Reconstructing Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson: A Biography

by Hans L. Trefousse
Norton, 463 pp., $25.00

In observing that Hans Trefousse’s biography makes painful reading, I don’t mean to overlook its many merits. It is the most exhaustive, scrupulous, and meticulously documented treatment of Andrew Johnson’s life and career that has yet appeared in the 115 years since the seventeenth president’s death. But “merits” in the interests of whom, and what? Perhaps of something largely unintended by the biographer himself, commendably preoccupied as he was with being fair and understanding toward his all-but-impossible subject. It might well serve, rather, as a piece of instruction on certain dim aspects of our whole political landscape past and present, of which this particular subject is only an instance, however unsettling. Any unfriendly nineteenth-century foreign observer intent on exposing the worst features of American democracy could hardly have been better armed than with such an account, of such a career, as we read here. And it might provide one more warning, if our history had not given us enough already, that we might do well to reconsider the criteria on which we customarily choose our vice-presidents.

Andrew Johnson’s progress from a tailor’s bench to alderman in 1829 in his home village in antebellum East Tennessee, to mayor, state assemblyman, state senator, congressman, governor, and, in 1857, United States senator, was the self-propulsion of a personality pinched, bigoted, and ignorant: functionally literate but scarcely more, obsessed with himself to the point of monomania, in undeterred pursuit of “vindication” for something or other all his life, and surrounded on all sides by imaginary enemies. Of direct evidence for tenderer sentiments, even toward his own family, there is scarcely a shred. His animosity toward “non-whites,” his biographer regretfully concedes, was so ingrained that he “was never able to shake [it] off”—forbearing to conjecture whether it ever entered his head to try. His one supreme gift was the inexhaustible voice of the demagogue whose sole professed devotion was to the true people, and against this the isolated white population of the Tennessee mountains, starved for diversion, had little immunity.

In legislative councils this devotion, and any vision of a higher public good, were measured by an inherent mean-mindedness that opposed the spending of money for almost anything. Johnson set his face against appropriations for internal improvements of any sort, for raising the salaries of impoverished government clerks, for acquiring the papers of James Madison or the original manuscript of Washington’s Farewell Address, for paving the streets of Washington, for the support of the Smithsonian Institution, or for erecting a monument at the grave of John Quincy Adams. When an explosion on the USS Princeton caused a number of deaths and a bill came up for the relief of the victims’ families, he voted against that too. His single great crusade in favor of something was for a Homestead Bill—an abstraction which, when eventually enacted, proved of limited benefit to anyone.

Johnson’s hour of celebrity arrived with the onset of secession, when he announced his …

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