Useful Notes: Andrew Johnson
"There are some who lack confidence in the integrity and capacity of the people to govern themselves. To all who entertain such fears I will most respectfully say that I entertain none... If a man is not capable, and is not to be trusted with the government of himself, is he to be trusted with the government of others... Who, then, will govern? The answer must be, Man — for we have no angels in the shape of men, as yet, who are willing to take charge of our political affairs." Andrew Johnson
(December 29, 1808 — July 31, 1875) was the seventeenth President of the United States (serving from 1865 to 1869)
, following Abraham Lincoln
after his assassination, and preceding Ulysses S. Grant
, and the sixth from the Democratic Party. Technically speaking, he was elected from the National Union Party (which replaced the Republicans during The American Civil War
), but historians generally count him as a Democrat. He never went to school, so he had to teach himself how to read and write. Johnson was previously a Congressman from Tennessee (serving in both houses at different points), and was the only Senator from a seceding state to stay with the Union. He was also the Governor of Tennessee at one point, and was later made the state's Military Governor during the Civil War; while holding that position he ordered slavery abolished in Tennessee in October of 1864. Johnson himself, ironically, was a former slaveowner, and the last US President to own slaves at any point in his life. Johnson freed his personal slaves on August 8, 1863, and to commemorate that event, August 8 is officially celebrated as "Emancipation Day" in Tennessee.
For the Election of 1864, Abraham Lincoln
chose Johnson as his running mate for reelection because, as the only Southern Senator left, he could broaden Lincoln's appeal in the slave states that didn't leave the Union. Johnson was expected to merely rack up a few extra votes for Lincoln and serve a forgettable term as Vice President. Then Lincoln got shot. Oops.
Being a Southerner himself, Johnson wasn't willing to penalize his own region too harshly. As such, he disagreed a lot
with the Republican-dominated Congress, vetoing many of the Reconstruction bills and amendments (which were usually passed over his veto). It didn't take long before he surpassed Andrew Jackson
's record for most president vetoes up to that point in history, and more than a few members of his Cabinet resigned in protest. Regarding civil rights for African Americans, Johnson infamously stated, "This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men."
Eventually, Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act, which stated that the president couldn't fire any of his appointees without Congressional consent. The Radical Republicans knew Johnson would see this as a challenge to his authority, and violate it just to see what happened.
He did when he fired Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, a Radical Republican raising havoc in Johnson's Cabinet. Congress then impeached Johnson, the first time in American history that the president was impeached. Also, they sold tickets to the trial
. Like Bill Clinton
many years later, the House found him guilty but the Senate acquitted him (and this time, only by a single vote). Johnson's lawyer pointed out that Lincoln made the appointment and, technically speaking, Johnson wouldn't have had to gain Congress' approval to fire him. Additionally, many of the Senators argued that the nation had gone through enough lately and that such a major change in leadership wasn't necessary. There was also the case that, since there was no Vice President (at the time, when a VP ascends to the presidency, no one was sent to replace him and thus the position was vacant until the next election), the new President would be widely-disliked president pro tempore
of the Senate Benjamin Wade, who was so far ahead of his time (he supported voting rights for women, legal support for unions, and putting limits on capitalism, all political no-no's back then) that many felt he would have been even worse. (Some cases of bribery have also been reported.) Finally, Johnson only had nine months of his term left anyway, and Ulysses S. Grant, who was openly supportive of the Radicals' agenda, was virtually guaranteed to win that year's presidential election; removing Johnson would at best have provided a needless disruption in the transition of power, and at worst could have caused Wade to break off from the main party and make his own bid for the presidency.
Johnson was allowed to complete his inherited term, but, as a result, he was largely powerless and Congress essentially had more power than the president for the next few decades of American history. In 1887, the Tenure of Office Act was repealed by Congress, and subsequent rulings by the United States Supreme Court seemed to support Johnson's position that he was entitled to fire Stanton without Congressional approval. The Supreme Court's ruling on a similar piece of later legislation in Myers v. United States
(1926) affirmed the ability of the President to remove a Postmaster without Congressional approval, and stated in its majority opinion "that the Tenure of Office Act of 1867...was invalid." (Fun fact: William Howard Taft
was the man who gave the majority opinion on that one.)
Other notable actions while in office were forcing France to get out of Mexico (which is why Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo and Mexicans basically ignore it) and signing Secretary of State William H. Seward's purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. Nicknamed "Seward's Folly" at the time, the $7.2 million purchase was considered a waste of money at the time, though the discovery of gold and, later, oil in Alaska disproved this. He vetoed adding Nebraska to the Union, but Congress overrode this. For (arguably) helping to delay equal civil rights for nearly a century, weakening Reconstruction and giving the South too much power too soon, and the scandal of his impeachment, he is generally considered to be one of the worst Presidents, though one could easily argue it's not entirely
his fault. He was reelected as a Senator from Tennessee in 1875, and died less than six months later.
Red Cloud's War, regarded as the most successful of the Indian Wars for the Native American tribes fighting against the government, was fought during his presidency.
Tropes associated with Johnson:
- The Alcoholic: Grant has a reputation for being the drunk President, but Johnson outdoes him by nearly every standard. He even showed up drunk to his inauguration as Vice President.
- Arch-Enemy: The Radical Republicans in Congress.
- Batman Gambit: So hey, President Johnson, Congress has just passed an act over your veto requiring you to gain their approval before you fire any appointees. This is obviously a scheme to impeach you, so the best thing you should do is follow along and play it safe- What's that? You say you want to fire someone anyway?
- Commander Contrarian: 29 vetos, breaking Andrew Jackson's record.
- Decided By One Vote: In his impeachment, Johnson was acquitted by one vote.
- Determinator: Was characterized as extremely stubborn, and thin-skinned to criticism.
- Embarrassing Nickname: Two. "Sir Veto", given to him by Congress opponents for the aforementioned most vetoes by a single president up until then, and "The Grim Presence", given to him for his unique ability to kill the mood whenever he entered a room.
- Golden Mean Fallacy: Johnson, being a Southern himself, was a Confederacy-Apologist, and did everything in his power to make the Southern States rejoining the union as easy as possible, note made him enemies with the Radical Republicans in Congress, who wanted massive reformations in the South before they would be allowed back in.
- History Repeats: His situation strongly parallels John Tyler: running mate for a President of the opposing party, takes office after the President's death, clashes with the President's party and narrowly survives an impeachment attempt. Indeed Johnson was warned not to "Tyler-ize" the Republican Party upon taking office, advice he ignored.
- Nerves of Steel: Early in the Civil War, Johnson's train was stopped in Lynchburg, Virgnia by an angry mob of secessionists. They invaded his cabin and one actually assaulted him. Johnson drew a pistol and coolly stood the crowd off until help arrived.
- Not Good with People: He was famously introverted and had few friends. Towards the end of his presidency, he became so isolated that he reportedly befriended two mice that lived in a hole in his bedroom. He called them his "little fellows."
- Puppet King: After breaking Andrew Jackson's record for most ever vetos, Congress pretty much allied against him and overturned his vetos fifteen times.
- Spiritual Successor: Attempted to emulate Andrew Jackson, who was also from his state. Failed repeatedly.
- Sketchy Successor: In a sense, his issues in office can be summed up as the Republican-dominated Congress seeing him as an intended rubber stamp for the policies of Abraham Lincoln, and nothing more. This meant passing laws that the Radical Republicans were oh-so-sure that the martyred Lincoln would have wanted.
- Tough Act to Follow: Have fun trying to follow up after Abraham Lincoln.
- Vindicated by History: Zig-zagged. In his time, Johnson was regarded as a failure, even by those supportive of his policies. In the early 20th Century, with the rise of "Lost Cause" historiography (hostile towards the Radical Republicans and Reconstruction generally), and the Supreme Court ruling the Tenure of Office Act unconstitutional, he started gaining in stature, with historians generally ranking him mediocre-to-good. After the Civil Rights Movement, more historians focused on Johnson's racial views and obstruction of civil rights and Reconstruction, accounting for his current reputation.
- What an Idiot: See Batman Gambit above.
- What Could Have Been: He too was targeted for assassination by an accomplice of John Wilkes Booth, but the assassin chickened out. That would mean that the President Pro Tempore of the Senate (Lafayette S. Foster) would have been the next President according to the rules of the time.
Johnson in fiction: