his cause. The white southerners Johnson was fighting for kept showing how they’d act if the radicals in Congress stopped getting in their way – and it was horrifying.
In March, 1866, 24 african americans were found hanging from trees in one of the worst mass-lynchings in american history.
On May 1, 1866, a 3-day riot of white on black violence broke out in Memphis after a minor traffic violation. White mobs, led by off-duty policemen, killed at least 46 people, including 8 former union soldiers, and burned hundreds of homes, schools and churches. Memphis officials and police stood by as it happened. Johnson's administration did nothing.
On July 30, 1866, a white mob supported by New Orleans police officers attacked a black suffrage convention and killed another 40 African Americans before federal troops restored order.
With the south on fire and Johnson slumping at the stump, it was clear extraordinary action was needed if he was going to break the radical majority in the upcoming election. But what could he do?
Why not cheat?
Two weeks before election day, Johnson tried to deploy federal troops in support of a white supremacist state government in Maryland – he wanted the soldiers to add ex confederate rebels to the voter rolls, despite their confederate status disqualifying them. But Grant blocked him.
Johnson was irate. On Oct. 23, he tried to get around the popular Union general. During a cabinet meeting that day, Johnson asked Grant to go on a diplomatic mission to Mexico – but it was a bullcrap assignment and everyone knew it. Remember Grant’s fears that Johnson would attempt a coup? After blocking that Maryland stunt, Grant was not about to leave D.C. on the eve of the election. Johnson tried to press the issue by making it an order, but Grant roared back that he may be obliged to follow military orders, but he was free to ignore diplomatic ones, and then he stormed out of the room. Johnsos was flabbergasted, and then time ran out on him. The midterm elections of 1866 went forward unimpeded, and the results were a ringing endorsement of the radical republican agenda.
The Republicans gained two seats in the senate and 38 in Congress. Nothing was going to happen that the Republicans didn’t want to happen. And then, to make sure Johnson didn’t get a second-shot at presidential reconstruction, the lame duck Congress passed a bill that said new congresses, which typically didn’t meet until the December after they were elected – so, after a nearly year-long break – would assemble the day after the outgoing congress’ term ended. So, Instead of Johnson getting seven unsupervised months in Washington, he didn’t get so much as a single day without Congress being up in his business.
And when that new congress did assemble, with its even larger anti-johnson majority? Oh boy, the gloves came off.
Congress passed a series of bills that zipped Johnson right up in a straight jacket from which he’d be powerless to block their reconstruction agenda. The south was carved into five military districts and martial law was imposed. Each district was assigned an army general with powers that superseding Johnson’s governors and who answered solely to Ulysses S. Grant. Congress declared the occupied states could only reenter the union if they granted African Americans the right to vote and ratified the 14th amendment – the amendment that today guarantees equal protection under the law. Then Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, which made it illegal for Johnson to fire Grant or any other holdovers from Lincoln’s cabinet.
This was basically Congress declaring check-mate on the president of the United States.
Johnson tried to veto these bills, but, yeah, Congress overruled those vetoes without breaking a sweat.
But just because Johnson was tied up didn’t mean he was giving up. The president did his best Houdini act, consistently grasping for loopholes that would allow him to wriggle free and block the congressional agenda. For example, in July 1867, general Philip Sheridan, commander of the military district of Texas and Louisiana, removed all officials from public office who had sanctioned a massacre of black and white unionists in New Orleans, only for Andrew Johnson to countermand the order. Every time he wiggled a pinky free to interfere like this, Congress would slap down a new Reconstruction act to further bind the president and advance the cause of liberty and equality.
But, the thing about congressmen is … they do eventually have to go back to their home districts. In the summer of 1867, Congress finally called a recess so everyone could go home.
And that’s when Johnson struck.
In the course of __ months, he reassigned four of the five military district commanders and replaced them with more pliant generals. And, as the coup de grace, he also suspended secretary of war Edwin Stanton, a holdover from the Lincoln administration who had been one of the most vocal opponents of Johnson’s agenda from within the administration.
When Congress ordered Stanton be reassigned to his job, Johnson ignored that order and fired him outright on February 21, 1868
And that’s when Congress thought they had Johnson right where they wanted him.
You see, Congress had surrounded Johnson with a maze of laws limiting his power, tripwires that could trigger his impeachment. And, when Johnson fire Stanton, he didn’t just catch his toe on one of those tripwires. He kicked it out of the way and dared the boulder to fall on him.
The law was the Tenure of Office Act, and, I’m simplifying it here, but it basically prevented presidents from firing their predecessors cabinet members if the president took power during their predecessor’s term, like Johnson had when Lincoln died.
Johnson thought the law was bullcrap, and Congress would later repeal it in 1887 and the supreme court would also suggest it had been unconstitutional in 1926, But Johnson wasn’t living in 1926. He was living in 1868, and so the law was very much in play, and Johnson had just broken it.
On February 24, 1868 – three days after Johnson fired Stanton – Congress responded by charging Johnson with violating the Tenure of Office Act and voting to impeach him, 126 – 47.
And, if you’re listening to this in 2021, you might be a bit more familiar with impeachment than you were five years ago, but a quick reminder on how impeachment works. First, Congress draws up charges and votes on charges. Then, if they charges are approved, the senate is convened for a trial where a two-thirds majority vote is required to remove an elected official from office.
On February 24, impeachment crossed that first hurdle when it voted to impeach him.
On March 4, 1868, the first impeachment trial in American history – a trial that would determine if Johnson would be removed from office – began.
It would last 11 weeks.
And Johnson flew into “cover your butt” mode.
After months of verbally eviscerating republicans in congress, Johnson finally learned to keep his mouth shut and avoided saying a single bad thing about them. He met with senators – men who would determine his guilt or innocence – and promised them whatever they wanted to hear if they promised to acquit. He said he’d faithfully enforce Congressional reconstruction, appoint men they wanted in high office, and, shoot, bribe them with cash money if they wanted it. Anything to avoid going down as the first president removed from office by impeachment.
And it worked.
On May 16, 1868, Andrew Johnson survived impeachment by a single vote. Seven republicans crossed party lines to vote with Democrats for acquittal. No other presidents would be impeached until Bill Clinton in 1997, and Donald Trump in 2020 and 2021.
The presidency of Andrew Johnson had survived, but that didn’t mean he’d win another term. Four days after Johnson’s acquittal, Ulysses S. Grant was unanimously nominated the GOP’s presidential candidate at the party convention in Chicago. The democrats had no interest in nominating Johnson, despite everything he’d done for them. I have to wonder to what degree he was still, in their eyes, just a poor, former tailor’s apprentice who had risen too high above his station.
In his final year in office, Johnson didn’t exactly keep his word to the senators that he’d honorably implement Congressional reconstruction. He went right back to vetoing Congress’s laws, and Congress went right back to overriding his vetoes. On Christmas day, he issued his final and most all-encompassing pardon of former confederates, saying “every person who, directly or indirectly, participated in the late insurrection or rebellion” was granted a full pardon and amnesty, including former confederate president Jefferson Davis, whose treason trial had yet to begin.
And it may be worth noting here that, had Davis gone to trial, he planned to argue that he couldn’t have committed treason because, once his home state of Mississippi seceded, he was no longer an American citizen – an argument that would have turned his treason trial into a test case on the legality of secession. But that argument was never made because the trial never occurred.
On March 4, 1869, Andrew Johnson’s presidency came to an end. He was 60 years old.
So how had the United States changed during the nearly 4 years of the Johnson administration? Well. Quite a heck of a lot. When Johnson took office, there were 1 million union soldiers and 11 occupied confederate states. When he left office, seven confederate states had been readmitted, but the south was still under military occupation, led by generals with the power to cancel or create laws and remove or appoint public officials. The 1-milion man union army had been reduced to 57,000 soldiers, with 20,000 stationed in the south, where they contended with the Ku Klux Klan, which had been founded in 1866 to suppress African American hopes through violence.
Outside the south, one new state was added on Johnson’s watch: Nebraska on March 1, 1867, and one huge expansion of territory took place. Secretary of state William H. Seward, a holdover from Lincoln’s cabinet, negotiated the purchase of Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million in 1867. The purchase was derided as “Seward’s ice box” for decades, but the eventual discovery of gold there would prove it a savvy investment.
The United States also occupied the tiny island of Midway in the pacific on August 28, 1867. Fun fact, Midway was formed 28 million years ago by the same pacific hotspot that would later create the Hawaiian islands. It will also be the site of a major world war II battle between the United States and the Empire of Japan in 1942.
So that’s what the United States was up to during Johnson’s tenure. What about the rest of the world?
Internationally, the first transatlantic telegraph cable was laid in 1866. In 1867, a Swedish chemist named Alfred Nobel invented dynamite. He thought that by inventing something so destructive, no nation would ever wage war again, because everyone would be so afraid of dynamite’s power. But. Well. Yeah. War still happens. When a disappointed Nobel died several decades later, he ordered his fortune be set aside as a fund for the awarding of five annual prizes, quote, “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”
A civil war known as the Boshin War was fought in Japan in 1868, resulting in the end of the shogunate and the founding of that Japanese empire that would fight the United States at Midway in 1942.
In England, the first traffic signal was invented by British engineer J.P. Knight and installed outside the house of Parliament in 1868. Unfortunately, the gas-powered light exploded a month after installation, either injuring or killing a policeman and discouraging the further development of traffic lights for some time. The first red-green traffic lights will be installed in Cleveland in 1914 – America!
Oh! And yeah, remember how the French emperor had turned Mexico into a puppet state? That ended in 1867 when American-supported rebels drove the puppet emperor from power. Take that, France.
Once out of office, Andrew Johnson returned to his home state of Tennessee, where he decided to run for senate. It took a few tries, but he won in 1875 thanks to heavy suppression of African American votes. He got to celebrate his victory for a few months and was sworn in as a senator on March 5, joining the same governing body that had nearly impeached him less than a decade earlier, but his term didn’t last long. In late July, 1875, he suffered a pair of strokes when visiting his daughter and died near Carter Station, Tennessee.
So there you have it. The life, administration, and legacy of Andrew Johnson. If you’re going to know him for three things, I’d suggest, first, he’s the guy who became president when Lincoln was assassinated, and the reason he was Lincoln’s vice president is that he’d been the only southern senator to loyal to the union during the civil war; second, he presided over the first half of reconstruction, where his hatred of the freedmen made a difficult situation worse and allowed the solidification of racist systems we’re still haunted by today; and third, he was the first president to face an impeachment trial, surviving by a single vote after interfering with the senators who would determine his fate and swinging their votes with bribes and promises.
So what lessons in leadership can we learn from Johnson?
I think the lesson is that hate consumes people and it makes them blind in a way that leads to their self-destruction. And I call this a lesson in leadership because we see people harness hate to rise to power. We just talked about Johnson and how his angry and hate-fueled debate style powered his early political rise; later in American history, we’ll see Senator Joe McCarthy rise to power by accusing his hated opponents of being communists; Nixon will famously hate his opponents so much that his campaign will orchestrate the water-gate break-in to help him win an election; And there are plenty of politicians today who campaign in their primaries on the qualification of hating the other party more than their rivals do. But hatred is a fuel that burns you out from the inside. McCarthy would eventually be censured by the senate when his hate-fueled red-scare campaign went too far; Nixon will famously resign the presidency when his role in Watergate is revealed after an election he probably didn’t need the break-in to win; and Johnson was nearly removed from office when his hatred of the freedmen drove him into a politically disastrous fight with Congress. As for the political leaders of today who campaign on the qualification of hating the other party more than anyone else? Well, we’ll see where that leads them. But I suspect self-destruction is all but assured.
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The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The intro music was a recording of Isaac Brands from Smithsonian Folkway Records.
The primary biography for today’s episode was Andrew Johnson, by Annette Gordon-Reede
In our next episode, we’ll look at the life and presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, the man who will go from unemployed veteran selling firewood on the street corner, to union hero and president of the United States.
That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.