Albert Castel. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
No president ever became president under more dramatic and tragic circumstances than did Andrew Johnson. On the night of 14 April 1865, Johnson, recently inaugurated as vice president, went to bed in his hotel room in Washington, D.C. Scarcely had he gone to sleep when he was awakened by a friend who informed him that President Lincoln had just been shot by an assassin at Ford’s Theater. Johnson promptly dressed and hastened to the boardinghouse where Lincoln lay dying. He remained awhile and then left when it became apparent that the distraught Mrs. Lincoln resented his presence. At 7:30 on the morning of 15 April church bells tolled, signaling Lincoln’s death. Shortly after 10 A.M. Johnson took the oath of office as the seventeenth president of the United States.
Personal and Political Background
No president, not even Lincoln, rose from lower depths of poverty and deprivation to reach the height of that office than did Johnson. He was born on 29 December 1808 in a two-room shack in Raleigh, North Carolina; his parents were illiterate tavern servants; and he never attended school. In 1822 he became a tailor’s apprentice, learned that trade, and managed to acquire a rudimentary knowledge of reading. At the age of seventeen he moved to east Tennessee, where in 1827 he opened a tailor shop in Greeneville and married Eliza McCardle, a shoe-maker’s daughter who taught him to write and cipher.
His business prospered, but as soon as he was old enough to vote, he became active in politics, first as an alderman and mayor in Greeneville, then as a state legislator, and next as a Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives from 1843 to 1853. In 1853 and again in 1855 he won election as governor of Tennessee, and in 1857 he went to the United States Senate. By then he was a well-to-do man, owned a few household slaves, and entertained presidential aspirations.
A tireless campaigner, an unsurpassed stump speaker, and a man both shrewd and courageous, Johnson was a staunch advocate of Jacksonian democracy and the champion of the “plebeians” (the small farmers and tradesmen of Tennessee) against the “stuck-up aristocrats” (the wealthy, slaveholding planter class). He also possessed, in the words of a fellow Tennessean who knew him well, a “deep-seated, burning hatred of all men who stood in his way.” For him political combat was personal combat, and he engaged in it with uncompromising ferocity.
During the winter of 1860–1861, Johnson strongly opposed secession, both by the South as a whole and by Tennessee. Although he believed in states’ rights and defended the right of slavery, he placed preservation of the Union above all else, argued that slavery could be best protected within the Union, and denounced the Confederacy as a conspiracy by the planter aristocracy. For a while he succeeded in keeping Tennessee in the Union, but following the outbreak of war in April 1861, the state seceded and Johnson had to flee for his life to the North. His valiant struggle against secession made him the leading Unionist of the South, won him the acclaim of the North, and caused the South to condemn him as a renegade.
In March 1862, after federal forces captured Nashville, Lincoln appointed Johnson military governor of Tennessee. During the next three years he strove against great obstacles to establish a pro-Union civil government, a goal that was finally achieved early in 1865, when a new state constitution abolishing slavery went into effect. Realizing that the war doomed slavery, Johnson supported Lincoln’s emancipation policy and told the blacks of Tennessee that he would be the Moses who led them into the promised land of freedom.
Meanwhile, Lincoln, hoping to attract support from northern prowar Democrats and border-state Unionists, arranged for Johnson to be his running mate in the 1864 presidential election. Hence, Johnson returned to Washington, where on 4 March 1865 he was inaugurated as vice president. Unhappily, prior to the ceremony Johnson, who recently had been ill and was feeling faint, drank some whiskey and then delivered a rambling, maudlin, almost incoherent inaugural address. Later on, enemies would seize upon this incident to denounce Johnson as “the drunken tailor,” but there is no evidence that he habitually overindulged. As it was, he realized that he had disgraced himself and that there was little chance he would ever again play an important role in national affairs. Then came Lincoln’s assassination, and suddenly he was the most important man in the nation.
With Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox on 9 April 1865, the Civil War to all intents and purposes ended, leaving in its wake over six hundred thousand dead Union and Confederate soldiers, a devastated and demoralized South, and an exultant and dominant North. The great issue now was Reconstruction. The Union was preserved and slavery was destroyed. But by what process and under what terms would the seceded states come back into the Union? And what would be the future legal, political, and social status of blacks? Johnson faced the task of dealing with these questions; on his success or failure in doing so depended the success or failure of his presidency.
During the war both Lincoln and Congress had wrestled with Reconstruction. In 1863, Lincoln instituted in Louisiana and Arkansas a program whereby 10 percent of the voters, on taking an oath of allegiance, could form state governments and elect congressmen; once the latter were seated, these states again would be in the Union. The Republican majority in Congress, feeling that the Ten Percent Plan was inadequate and overly lenient, refused to seat the congressmen elected under it and declared that Reconstruction should be carried out by the legislative, rather than the executive, branch.
In July 1864, Congress passed the Wade-Davis bill, which disfranchised all high-ranking Confederates, required 50 percent of the voters in a rebel state to take a loyalty oath before elections could be held, and made abolition of slavery a condition for read-mission to the Union. Lincoln in turn pocket vetoed this measure on the grounds that Reconstruction policy should be flexible—that is, carried out by the president. Finally, to confuse matters even more, just before his death Lincoln hinted that with the coming of peace he might take a different approach to Reconstruction, one in which voting rights would be given to blacks who had served in the Union army or who were “very intelligent.”
Thus, April 1865 found the government without an established Reconstruction policy and with the Republicans divided over what the policy should be. One faction, the Radical Republicans, of whom Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania were the outstanding spokesmen, contended that the Confederate leaders should be punished severely, that the rebel states should not be restored to the Union until their future loyalty was assured, and that blacks should receive full civil and political rights both as an act of justice and as a means of securing Unionist (that is, Republican) domination of the South.
Another faction, the Moderate Republicans, was primarily concerned about preventing secessionist leaders from returning to power in the South and about keeping the Democrats from regaining their pre-1861 control of the government. They favored securing for blacks their basic personal and civil rights but were hesitant about granting them political rights. They were more numerous and powerful than the Radicals, particularly in Congress.
Finally, there were the Conservative Republicans, who saw no need to go beyond what the war had already achieved—salvation of the Union and emancipation of the slaves—and who therefore believed that the southern states should be readmitted quickly and that the fate of the blacks should be left to the indefinite future. Although weak in Congress, the Conservatives were strong in the cabinet that Johnson inherited from Lincoln—notably in the secretary of state, the highly experienced and astute William H. Seward. In contrast, only one influential member of the cabinet, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, was sympathetic to the Radicals.
The differences between the Radicals and Moderates were essentially ones of timing and degree, but the Conservatives had more in common with the Democrats. Bitter over their loss of national power in 1860, the Democrats wanted to bring the southern states back into the Union as soon as possible, confident that this would bring their party back to power. Moreover, having opposed emancipation, they likewise opposed “Negro equality”; as far as they were concerned, the status of the former slave should be determined by the former master.
Paradoxically, both the Radicals and the Democrats welcomed Johnson’s unexpected accession to the presidency. The latter hoped that Johnson, as a lifelong Democrat, would sympathize or even ally himself with their party. For their part the Radicals, who had considered Lincoln too conservative, believed that Johnson inclined to their viewpoint because of his frequent and vehement denunciations of secessionists as traitors who should be treated as such. Their confidence that the new president was “thoroughly radical” increased as he continued to advocate punishing the rebel leaders and when he repudiated an agreement made by Major General William T. Sherman with Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston that had the effect of leaving Confederates in control of southern state governments.
On 29 May 1865, Johnson announced his Reconstruction program in the form of two proclamations. The Amnesty Proclamation pardoned all participants in the rebellion, restored their property except slaves, and required them to take a loyalty oath. It excluded from amnesty the upper-echelon leaders of the Confederacy and all persons possessing over $20,000 in taxable property. Such people would have to apply to the president for a restoration of their right to vote and hold office.
The other proclamation dealt with North Carolina, but its provisions set the pattern for all of the seceded states except Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana, where pro-Union governments already existed. It stated that the president would appoint a provisional governor who would summon a convention to draw up a new constitution, whereupon the state would resume its normal relationship to the Union. Only those men who had been eligible to vote in 1861 and who had taken the loyalty oath could vote for delegates to the constitutional convention; in other words, unpardoned rebels and all blacks were barred from the polls, although the convention or a subsequent state legislature could enfranchise the latter if it so desired.
Johnson’s cabinet unanimously approved the proclamations, although the North Carolina one, as drafted by Secretary of War Stanton, originally left the way open for black suffrage. Taken together, they were in accordance with Lincoln’s approach to Reconstruction in that they gave top priority to reconciling the North and South and looked to the speedy return of the seceded states to the Union. On the other hand, the disfranchisement clauses of the Amnesty Proclamation had more in common with the Wade-Davis bill than with the Ten Percent Plan, and the North Carolina Proclamation showed no trace of Lincoln’s proposal to give the vote to at least some blacks.
Three interlocking motives prompted Johnson’s Reconstruction program. First, like Lincoln, Johnson wanted to restore the southern states as functioning members of the Union as soon as possible. To him this was the supreme purpose of the Civil War, whereas the future status of blacks was a secondary matter that, for both constitutional and practical reasons, should be left to the states. Second, he wished to transfer political power in the South from the planter aristocracy to the “plebeian” democracy through the disfranchisement clauses of the Amnesty Proclamation. Black suffrage, as he saw it, would thwart the achievement of this objective, because the majority of blacks, even though free, would remain economically bound to the big planters and so would be controlled politically by that class. Third, he hoped to be elected president in 1868 in his own right by promoting what he was confident most Americans desired—sectional reconciliation—and opposing what he was sure few of them favored—black equality. This approach, he believed, would lead to the formation of a new political party that would combine the moderate majority in both sections; unify and dominate the nation; and, of course, look to him as its leader.
Johnson’s proclamations delighted the northern Democrats, pleased Conservative Republicans, and relieved southerners, who had expected the worst from the Tennessee turncoat. The Radicals were disappointed by Johnson’s failure to give at least some blacks the vote and began to suspect that they were mistaken about his sentiments. As for the Moderate Republicans, they considered the proclamations satisfactory as far as they went, but worried about unrepentant rebels taking control of the new southern state governments and electing congressmen who would join with the northern Democrats to challenge Republican power nationally. Many of them also had misgivings about leaving the fate of the blacks entirely in the hands of their former masters. For the time being, both Radicals and Moderates withheld overt criticism of Johnson’s program and waited to see how it worked in practice.
Implementation of Johnson’s Program
Johnson followed the North Carolina Proclamation with identical declarations for Mississippi, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Texas. During the summer and fall of 1865, all of these states held constitutional conventions. Through the provisional governors he appointed, Johnson directed each state to nullify its secession ordinance, ratify the Thirteenth Amendment by formally abolishing slavery, and repudiate its Confederate debt. South Carolina refused to carry out nullification, Mississippi balked at ratification, and neither of those states repudiated its debt.
Aware of Republican concern about blacks, Johnson also advised—but did not require—these states to “extend the electoral franchise to all persons of color” who could read, who could write their names, or who owned real estate worth at least $250, and to enact laws “for the protection of freedmen in person and property.” By doing this, Johnson pointed out, they would “completely disarm the adversary”—by which he meant the Radicals—and greatly enhance their chances of quick readmission to the Union. It was excellent advice, but the southerners failed to heed it. The very idea of former slaves voting was repugnant to them, and they were resolved to restore by other means the “white supremacy” formerly guaranteed by slavery. Hence, none of the southern states so much as considered limited black suffrage; instead, they began enacting “black codes”—laws that provided some basic rights for blacks but had the effect, as well as the intent, of placing them in a position of legal, economic, and social subordination approaching peonage.
Nor was this all. During the fall of 1865 the South held state and congressional elections in which most of the successful candidates were men who had supported the Confederacy. Furthermore, many of the winners were ineligible to hold office under the terms of the Amnesty Proclamation, but by then, that made little practical difference. At first sparing in conferring pardons, Johnson was granting them almost automatically by the latter part of 1865. By doing so, he undermined his plan of transferring political power in the South to the “plebeian” class, but he advanced his presidential ambitions by gaining the goodwill of the former Confederate leaders, who obviously remained dominant in the South. In keeping with this alteration in his strategy, Johnson directed that lands confiscated from rebels during the war be returned to them, thereby dispossessing several thousand blacks who had been settled on them by the Union army.
Aside from Democrats and Conservative Republicans, northerners became increasingly disturbed by Johnson’s program and its consequences. They resented the election of Confederate leaders to office, they considered the black codes an attempt to restore slavery, and they were angered by newspaper reports, sometimes exaggerated but sometimes quite accurate, of violent acts committed against blacks, Unionists, and northerners in the South. To them it seemed that the southerners were not displaying proper repentance for the sins of secession and slavery, that they remained disloyal at heart, and that they were attempting to undo the results of the war.
Most Republican politicians felt the same way. Furthermore, they feared that the newly elected southern senators and representatives would, by uniting with the northern Democratic members, threaten their control of Congress. Hence, when Congress, which had not been in session since March, reassembled early in December 1865, the Republican majority barred the southern congressmen from their seats and set up the Joint Committee of Fifteen on Reconstruction, headed by Senator William Pitt Fessenden of Maine, to investigate conditions in the South and recommend appropriate legislation. In taking these actions, the Republicans signaled that they believed further Reconstruction measures were needed and that they intended to formulate them.
Congress’ rejection of the southern delegates did not surprise Johnson, as newspapers had been predicting it for sometime, but he was angered by the establishment of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, deeming it a direct challenge not only to his Reconstruction policy but also to his authority as president. In his annual message to Congress, delivered on 5 December and ghostwritten by the historian George Bancroft, Johnson sought to rally public opinion behind his program by arguing that to continue military occupation of the South or to try to impose black suffrage on it was contrary to the Constitution and to the very concept of democracy, that the sole legitimate purpose of Reconstruction was the restoration and reconciliation of the southern people to the Union, that this now had been substantially accomplished, and that all that remained to be done to complete Reconstruction was to seat the congressmen from the former rebel states.
Public reaction to the message was, on the whole, favorable, and Johnson felt confident that eventually the Republicans would be compelled to admit the southern delegates or else place themselves in the ruinous position of keeping America divided. The only significant group that openly denounced Johnson for his handling of Reconstruction was the Radicals. Johnson endeavored to counteract them by releasing a report written by General Grant on conditions in the South in which Grant asserted that “the mass of thinking men in the South accept the present situation of affairs in good faith” and by stating in published interviews that giving blacks the vote against the will of the whites would produce a race war in the South.
For a while it seemed that Johnson’s strategy would succeed. Then, early in February 1866, Congress, by unanimous vote of the Republicans, passed the Freedmen’s Bureau bill. This measure extended indefinitely the life of the Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency created near the end of the war to provide aid, education, and legal protection for former slaves. Republican leaders not only hoped but expected Johnson to sign it. Anxious to avoid a split with the president that would play into the hands of the Democrats, they had gone to him prior to its passage and offered to change anything to which he had strong objections; he voiced none and they assumed he had none.
Hence, they and Republicans throughout the nation were stunned when, on 19 February, Johnson vetoed the bill. It was, he declared, unnecessary and unconstitutional; furthermore, it had been passed by a Congress that unjustly excluded the duly elected representatives of eleven states. In totally rejecting the bill, Johnson ignored the advice of some of his advisers, notably Secretary of State Seward, that he propose a compromise. Doing this, he feared, would cost him his recently acquired popularity in the South, where the Freedmen’s Bureau was hated as the main obstacle to the restoration of white supremacy, and cause the Democrats to turn against him, thereby ruining his plan to form a new party. He realized that the Republicans would resent the veto, but he calculated that popular sentiment would oblige most of them to accept both it and his leadership.
On 20 February the Senate, by a vote of 30 to 18, failed to achieve the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto; three Moderate Republicans, hoping to forestall an open break with the president, joined eight Democrats and seven Conservatives to sustain it. Johnson exulted in the victory. Ignoring the thin margin by which it had been obtained, he believed that he had successfully defied the “Radicals,” as he indiscriminately labeled all Republicans who were not Conservatives. On the evening of Washington’s Birthday, he delivered from a White House balcony to a crowd of supporters a speech in which he excoriated his opponents in general, and Sumner and Stevens in particular, as traitors bent on subverting the Constitution and consolidating all power in the central government. So intemperate were his remarks that even friends were embarrassed, and most Northerners felt that he disgraced the presidency.
Less than three weeks later, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Designed to protect blacks against the black codes and southern white terrorism, the bill declared them citizens of the United States entitled to equal protection of the laws and conferred broad enforcement powers on the federal government. As with the Freedmen’s Bureau bill, Republican congressional leaders solicited Johnson’s views on this measure and again got the impression that he found it acceptable. In spite of the Freedmen’s Bureau bill veto and the Washington’s Birthday tirade, Moderates still hoped to achieve harmony with the president and within the Republican party.
As before, their hope proved unfounded. On 27 March, Johnson delivered another stern veto. The civil rights bill, he declared, was an unconstitutional intrusion on states’ rights and discriminated against whites in favor of blacks. No doubt he was sincere in making these assertions, but as in the case of the Freedmen’s Bureau veto, he also was motivated by his desire to retain Democratic and southern support.
The veto outraged most northerners and turned all of the Moderate Republicans against Johnson. They concluded that he had gone over to the Democrats and that in alliance with them and the southerners he was endeavoring to destroy the Republican party. Hence, on 6 April the Senate overrode the veto by 33 to 15, and three days later the House did the same by 122 to 41. For the first time, a Congress had defeated a presidential veto.
Johnson’s rejection of the civil rights bill was the greatest blunder of a presidency filled with blunders. Had he signed the bill or, as most of his advisers urged him to do, returned it to Congress with a request that its enforcement provisions be modified, he could have kept the Moderates and Radicals divided. Instead, he united them in opposition to him, thereby ruining any realistic chance of securing the early readmission of the southern states while setting in motion forces that would render him nearly impotent as president.
Meanwhile, the Joint Committee on Reconstruction had been conducting hearings and considering legislation. On 30 April—the same day a white mob began a three-day rampage against blacks in Memphis, Tennessee—the committee reported a constitutional amendment designed to make permanent the protections given by the Civil Rights Act. Two months of debate ensued, at the end of which Congress adopted the Fourteenth Amendment, which provided that all persons born or naturalized in the United States are to be citizens and that no state may “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person … the equal protection of the laws.” In addition, the amendment provided for reducing the House representation of any state denying adult male citizens the vote, disfranchised former federal and state officials who engaged in rebellion, guaranteed the Union war debt, declared the Confederate debt void, and stated that “Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”
Like the Freedmen’s Bureau bill (which, incidentally, Congress repassed in July, overriding another veto) and the Civil Rights Act, the Fourteenth Amendment was a product of the Moderates, who beat back an effort by Sumner and Stevens to incorporate black suffrage per se. By adopting it, the Republicans in effect set forth the peace terms of the North and of Congress. Should the southern states ratify it, thereby indicating acceptance of equal civil rights for blacks, they would be readmitted forthwith to the Union. Should they reject it, then (the Republicans clearly implied) they could expect much more drastic treatment.
Johnson promptly denounced the amendment and called for its defeat. All of the former Confederate states, with one exception, either rejected it or took no action. The exception was Johnson’s own Tennessee, which, under the almost dictatorial sway of Governor William (“Parson”) Brownlow, ratified it against the will of its largely disfranchised citizens. The vast majority of southerners found the prospect of black legal and civil equality intolerable. Moreover, they believed, as did Johnson himself, that northerners would not impose on their fellow whites of the South something they themselves denied blacks in most of their states.
The Referendum of 1866
On 28 July, Congress adjourned and its members headed home to engage in the upcoming congressional elections. These elections, as everyone knew, would be a de facto referendum on Reconstruction. If the Republicans could maintain or increase their majority in Congress, it would mean the North supported their policy of protecting black rights in the South; if they lost their majority or had it substantially reduced, then they would stand repudiated and Johnson would be vindicated.
Johnson sought to secure Republican defeat and victory for himself in two main ways. The first was to try to form a working coalition of Conservative Republicans and northern Democrats that would back candidates favorable to his Reconstruction policy and serve as a step toward the establishment of a new political party. To this end he arranged for the organization of “Johnson Clubs” throughout the North and the border states, and for the meeting of delegates from all of the northern and southern states in the National Union Convention in Philadelphia on 14-16 August. The Johnson Clubs tended to be dominated by Democrats, and many of the participants in the National Union Convention were prominent Copperheads and Confederates. Consequently, most Republicans regarded both moves as merely devices to trick them into voting for Democrats, and instead of gaining support, Johnson lost it.
Johnson’s other major effort to overthrow the Republicans took the form of doing something no previous president had done—making a personal campaign tour. Using as the occasion an invitation to dedicate a monument to Stephen A. Douglas in Chicago, Johnson left Washington on 28 August in a special train that carried him north to upstate New York, west to Chicago, south to St. Louis, and then back east to Washington via the Ohio Valley. Proud of his prowess as a stump orator, Johnson believed that if he could speak directly to the people, he would rally them behind his Reconstruction policy. Instead, this “swing around the circle” proved to be a political and personal fiasco. Everywhere he went, Johnson delivered virtually the same speech; before long, his audiences knew what he was going to say before he said it, and pro-Republican humorists had a field day parodying his repetitious remarks. On several occasions, notably in Cleveland and St. Louis, hecklers caused him to lose his temper, to engage in unseemly debates, and to make indiscreet statements. At Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and several other cities hostile crowds shouted him down, and Republican newspapers denounced him as a vulgar, drunken demagogue who was disgracing the presidency, accusations with which many northerners agreed. Far from persuading the northern people, he ended up disgusting them.
During September, October, and November the voters of the North went to the polls. When all ballots were counted, the Republicans had retained control of every state in the North and increased their already huge majority in Congress. Quite obviously the course of Reconstruction henceforth would be determined by Congress with little or no reference to the wishes of the president. Any chance that Johnson would be able to form a new party and succeed himself in the White House had been destroyed, although in spite of everything he would continue to harbor the latter ambition.
On 3 December 1866, Congress reassembled, with the Republicans resolved to scrap Johnson’s Reconstruction program and replace it with a new one. Reinforcing their resolve was the refusal of the ten southern states still outside the Union to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and the New Orleans riot of 30 July, in which a mob of whites massacred thirty-eight Republicans, thirty-four of whom were blacks.
All through the winter Congress debated and labored. As before, the Radicals pushed for black suffrage, whereas the Moderates held back, fearing that imposing this on the South would indeed outrage the North, where only a handful of states, all with minuscule black populations, permitted blacks to vote. Ultimately, faced with political humiliation if they did not come up with something, the Republicans united to pass the Military Reconstruction Act late in February 1867.
The act divided the ten unreconstructed states into five military districts, each under a general empowered to employ military courts and troops to maintain order and enforce federal laws; directed that conventions elected by black voters and eligible whites be held in each of the ten states for the purpose of framing new constitutions that would provide for black suffrage; stipulated that after a state had adopted its new constitution and ratified the Fourteenth Amendment it would be entitled to congressional representation; and, finally, barred from voting for, and serving in, the state constitutional conventions any person guilty of violating an oath to uphold the United States Constitution by voluntarily engaging in rebellion. In sum this was, and remains, the most drastic law ever enacted by Congress, for it placed millions of citizens under military rule in peacetime, deprived hundreds of thousands of them of political rights, and enfranchised a group that the majority of Americans at that time considered unqualified to participate in government. Nevertheless, like the Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment, it was largely a Moderate measure; Sumner, Stevens, and other Radicals criticized it because it allowed the readmission of southern states upon ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment and did not confiscate “rebel” lands for distribution to blacks.
Congress also passed two bills aimed at Johnson himself. One, which took the form of an amendment to the annual Army Appropriation Act, required the president to transmit all orders to military commanders through General of the Army Grant, whom the Republicans counted on to block or at least report any attempt by Johnson to sabotage the administration of the Military Reconstruction Act. The other measure was the Tenure of Office Act. This prohibited the president from dismissing any official appointed with the Senate’s consent without that body’s approval. Its purpose was to prevent Johnson from removing Republican officeholders and replacing them with his own supporters.
Needless to say, Johnson vetoed the Military Reconstruction Act, which he accurately described as revolutionary, and the Tenure of Office Act, which he rightly labeled an unconstitutional encroachment by the legislative on the executive branch; as for the Army Appropriation Act, he signed it only because he feared that to do otherwise would demoralize the army, but he protested against the provision requiring him to issue orders via the general of the army. And needless to say, Congress overrode his vetoes and ignored his protest. In addition, before recessing at the end of March, the House instructed the Judiciary Committee to prepare a report on the advisability of impeaching the president—a warning to Johnson to behave while Congress was away from Washington. Thus, by the spring of 1867, Johnson’s Reconstruction program had been demolished and he, so it seemed, was reduced to virtual impotence.
In spite of his defeats and humiliations, Johnson remained determined to fight on until he achieved victory and vindication, just as he had done in his struggle against secession. He believed that although most northerners, duped by Republican propaganda, might agree to civil rights for blacks, they would not support the imposition of black suffrage on their fellow whites of the South or the indefinite prolongation of bayonet rule in the southern states. Sooner or later, he calculated, the Republicans would “hang themselves” with their extreme measures as public opinion in the North turned against them. Meanwhile, until that happened, and in order to help make it happen, he would do everything he could to oppose, cripple, and discredit Military Reconstruction. He also hoped, indeed expected, that the Supreme Court would declare the congressional program unconstitutional. Already, on 17 December 1866, the Court had held in the case of Ex parte Milligan that military tribunals had no right to try civilians in areas where the civil courts were functioning—a decision that obviously had negative implications for the Military Reconstruction Act.
On 1 April 1867 an election in Connecticut resulted in the Democrats capturing the governorship and three of that state’s four congressional seats—the first Democratic victory in the North since 1864. Johnson saw this as a “turn of the current” of northern public opinion. It also encouraged him to launch an indirect but potentially devastating assault on Military Reconstruction. At Johnson’s behest, Attorney General Henry B. Stanbery prepared an interpretation of the legal powers of the district commanders in the South that, in the words of Michael Les Benedict, “virtually emasculated the Reconstruction law.” The Republicans, who had anticipated such a move, quickly reconvened Congress, which on 13 July passed a supplementary Reconstruction bill that overruled Stanbery’s interpretation on every important point. Automatically Johnson vetoed the bill, and just as automatically, Congress repassed it over his veto and then again went home, hoping that Johnson finally realized the futility of resisting its will—a vain hope.
Playing a key role in carrying out Military Reconstruction was Secretary of War Stanton. For a long time Johnson had been aware of the fact that Stanton constantly obstructed his policies, that he habitually lied to him, and that he was actively aiding the congressional Republicans. Yet he had held back from dismissing him from the cabinet out of fear of the political and personal repercussions, for Stanton enjoyed great prestige in the North because of his wartime services and possessed strong backing among the Republicans. By the summer of 1867, Johnson had decided that he no longer would tolerate Stanton’s disloyalty to his administration. Therefore, on 11 August, after failing to obtain Stanton’s resignation, he suspended Stanton from office under the terms of the Tenure of Office Act and named Grant acting secretary of war, a post Grant accepted with great reluctance, as he, too, opposed the president’s Reconstruction program and had been secretly collaborating with Congress. In addition, on 17 August, Johnson relieved Major General Philip H. Sheridan as commander of the Military District of Louisiana and Texas, where he had been pursuing a course that Johnson deemed both tyrannical and insubordinate.
As was to be expected, the Republicans reacted to Stanton’s suspension and Sheridan’s removal with anger and demands for impeachment. Johnson was unmoved, and the outcome of the autumn state elections reinforced his feeling that northern public opinion was shifting in his favor. The Democrats won in New York, New Jersey, and California; gained control of the Ohio legislature; and sharply reduced Republican majorities in several other states. In addition, the voters of Ohio, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Kansas overwhelmingly rejected black suffrage in their states. Unlike in 1866, when most Republican candidates carefully avoided the issue, in 1867 they came out in favor of granting blacks the vote in the North as well as the South. The result was that, in the blunt words of Radical Senator Benjamin Wade, “The nigger whipped us.”
When Congress convened in December 1867, Johnson announced to his cabinet, “The time for mere defense is now past and I can stand on the offensive in behalf of the Constitution and the country.” Accordingly, in his annual message of 3 December he declared that the effect of Military Reconstruction was to make blacks the rulers of whites, that this could only cause the South to sink into barbarism, and that he intended to resist the unconstitutional usurpations of Congress, “regardless of all consequences,” confident that he would be sustained by the people, as demonstrated in the recent elections.
Infuriated, the Radicals called for the House to impeach Johnson. But the Moderates, although likewise angry, stated that unfortunately there was no legal basis for such action, and after an acrimonious debate the House on 7 December defeated an impeachment resolution by 108 to 57, with 66 Republicans joining 42 Democrats in opposition. Radical leaders thereupon began deploring the “surrender of Congress” to the president, whereas one of John-son’s confidants asserted that “the President has Congress on the hip.” Further encouraging Johnson while at the same time alarming all Republicans, the case of Ex parte McCardle, involving the constitutionality of the Military Reconstruction Act, was now before the Supreme Court; on the basis of the Milligan precedent, the Court would almost surely strike down the act.
But if Radicals and Moderates differed as to the feasibility of impeaching Johnson, they did agree that he must not be allowed to displace Stanton permanently as secretary of war. If that happened, the Tenure of Office Act would become a dead letter and Johnson would be free to name a secretary of war who would cooperate with him in sabotaging Military Reconstruction, thereby threatening Republican domination in the South. Hence, on 13 January 1868 the Senate, applying the Tenure Act, rejected a request from Johnson that it concur in Stanton’s dismissal and declared that Stanton was still secretary of war.
Johnson had anticipated this action. Accordingly he had asked Grant not to surrender the secretary of war’s office without giving prior notice; in this way Johnson would have an opportunity to appoint someone else to the post so as to bring about a Supreme Court test of the Tenure Act. Grant promised, or at least permitted Johnson to understand that he promised, to do what the president requested. But on 14 January, after the Senate refused to sanction Stanton’s removal, Grant went directly to the War Department building, locked the secretary of war’s office, and turned over the key to a military aide; an hour later Stanton arrived, obtained the key, and entered his old office.
Johnson accused Grant of “duplicity” both before the cabinet and in the press. Grant heatedly denied the charge and thus the two became open, bitter enemies. Probably Grant did betray Johnson, for although he had warned Johnson that he would quit as acting secretary of war if the Senate rejected Stanton’s dismissal, he knew that the president did not expect him to do it so abruptly and in a manner that would make it so easy for Stanton to regain physical possession of the office. On the other hand, Johnson was seeking to exploit for his own purposes Grant’s prestige and popularity; and had Grant allowed him to do this, Grant would have been caught in the middle of the struggle between the president and Congress. Realizing this, Grant decided to extricate himself, even though it meant acting in a fashion that at best can be described as slippery.
Foiled in his plan to prevent Stanton from taking possession of the war office, Johnson next tried to force him out of it, his intention still being to bring about a legal test of the Tenure Act. To this end, on 21 February he appointed the adjutant general of the army, Lorenzo P. Thomas, secretary of war and instructed him to go to the War Department and demand that Stanton vacate the office. Thomas, an elderly, ineffectual type, did so twice; each time Stanton adamantly refused and Thomas went away.
The Republicans exploded with anger and joy—anger because Johnson was so brazenly defying the will of Congress and joy because he had at last given them a plausible reason to impeach and remove him from office. On 24 February the House of Representatives, by a vote of 126 to 47, passed a resolution declaring “that Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, be impeached of high crimes and misdemeanors.” For the first time in American history a president had been impeached.
Johnson’s Impeachment Trial
A special House committee drafted articles of impeachment against Johnson—that is, specific accusations of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Adopted by the House on 2 and 3 March, the articles totaled eleven. The first eight were variations on the charge that Johnson had violated the Tenure Act by attempting to supplant Stanton with Thomas; the ninth and tenth contained petty and patently absurd allegations; and the eleventh, primarily the handiwork of Stevens, combined all of the previous charges. On 4 March seven Republicans, acting as the “impeachment managers,” formally presented the articles to the Senate, which sat as a “High Court of Impeachment” presided over by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase. Two days later, the Senate summoned Johnson to stand trial beginning 13 March.
Johnson reacted to impeachment calmly. “If I cannot be President in fact,” he told his personal secretary, “I will not be President in name alone.” To defend him, he retained the services of several of the nation’s leading lawyers. Pleading the need for more time to prepare their case, they succeeded in getting postponement of the trial. In the meantime, the Republicans passed a bill that deprived the Supreme Court of jurisdiction over cases such as Ex parte Milligan. Thus, Johnson was frustrated not only in his effort to challenge the Tenure Act in the courts but also in his hope of having Military Reconstruction declared unconstitutional.
On 30 March the impeachment trial, which the president was not required to attend in person, got under way. Johnson’s attorneys argued that the Tenure of Office Act was unconstitutional; that even if it were constitutional, it did not protect Stanton because he had been appointed by Lincoln, not Johnson; that the president had not actually violated it, since Stanton obviously still remained in office; that Johnson’s attempt to replace Stanton was motivated by a legitimate desire to test the act’s constitutionality and not by criminal intent; and, finally, that since impeachment was a judicial and not a political process and since Johnson had not committed any indictable offense, the president was innocent of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The House managers, with Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts being the main spokesman, rebutted the defense’s allegations about the Tenure Act and maintained that impeachment was political in nature; otherwise, Butler sarcastically asked, how could an unfit president be removed unless he was caught “robbing a chicken house” or committing some other statutory crime?
The managers believed that the catchall eleventh impeachment article offered the best prospect for convicting Johnson. Therefore, on 16 May the Senate voted on it first. Thirty-five senators declared Johnson guilty, and nineteen declared him innocent. Since under the Constitution at least two-thirds of the senators present and voting are needed to convict a president, Johnson escaped by the narrowest possible margin. Ten days later, votes on two other articles provided the same outcome, whereupon the impeachment trial ended.
Johnson owed his escape to the fact that seven Republicans joined with the Senate’s ten Democrats and two Conservatives to vote for acquittal. A combination of factors explains why these seven “recusants” deserted their party’s ranks: they doubted the legal justification of impeachment, feared that deposing the president would ultimately injure the party, and disliked the prospect of the ultra-Radical Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio replacing Johnson, which under the presidential succession law of that time he would have done by virtue of being president pro tern of the Senate. Johnson also helped his own cause by letting it be known that if he remained in office, he would cease obstructing the implementation of Military Reconstruction and that he would appoint the politically neutral Major General John M. Schofield to be the new secretary of war—promises he kept. (Stanton resigned as soon as the impeachment trial ended.)
Today practically all historians and legal experts agree that Johnson was innocent of the charges brought against him, and in 1926 the Supreme Court did what Johnson had hoped for in 1868—it declared the Tenure of Office Act unconstitutional. On the other hand, the oft-expressed view that Johnson’s removal from office would have permanently weakened the presidency probably is erroneous. The circumstances that led to Johnson’s impeachment were both extreme and unique, whereas the forces that brought about the emergence of the “imperial presidency” in the twentieth century would have operated regardless of the outcome of Johnson’s trial. Finally, although the impeachment as such failed, it did cause Johnson to abandon his struggle against Congress’ Reconstruction program. Despite having declared that he did not want to be president in name alone, in effect he settled for exactly that.
Other Events of Johnson’s Presidency
Reconstruction was the dominant issue of Johnson’s presidency to which, both out of choice and necessity, he devoted most, sometimes all, of his attention and energy. Yet he also had to concern himself with a number of other matters that were highly important in their own right—indeed, would have held center stage under normal circumstances.
When Johnson became president, a war with France over Mexico was a distinct possibility. During the Civil War the French, then ruled by Napoleon III, flagrantly violated the Monroe Doctrine by establishing in Mexico a puppet regime headed by the Emperor Maximilian, an Austrian archduke. Initially Johnson seemed disposed to adopt the approach advocated by General Grant—namely, to tell Napoleon that unless he pulled his troops out of Mexico immediately, the United States Army would drive them out. Fortunately, Secretary of State Seward successfully asserted his control over foreign policy, something in which Johnson had no experience and scant interest. By means of skillful diplomatic prodding, Seward induced Napoleon, who was finding the Mexican intervention costly in money and men, to withdraw his forces beginning late in 1866. Once they all left, the Mexicans, led by Benito Juárez, had little difficulty overthrowing Maximilian. Thus, the greatest challenge to United States interest in the Caribbean prior to the Castro Communist takeover of Cuba was repelled. Ironically, an aggressive policy leading to war with France would have been enormously popular in the United States and would probably have assured the success of Johnson’s Reconstruction program.
Seward, who long had been an advocate of Manifest Destiny, tried to pursue an expansionist policy, hoping thereby to gain public support for the Johnson administration and to advance his own presidential aspirations. In large part because of the bitter conflict over Reconstruction, his only solid achievement along this line was the acquisition of Alaska in 1867. Early that year the Russian government, having decided that Alaska was a financial and strategic liability, instructed its minister in Washington, Baron Edouard de Stoeckl, to sell it to the United States. Seward proved more than willing to buy it, and he and Stoeckl quickly negotiated a treaty whereby the United States agreed to pay $7.2 million in gold for the territory. The treaty easily passed the Senate, 37 to 2, on 9 April 1867, but the necessary appropriation bill encountered strong opposition in the House, where many Republicans opposed it simply because they hated Johnson. Finally, on 14 July 1868, after Stoeckl discreetly bribed several key representatives, the House approved it, 114 to 43. Thus, the expansion of the United States across the North American continent, which began in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase, came to an end.
During the Civil War, Confederate warships, of which the Alabama was the most prominent, inflicted tremendous damage on northern merchant shipping. Since these raiders had been built in Britain, the United States government held the British government responsible for their depredations and demanded monetary reparation. In 1868, in an effort to settle these so-called Alabama Claims before he left office, Johnson sent a former senator named Reverdy Johnson to London, where he negotiated a treaty whereby the claims of both British and American citizens arising from the Civil War would be settled on an equal basis. It was a poor treaty, but thinking it the best that could be had, Johnson submitted it to the Senate early in 1869, only to see it rejected, 54 to 1. Two years later the United States obtained a much better settlement of the Alabama Claims.
On the domestic front the two main problems other than Reconstruction had to do with fiscal policy and the Indians of the western plains. Concerning the first, the Civil War had resulted in a federal debt of nearly $3 billion (an enormous sum by the standards of the day), the issuance of over $600 million in “greenbacks” (paper money unsupported by gold or silver), and unprecedentedly high taxes, especially the tariff. Johnson for the most part left financial policy to Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCulloch, a holdover from Lincoln’s cabinet. McCulloch generally cooperated with the Republican Congress in gradually reducing the number of greenbacks in circulation with a view to restoring a bullion-based currency.
Meanwhile, during the latter part of his presidency, when he was desperately casting about for political allies, Johnson toyed with the thought of embracing the “Ohio Idea,” a scheme popular in the Midwest that called for increasing, rather than decreasing, the supply of greenbacks in order to pay off the national debt and stimulate the economy. But Johnson held fast to his fiscal conservatism; furthermore, the Ohio Idea had more opponents than proponents, and so he would have hurt, rather than helped, himself politically by advocating it. For similar reasons he made no serious effort to counter the Republican high-tariff policy, although verbally criticizing it.
As regards the Indians, Johnson’s administration adopted a two-pronged approach: the army waged campaigns designed to pacify the hostile tribes and safeguard western settlers, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs responded to the demands of eastern reformers by endeavoring to place the Indians on reservations, where supposedly they would be protected from evil white influences and given an opportunity to acquire white civilization. Although the reservation policy fell far short of the expectations of its idealistic proponents, it was probably the most practical one the government could have adopted at that time, for the Indians’ way of life was doomed by the westward push of the American people as incarnated in the construction of the transcontinental railroad, a project nearly completed by the time Johnson left office.
Conclusion of Johnson’s Presidency
In May 1868 the Republicans, as everyone expected, nominated Grant for president on a platform that called for black suffrage in the South but discreetly avoided proposing it nationwide. Johnson hoped for and sought the Democratic nomination, believing that his fight against congressional Reconstruction entitled him to it. Most Democrats now considered him, rightly enough, a political liability, and at their convention in July nominated Horatio Seymour, a former New York governor. Although disappointed, Johnson—out of hatred for Grant, if nothing else—did what he could during the campaign to help Seymour. Grant won by 214 electoral votes to Seymour’s 80, but his popular majority was only 300,000, and even that was the result of the enfranchisement of blacks and the disfranchisement of whites in the South. Hence, early in 1869, the Republicans placed black suffrage on a permanent foundation by ramming through the Fifteenth Amendment, which stated that no citizen could be deprived of the vote for reasons of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” This turned out to be the final major measure of congressional Reconstruction, and like the first, it became law over Johnson’s futile protests.
Johnson finished his few remaining months as president in relative peace. At noon on 4 March 1869 he left the White House without, as is customary, attending the inauguration of his successor. He returned to Tennessee and soon plunged into politics, making several unsuccessful attempts to secure a seat in Congress. Finally, in January 1875, the Tennessee legislature, now controlled by Democrats, elected him to the United States Senate. On 5 March he took his seat in the Senate, thereby becoming the only former president to serve in that body. He did not serve long. On 28 July, while visiting one of his daughters in Tennessee, he suffered a stroke and three days later died. He was buried near his Greeneville home, his body wrapped in the United States flag and his well-thumbed copy of the Constitution beneath his head.
Johnson’s presidency corresponded with the first and most crucial phase of Reconstruction. Since Reconstruction was intimately linked to the highly controversial issue of the status of blacks in American life, both it and Johnson have been highly controversial also. Accordingly, historians who believe that congressional Reconstruction in general was bad and that in particular it was a mistake to grant blacks equal civil and political rights so soon after being freed from slavery portray Johnson as a heroic champion of the Constitution and true reconciliation between North and South. Historians who feel that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were necessary acts of justice and that the only thing wrong with Reconstruction was that it did not go far enough condemn Johnson as a racist villain who deserved to be removed from office. Between these extremes stand yet more historians and their judgments of Johnson; historians never have agreed about him, nor will they ever.
Even so, it seems that this can be said with certainty about the tenacious tailor from Tennessee: Few presidents faced a greater challenge than he did, and none failed more completely than he to meet that challenge successfully. There are several reasons why this was so.
First, Johnson was a southerner and a Democrat heading the government of a nation controlled by northerners and Republicans. Consequently, he miscalculated the attitudes of the North and had no sympathy for, or understanding of, the Republicans. Lincoln, had he lived, would not have suffered from such handicaps and the course of Reconstruction would have been substantially different.
Johnson lacked the moral and political authority of an elected president, yet he acted as if he possessed it. As a result, his refusal to compromise with Congress quickly dissipated the strength he initially enjoyed.
Johnson’s dedication to the Union, the Constitution, and democracy as he understood them was as sincere as it was strong; but he did not realize that the Civil War was a revolution that would not end with the defeat of the rebels and the freeing of the slaves, and he failed to see that the pre-1861 power relationship between the federal and state governments had been permanently altered in favor of the former.
Johnson, like the vast majority of American whites of his time, considered blacks inferior. Had his racial attitudes been those of Charles Sumner or of a twentieth-century liberal, possibly the story of his presidency and the outcome of Reconstruction would have been happier. But there is no evidence that racism was the sole or even the main determinant of his policies. Like Lincoln, he perceived the enormous obstacles that lay in the way of equality for blacks; he also believed, given the realities of the situation, that the status of blacks in the South would sooner or later be dictated by the whites. This belief, obviously, was not altogether wrong. By 1875, the year Johnson died, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were virtually dead. Eighty years would pass before they came to life again.
Finally, Johnson suffered from serious defects of mind and character. Although he possessed “great natural capacity,” he held “few ideas,” was “narrow-minded,” and lacked flexibility and adroitness. He also was extremely distrustful of others, tended to regard advice as tantamount to dictation, and was overly pugnacious and insufficiently discreet. At the same time, he was often indecisive and hesitant, yet when he did act, he did so hastily and without foresight. Quite likely these traits, more than anything else, caused him to commit the blunders that turned his policies and presidency into a shambles.
To sum up, Johnson quested for power all of his adult life; but when, through tragic circumstance, he gained the highest power, he proved incapable of using it in an effective and beneficial manner.