The First President Johnson

And he would be Andrew or Andy as he was often called. He is  a president  that intrigues me quite  a bit, for 2 reasons. One is his North Carolina birth ( one of 2 NC presidents along with Polk) and the generally one-sided view  that we have of him. His name comes to mind as Lincoln’s tragic successor and as being the first president to be  impeached ( we would wait over 100 years for the second guess who?) and  only by  a very narrow margin fail to be removed. But the bio I read of Johnson has provided much more than those salient facts.

Author Hans Trefousse did a very good job with the life and career of our 17th Chief Executive. He devotes only  a chapter or two about the impeachment  which is appropriate since Johnson’s career was much more than that. I remember reading in Profiles in Courage, I think, about the critically ill senator who was brought into the chamber and cast the deciding vote, for the vote to convict only failed by that one vote.

One gets a much broader picture in this than that near tragic event. Even though the author calls Johnson’s presidency a disaster, he gives it fair treatment and points to  Johnson’s overall political skills, great but at times reckless oratory and steadfast devotion to preserving the Constitution as he saw fit. His lifelong heroes Jefferson and Jackson were always  close  in spirit.

The stories of his early years as an orphaned tailor’s apprentice are illustrative in explaining his defense of the poor, although he later became quite successful as a tailor and landowner, albeit with never a day of formal education. He still championed  education for his children and others.

A couple of rather unrelated things stand out for me. As with a number of presidents his family life left much to be desired. His wife Eliza was often sickly  and they were usually apart. His sons, in spite  of his best efforts did not fare well and two preceded him in death.

After reading of the twists and turns, I still am a bit confused as to the reason for his selection as Lincoln’ s running mate in 1864. He was a slaveholder and had defended it consistently. That does not square up with a President who signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It appears that Johnson’s impassioned defense of the “Union” and his service as military  governor in Tennessee overrode the slavery issue. Plus, in what later proved to be rather disingenuous he spoke of the rights of the freedmen. Later events proved that to be mere window dressing for his prejudices.

It can be safely said that the failure of the impeachment, led by Ben Butler and Thaddeus Stevens was good for the country for their case was weak and overly political. But he in a sense forced the hand of Congress by his stubborn fight against the 14th amendment and determination to restore the Southern states with as little inconvenience as possible. Had he pushed them harder when it was  opportune, right after the war ended, many of the issues of Reconstruction and racial division could well have been avoided or greatly mitigated.


May 23, 2010 - Posted by | History | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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