“Andrew Johnson: A Biography” by Hans L. Trefousse Review

Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson: A Biography

Author:  Hans L. Trefousse

Released:  1989

“I am unwilling, of my own volition, to walk outside of the Union which has been the result of a Constitution made by the patriots of the Revolution… So far as I am concerned, and I believe I may speak with some degree of confidence for the people of my State, we intend to fight that battle inside and not outside of the Union, and if anybody must go out of the Union, it must be those who violate it.”

It’s amazing to think how different U.S. history could have been if Andrew Johnson did not replace Hannibal Hamlin as Vice President for Lincoln’s second term. I’m still working my way through Presidential biographies chronologically, so it was a bit jarring going from who many consider to be the best president ever (Lincoln) to arguably the worst president: Andrew Johnson. I knew by reputation that Johnson was not well regarded as a president, primarily being famous as the first president to be impeached. However, I went into this with an open mind as history had showed me that the southern presidents prior to the Civil War (Polk, Tyler, etc.) had come across much better than the northern presidents (Pierce, Buchanan, etc.) as they tended to compromise more toward the historically correct position of being anti-slavery. On top of that, Johnson was the only southern Senator to not support secession, and was as firmly pro-Union as any northern man. I mean, just read that quote at the top of the review. From his humble beginnings and thrust into the ultimate no win situation, this should have been a no-brainer for an all time great president. However, upon further reading, Johnson was as bad as his reputation suggests, at least once he actually made it to the oval office.

Born into – Along with Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson has the best origin story of any president. Born in North Carolina, and not the eldest son, his parents were humble; they were employees not owners of businesses. On top of that, Johnson’s father died when he was young and there were even rumors that his siblings had different parents. Andrew Johnson was never sent to school, instead he was placed in an apprenticeship with a tailor. Johnson began this apprenticeship and got training but left before fulfilling the full seven year contract. (The long contract was standard for the era, but was also very advantageous for the tailor and a hardship for the actual apprentice.) 5 out of 5.

Pre-president – After ditching out on his apprenticeship, Johnson moved to Tennessee, where he (of course) worked as a tailor. In the developing state, he was very successful and also had a knack for profiting from his business and investing in other properties. Politically, Johnson began more as an Independent, with leanings both toward what was then the Whig and Democrat parties. Johnson began his political career as an Alderman, then ascended to town Mayor. After that he progressed to State representative and then State senator. After voting against Democrats on railroad issue early in his career, he lost his only election of his pre-presidential career and became a strictly party lines Democrat for years afterward.

Johnson’s areas where he stood out voting included going against daily prayer and the 3/5 compromise. It wasn’t that Johnson was against religion or supported black rights (he owned 8 or 9 slaves), but stemmed from his belief in small government not spending time or money on non-essential issues and his understanding that the compromise hurt the white population that didn’t own slaves in mountainous regions. Likewise, Johnson voted (unsuccessfully) in Congress to have Chaplains paid from donations from Congressman instead of through budget. Johnson’s Political views were very similar to Jefferson’s, but less evolved from those ideas than other Democrats of his era. He regularly voted against internal improvements, raises for the military, or furnishing the White House, but would make exceptions if it benefitted his home state.

Altogether Johnson served ten years in the House of Representatives, never being defeated.
He clashed with James Polk even though both men were from Tennessee. Johnson viewed Polk as part of the aristocratic politicians that stood off from common men like himself. Johnson was very proslavery, making very racist remarks on routinely on the Congress floor. He did make a similar proposal to Henry Clay’s compromise of 1850, also encouraging harsher enforcement of Fugitive Slave Act and leaving some territories up to themselves as to whether they would have slavery.

The major issue Johnson promoted in congress was the Homestead Act, which attempted to give free land to those willing to cultivate it (160 acres per person). Eventually got it passed in House but not the senate. After his position as Representative was taken away by gerrymandering his district out of existence, he ran for Governor and was elected (unlike Lincoln, Johnson was very successful in pre-presidential elections). As Governor supported consistent positions as he did as Congressman, which continued to alienate some (particular his views on the 3/5 compromise). However his power was very limited under the Tennessee constitution, basically just allowing for making advisory speeches and appointing individuals for military and prison duty or casting pardons (which he did liberally).

After being governor, he ran for and was elected Senator where he continued to promote the Homestead bill unsuccessfully. The major issues of the day were slavery and secession, and Johnson quickly distinguished himself by making powerful pro-Unionist speeches. (Seriously, how great is that quote at the top.) His reasons for siding with the union instead of secessionists were threefold. First, he idolized Andrew Jackson, who was very pro-Union. Second, he still wanted to promote the Homestead Act, and those against it were primarily southerners who he didn’t get along with anyway. Perhaps most importantly, because he was not likely to advance in a southern states government, he could instead stand out by being a southerner who supported the north.

When everybody else in the south seceded, he stayed on as senator. Lincoln soon appointed him to serve as military governor of Tennessee which was very split between unionists and confederates. He took strong unionist policies to the position, which helped his political standing in the North but alienated him in much of his own state. Gradually he shifted his position from “the constitution is the only thing protecting slavery” to “if slavery is destroying the Union than slavery must too be destroyed.” As military governor his main responsibilities were enforcing laws and overseeing security. Routinely Johnson would require individuals in government to pledge themselves to the Union or face incarceration. When elections were held, if secessionists were elected over unionists, Johnson would uphold the election, then require them to make an oath to the union. When they refused he would incarcerate them and vacate the office.

Johnson had presidential aspirations since 1852, and it appeared his road to White House would be easier as Lincoln’s V.P. than as a competitor. Lincoln switched from V.P. Hannibal Hamlin to Johnson out of fears the election would be closer Lincoln won in landslide victory, however Tennessee’s votes were so illegitimate (oaths were required by people to the Union party to take part in the government and Democrat soldiers protested election as a result) that the state’s votes weren’t even counted in the final tally. His only act as Vice President was showing up drunk to the inauguration, which was compounded by an illness he was dealing with. The author indicates that while Johnson was drunk from time to time, few people considered him a drunkard and it appeared that was the only incident in his political career where alcohol cast an aspersion on him. 4 out of 5.

Presidential career – Johnson Performed better while being sworn into office under the very difficult circumstances of following Lincoln’s assassination. He immediately gave some encouraging words to others present and cast the illusion of a man ready for the moment. He kept Lincoln’s existing cabinet despite pressure by others to replace them. He even gave Mary Lincoln weeks to grieve and collect herself before she moved out of the White House and he moved in. The war was over, however the last southern troops didn’t even surrender until Johnson was in office. Although Lincoln did not have a public plan for reconstruction, but it is a certainty that Johnson approached the process differently than Lincoln would have. For starters, Johnson still had many southern prejudices, including being firmly against suffrage for blacks (which he began by phrasing it as being an issue that should be left to the states) and supported a program to relocate them to Mexico or elsewhere out of country.

Some contemporaries and many historians believe that in 1865, the southern states would have agreed to Black suffrage or any sort of conditional enfranchisement as a condition to reinstatement to the Union, however Johnson preferred otherwise. Instead of waiting for Congress to help organize reinstatement of southern states at their next session, Johnson began reconstruction by executive order. First he appointed governors in the southern states, and conditioned their new status in the government on the minimal conditions that the states ratified the 13th amendment and repealed secession articles. Johnson’s governors came from different parties but were all currently unionists, although at least one had held office in a confederate state.

Johnson’s overall policy in directing reconstruction was both consistent with his love of Andrew Jackson/Thomas Jefferson state’s rights republicanism, and his own prior success at promoting himself with the opposition in an attempt at future political success (in this case, reelection in 1868. An early indicator of Johnson’s view of reconstruction was when he used executive order to give lands in possession of freemen back to the rebels. He also pardoned Confederate criminals liberally, up to and including the Vice President of the confederacy. Johnson did everything he could to prevent black suffrage. He vetoed bills allowing blacks to vote in Washington D.C., or that tried to give additional resources to the Freedmen Bureau. He indicated he was vetoing these bills because the southern states were not yet represented in Congress. Likewise, he fought to obstruct the 14th Amendment throughout his time in office. Johnson’s view towards blacks was apparent from his frequent use of racial slurs and descriptions while in office. Even when welcoming a black reporter from New Orleans and asking him to stay for dinner, he made him eat in a room by himself. His overall policy seemed to be that any enfranchisement for the black race must therefore by coming at the cost of disenfranchisement for the (superior) white race.

Perhaps sensing the growing gap between himself and the party that elected him (the same party that had won the war), at one point Johnson tried to organize a convention for a new political party. As a result, of that and his shift in policies from Lincoln’s Republican platform three members of his cabinet resigned. Johnson also took the unusual step to give stump speeches while traveling, which was unheard of by presidents and considered undignified by many. The speeches also provided plenty of opportunity for his opponents to steer the discussion to things they were unhappy with. Impeachment talk began much before actual impeachment proceedings were instigated. The general charge leveled against Johnson was that his discharge of property and positions through reconstruction rose to a criminal level.

Johnson cleaned house a few years into his Presidency, mainly through generals and commanders, all the way up to his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton who he attempted to replace with Ulysses S. Grant. Stanton was in fact conspiring against Johnson in many ways. Johnson then immediately did not trust Grant, who supported the 14th Amendment as well as banning confederate officers from holding office. Renewed interest in impeaching Johnson began around this time. The House of Representatives even tried to impeach him once prior to their successful attempt, and it was constantly speculated about. (The impeachment process works as follows: the House of Representatives needed 2/3 votes to impeach, then the Senate needs 2/3 to convict).
Stanton was then returned to his position by Congress as it was alleged that his firing violated the Tenure of Office Act. After this took place, the President was finally impeached for 11 separate articles of charges. Nine of them dealt with the removal of Stanton from his position, with the final two alleging Johnson “brought Congress into disrepute via speeches given” and “denying the laws of Congress regarding states not currently represented.”

Throughout the impeachment hearings, Johnson stayed out of it on the advice of his lawyers (who he didn’t agree with). For as awful of a president as Johnson was, the actual grounds for impeachment were not very strong. The crux of it was the Tenure of Office Act which protected Stanton’s job. However, it did not seem that the law should have applied to Johnson as he was not the one who appointed Stanton (Lincoln had), and the Act did not protect individuals from newly elected officials (successor presidents). At the very least, it seemed Johnson had a good faith legal argument for his position. The Senate correctly did not convict Johnson on each of the first three articles and then abandoned the proposition all together at that point. The end of Johnson’s term in office was largely uneventful, except for the massive pardons he continued to issue. This included confederate president Jefferson Davis.

The two sole successes of the Johnson administration are as follows: Johnson oversaw the purchase of Alaska and Midway Island, neither of which was given credit at the time for the resources would provided to America. Surprisingly,the impeachment proceeding is Johnson’s other great contribution to American history. Had the Senate followed through on convicting Johnson, it would have had a chilling effect on the checks and balances system in America. Essentially, removing an unpopular president from office for not agreeing with the majority of individuals in office was the real basis for the impeachment.

Vice president – In the great tradition of John Tyler and Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson held office without a vice president. 1 out of 5.

First lady – According to a family story, Eliza fell in love with future husband Andrew at first sight. The two had different very personalities, but stayed married for 50 years and had 5 kids together. She never traveled when he did except for when they went to live in the White House, and while there where she rarely made appearances. She was educated, and helped him with further education, although Johnson could read and write already (though not well) prior to being married. Eliza had ill health through the presidency, so it fell to daughter Martha to take care of the hosting duties typical of First Lady.

I noticed two scandals with Johnson that would not be a huge deal in modern days but stand out in reading early biographies. Early on in his presidency there was a small scandal involving a woman named Lucy Cobb who was alleged to have been trading secrets with Johnson or possibly having a sexual affair with him. When it happened it didn’t get a lot of traction but later on it was brought up as part of attacks on his character. After he was president but again when he was seeking office, there was another woman (Emily Harrell)who was rumored to be sexually involved with him. That woman ended up killing herself. Through 17 presidents, the closes I’ve gotten to a sex scandal was Andrew Jackson’s wife possibly still being married when he married her. To go from that to a allegations of two infidelity with two women seemed shocking. 1 out of 5.

Post presidency – Johnson did not like Grant based on his dealings with him during the Stanton debacle, and by the time Grant was elected president he would never change his mind about him. Johnson took the unusual step of following John Quincy Adams’s lead and did not attend Grant’s inauguration (every other president that had previously been able to attend, had). Johnson did not waste time once he back to Tennessee; he immediately began making speeches and pulling strings to orchestrate a possible Senate campaign. He ended up running but was not selected to hold office (it was not a popular vote but was decided by state officials at that time). When that was unsuccessful, he then ran for House of Representatives and came in a disappointing third place by a significant margin. Johnson’s presidential actions had angered the republican elements while not making enough favors with the south to have a base to support him.

Oddly enough, a years old controversy involving the execution of Mary Surratt (one of the individuals hanged in relation to the Lincoln assassination) resurfaced at this time. One of the officials involved alleged that Johnson ignored paperwork that could have stayed Surratt’s execution. Johnson wrote a persuasive reply to these allegations that was lauded by the press and other politicians. Around this same time another opening for the Senate came up in TN, and Johnson was able to parlay his new support (and his pledge to be more moderate) into attaining this seat. While there he once again showed his disdain for the current reconstruction trends supported by Grant. He had further political goals, including another run for President, but he had a stroke while visiting his daughter and passed away.

Book Overall – I was surprised to see this book was written in 1989 and would have guessed closer to 1950 based on the writing. While very competent and fair when discussing its subject matter, the institution of slavery got a fairly old fashioned write up by Mr. Trefousse. I understand using the language of the era, referring to it as “our peculiar institution” frequently. Likewise, any direct quotations about race, no matter how racist or disgusting, provide insight into the men being discusses as well as any facts. However, when discussing Johnson’s own slave owning experience it was laughably rose colored. The only stories about Johnson’s slaves involve their love and respect for the master and his joy of playing with their kids. While Johnson owned 8 or 9 slaves all together, never selling any of them, the biography indicates he did dispose of a 13 year old boy but doesn’t explain how. (The citation in the book points to a Speech against Johnson that was pointing out Johnson’s anti-negro views… seems like a pretty important detail to overlook without explanation.). Likewise, despite 350 pages of preface beforehand about his racist views, the author drops a detail that Johnson would talk walks with his black companion after he was president, with no discussion as to who the companion was, male or female, young or old. (Once again the citation was no help. The footnotes provide citations to original texts but no elaboration.)

That issue aside this book did a nice job of explaining the origins of a man who followed a great president with almost no prior elected experience.  Despite Johnson’s experience at nearly every level of government and five years of head start from Lincoln on how to handle this problem (of which Johnson was there for one of them), Johnson screwed up reconstruction by focusing entirely on minimizing the impact of the Civil War by any means necessary.  If Johnson had his way, the south would have been represented and back to normal with minimal societal changes within months of the Treaty of Appomattox.  While his big picture idea of the states never having really seceded was in line with Lincoln’s position, his lack of an ability to adapt (which Lincoln had) rightfully frustrated Congress to no end.  4 out of 10.

4-star

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