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 fierce devotion to the Union and was subsequently the only southern senator to remain at his post after his own state had seceded. This, it seems, was not unconnected with his having already fixed a fierce eye on the presidency. Lincoln sent him to Middle Tennessee in 1862 to serve as military governor in Union-occupied territory, where his arbitrary acts, and the colorful loyalty oaths he insisted on being sworn before him, estranged virtually everyone there. Nevertheless he had by this time become something of a hero in the embattled North, for understandable reasons.
Meanwhile the Republican party with the approach of the 1864 election was under the urgency of extending its wartime coalition as widely as it could, even to the point of changing its name to “Union.” And to the person who first thought of it, the notion of bringing in a renegade Southerner as vice-president to “balance” the ticket must have seemed a singularly bright idea. But the last thing that appears to have bothered the Republican strategists—a lapse in political practice already familiar then, and perpetuated as it has been into our own time—was whether such “balance” included any adequate qualifications for the presidency itself, should the candidate be accidentally called upon to exercise them. The drunken harangue about the power of the people, and how it had made him what he was, that Johnson bawled out at the inauguration before his escorts succeeded in shutting him up—as though he were still spell-binding the folks back in Dogpatch—was only the first chilling sign that somebody had let something out of the wrong bottle.
What Johnson proceeded to do to the people’s power after Lincoln’s martyrdom is a story only too well known. The people of the North had made it evident that the rebellion they had suppressed at such cost must be followed by something to be designated as “reconstruction,” and that some account had to be taken, however minimal, of the four and a half million blacks who had been emancipated, and who had assisted in emancipating themselves, in the course of it. Johnson responded, or rather asserted without listening, that this process, to the extent that any such thing was needed at all, was an executive function to be handled solely by him, that “restoration” (rather than reconstruction) was the only proper name for it, and that what was to be restored, as quickly as possible, was a South as little altered from what it had been as he could make it. Not to be altered in any way was “a white man’s government.”
One writer, William Brock, has argued very persuasively that Reconstruction could probably not have gone as far as it did, or achieved whatever it did achieve, had it not been for the crisis brought on by Johnson’s blind refusal to go any way but his own, and for the necessity to overturn all the mischief of presidential “restoration.”* Very possibly he is right, though one shudders at the thought of upheavals on this order, within government and out-of-doors, as a regular precondition for intelligent social change.
Andrew Johnson had at some point grandly announced to the blacks that he would be their “Moses.” But when a delegation of them, headed by Frederick Douglass, called on him for some information about the Promised Land, he told them in effect that this depended on what the white men in their respective states might decide for them. After they left, Trefousse tells us, he exploded in fury to his secretary. “Those damned sons of bitches thought they had me in a trap. I know that damned Douglass; he’s just like any nigger, and he would sooner cut a white man’s throat than not.” Edmund Morgan has recently asserted that popular sovereignty is our leading political fiction. Perhaps so. But must there not still be a way to keep the power of the people, as embodied in a president—or vice-president—from sinking to such an ebb as this?
May 17, 1990