- Aug 2010
“I would impeach him, because he is such an infernal liar” -Ulysses S. Grant
On December 29th in 1808, most unfortunately, Andrew Johnson, possibly the worst President of the United States, serial liar, bully, and generally kind of a jerk, was born in North Carolina.
In many respects, Andrew Johnson was an unusual Southern politician. He grew up in poverty. He was a self-made man, a tailor with a genuine love of learning who was largely self-educated. When he entered Tennessee politics, rather than serving solely as a mouthpiece for the interests of the Southern aristocracy, he would stand up for the interests of poor whites. When the Civil War came, Senator Andrew Johnson of Tennessee did not join the Confederacy, but remained loyal to the Union. He would serve as a military governor in Union-controlled areas of Tennessee for most of the war, sometimes meddling, with questionably beneficial results, in military politics.
In other respects, Andrew Johnson was less unusual. Like most of the people he represented, poor and wealthy alike, he was a vicious racist, and would prove to be nasty and unemphatic even by the standards of his day. While he did not start out as a slaveholder, once he became a successful businessman, he bought slaves. Johnson loathed the planter class for their aristocratic ways and disdain for ordinary Southern men, but he had no problem with slavery.
The warning signs were there all along for anyone who cared to look; at his inauguration as Vice-President, Andy Johnson had overindulged at a party the night before, and attempted to treat the problem the next day by downing some brandy before his inauguration. He was visibly drunk and completely incoherent, rambling bizarrely throughout his speech. The whole thing was considered a national embarrassment, and Johnson effectively spent the next month or so in seclusion until Lincoln's murder.
After becoming President on Lincoln’s murder, Johnson would spend Lincoln’s term on wrecking the country’s politics beyond repair, supporting domestic terrorism, and poisoning the fruits of Union victory. It was initially thought by many that Johnson would be harsh on the Confederacy, as he personally despised their leaders. Indeed, Johnson originally considered prosecuting certain Confederate leaders for treason. However, there was a greater threat if you were Andrew Johnson; freedom. Johnson wanted a more equal distribution of power between whites, but no change to the racial caste system. When the Republican Party moved to protect the rights of black Americans, Johnson stood in their way. The struggles of blacks, slave and free, to destroy slavery and save the Union meant nothing to Johnson; he once told a group of freed slaves they did not understand slavery or the South.
Johnson's actions in Reconstruction were driven partly by conviction, partly by selfishness. While radicals briefly flirted with him because they thought he'd be harsher on the South, Johnson knew he was no Republican. He also realized Reconstruction was a potential political threat to him; it would benefit not only blacks but also the poor southern whites he considered his own base of support. If any substantial amount of poor whites bought into the Republican program, especially with so many Southern states not yet back in Congress, his political future might be sunk. The Republican program of activist government to advance prosperity had already proved popular in the North, so what would happen if it extended to the South? The Republican Party was dangerously strong and a threat to Johnson's own political future.
So Johnson resorted to a tried and true tactic; racebaiting. He certainly wasn't the first, and he may have been drawing direct inspiration from notorious racebaiter Stephen Douglas, but Johnson was the first to wield it nationally in the post-slavery age. His argument, best expressed in his 1866 veto messages for civil rights and Freedmen's Bureau measures, was that Republicans were using massive government overreach and taxes to take from hardworking white men to benefit the unworthy blacks. He framed a lot of this in arguments of constitutionalism and government overreach. The argument however, was coming from a man who ruled Tennessee as a dictatorial military governor during the Civil War and had supported using the power of the government to crush rebellion. He did not however, support the same use of power when it came to preventing slavery in all but name from returning. The core of the argument was about the active government specifically as a threat to the power of whites over blacks, arguing the Republicans were favoring the latter unfairly.
In making that argument,, Andrew Johnson effectively drew up the prototype for conservative opposition to civil rights and equality, the linkage of an active, just government using its power and the possibility that power would be used to aid the disadvantaged by class and race alike. Now, Johnson was actually a poor deployer of this argument in several respects. He tended to say the parts that should be quiet rather loudly, and openly displayed arrogance and contempt for his opposition. While northern whites weren't necessarily bothered by the inherent racism of it, they were angered by Johnson trying to defend the blatant injustice of the black codes in the South, and he became paired with the Southern elite acting as though they hadn't lost the war and should suffer no consequences for it. The combination of the political climate and Johnson himself prevented him from using this argument all that well. It was quickly revisited in his wake however; Liberal Republicans, in their alliance of sorts with the Democrats in 1872, employed a similar argument, seeing Reconstruction as incompatible with republican government and also, with the rise of labor movements and the continuing alignment of the Republican Party towards business interests, increasingly not seeing themselves as sharing important interests with blacks in the South. Johnson, in creating this framework, the connection between an active government and racism, had as toxic an effect on the politics of his day and beyond as John Calhoun had on those of his day.
Andy Johnson, that great opponent of treason, attempted to quickly allow the Southern states to re-enter the Union while allowing them to reimpose a form of slavery on freedmen via the black codes, and he handed land that had been confiscated for the use of freedmen back to traitors. His leniency encouraged whites to form terrorist groups, such as the first KKK, to terrorize black people. Johnson refused to move against such groups and instead encouraged them. When Congress attempted to create a land of relative political and economic equality in the South via Reconstruction, he used his power as President to obstruct them at every turn. He often lied to Congress and the public, pretending to support moderate civil rights action and then vetoing it, and attempted to set his military commanders and Congress against each other. He was manipulative but often ham-fisted about it; he tried to get Ulysses S. Grant, steadily becoming more Republican in his sympathies, out of the country on a mission and to supplant him with William T. Sherman, who was politically in line with Johnson. Sherman, however, refused to be used as a pawn against his friend Grant.
In 1866, slated to give a speech honoring George Washington, Johnson modestly talked about himself for hours and declared his Republican opponents to be greater traitors than Confederates. He then did a campaign tour for the midterms where he called for his political opponents to be hanged and compared himself to Jesus. This public display of what a vicious bully he was did not play well, and voters responded to Johnson by repudiating him at the polls in 1866. The new Republican majorities would greatly diminish Johnson's power over Reconstruction, but he had already poisoned the foundations. Congress would later attempt to impeach him, and would fail by only one vote; the Senator who cast the deciding vote was definitely rewarded through patronage by Johnson's administration, and possibly, not provably, with a direct cash payment. Johnson attempted to get the Democratic nomination in 1868, earning the endorsement of figures such as the KKK Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest, but came in second to Horatio Seymour, who would be defeated by Ulysses S. Grant.
Before leaving office, Johnson would pardon Jefferson Davis, nicely bookending his transformation from the opponent of traitors to their greatest ally. Tennessee welcomed him home, his work in defending white supremacy having made up for his sin of opposing treason. Johnson would very briefly return to the Senate before dying suddenly in 1875. He is buried in Greenville, Tennessee. His legacy is that in a rare moment in American history where radical progress for justice and equality was possible, he, in the true conservative tradition, stood athwart history and yelled “Stop!”.