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Why Andrew Johnson Couldn’t Redeem Himself

By Jack Kaufhold
4/6/2016 • Civil War Times Magazine

Most of us remember Andrew Johnson as an interesting historical footnote —the first United States president to be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” as stated in the Constitution. But Johnson’s only “crime” (apart from infuriating his political opponents) was to repudiate the questionable Tenure of Office Act in an attempt to dismiss his fractious and insubordinate secretary of war, Edwin Stanton.

To be sure, Johnson’s political enemies charged him with a multitude of sins ranging from pardoning “notorious traitors” to simply “defying Congress.” Eventually, all the charges were proved false and the president was acquitted. But why was such bile directed toward Johnson in the first place?

From his youth, Andrew Johnson demonstrated three great talents: public speaking, honest leadership and getting under people’s skin. Johnson often participated in the rough-and-tumble practice of “stump speaking.” He was adept at rough language, and would immediately fire back epithets to hecklers. That behavior came naturally to the North Carolina native, who emerged from beginnings at least as humble as President Abraham Lincoln’s.

Johnson’s parents moved the family to eastern Tennessee in 1826, when Andrew was 8. The future president grew up in poverty, and he developed a lifelong devotion to the cause of poor and working-class people. More often than not, Johnson took the unpopular side of a cause in direct opposition to politicians of aristocratic lineage. Such tactics, of course, did not exactly make him popular with well-bred politicians of any political party.

During his third term in the U.S. House of Representatives, which began in 1847, Johnson denied Congress’ power to pave the streets of Washington, D.C., and opposed spending money for a monument at the grave of former President John Quincy Adams. He even went so far as to advocate reducing funds for presidential portraits in the White House. Later, as chairman of the House Committee on Public Expenditures, Johnson continued his crusade for economy by advocating, among other measures, a reduction by one-fifth of all federal salaries over $1,000 and seeking to ensure that federal employees actually worked the required eight-hour day.

Despite—or perhaps because of— such stands, Johnson was popular with the people. He was elected to five terms in the House of Representatives. The masses in Tennessee believed Johnson would defend their rights, serve an honest term and speak his mind no matter who was offended. The Nashville Union praised Johnson as “a man for the people and of the people, pure in patriotism and unsullied in honor.” With such widespread support, Johnson was elected governor of Tennessee in 1853.

Following two terms in the governor’s mansion, Johnson was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1857. It was from that perch that he took his most controversial stand. In December 1860, as the prospect of civil war loomed over the country, Johnson defied fellow Southerners and spoke against secession. “I am unwilling, of my own volition, to walk outside of the Union which has been the result of a Constitution made by patriots of the Revolution,” he told the Senate.

As if this were not enough, the senator repeated his theme the next day with typical Johnsonian vigor. “South Carolina,” he asserted, “has put herself in an attitude of levying war against the United States….It is treason, nothing but treason and if one state can go out of this [Union] without regard to the effect it is to have upon the remaining parties to the compact, what is your government worth?”

Reactions from other Southerners were swift and predictable. The senator was called “Toady” Johnson, demonstrations ensued and several Tennessee counties passed resolutions proclaiming that their senator misrepresented their views. Lifelong supporters turned against him, and in Memphis he was burned in effigy. While returning by rail from Washington to Tennessee after the surrender of Fort Sumter, Johnson was confronted by a mob that entered his railroad car at Lynchburg, Va. He was well prepared, however, and drew a pistol to defend himself. Railroad officials finally brought the rioters under control, but Johnson’s troubles were not over. On reaching the Tennessee state line at Bristol, he faced another angry crowd that threatened to lynch him. Unwilling to have a martyr made of the Unionist senator, Confederate President Jefferson Davis reportedly intervened and had Johnson’s train hurried along.

But Johnson’s stand was as popular in the North as it was unpopular in the South. He was hailed as a hero when he returned to Washington on June 21. A military band serenaded him at his hotel, Democrats spoke of him as the next president and Republicans sought his support. He was soon summoned to the White House, where Lincoln listened earnestly to the senator’s ideas. Johnson had been the only Southerner not to resign his seat in the U.S. Congress, and in 1862 Lincoln appointed him military governor of Tennessee. As Johnson’s star rose and he gained favor with the president, he became a major factor in the presidential election of 1864. The possibility of nominating a Southerner and War Democrat as vice president became increasingly attractive to Lincoln and his supporters. On the second ballot, Johnson was named the president’s running mate, which helped Lincoln gain re-election.

On April 14, 1865—Good Friday— Vice President Johnson was awakened at 10:15 p.m. by a loud knock at his door at Kirkwood House, where he was boarding. Former Wisconsin Governor Leonard J. Farwell, a fellow boarder, had just returned from Ford’s Theatre, and told Johnson the tragic news— President Lincoln had been shot. By 7:22 the next morning, the president was dead. Andrew Johnson became the 17th president of the United States.

Andrew Johnson in Office

Johnson began his term with several strikes already against him. First, he was replacing a beloved and martyred president, and second, he was facing a Congress already hostile to his policies. Unlike many presidents, Johnson had no “honeymoon” period and was immediately thrust into controversies about Reconstruction, the process of rebuilding the Union. The new president quickly appalled Radical Republicans in Congress by claiming the right to return the Southern states into the Union under his own authority, and to offer amnesty to Confederate insurgents.

“Is there no way to arrest the insane course of the President in Washington?” wrote the acerbic Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, a Radical leader, in June. By the time Congress met in December, Johnson had already alienated many key figures. Although the Radical Republicans constituted only a minority of Congress, Johnson stubbornly refused to reach out to more moderate Republicans. For the new president, any deviation from his own firmly held ideas on Reconstruction was unthinkable.

In February 1866, Johnson managed to anger both houses of Congress by refusing to sign the Freedman’s Bill, to which he objected largely because it substituted military jurisdiction for civilian law in the South. During the early months of 1866, the president vetoed bill after bill. Newspaper accounts dubbed him “Sir Veto,” and public confidence in his abilities began to dwindle.

To counteract the negativity, Johnson decided to take his case to the people with a series of trips and speeches. He took General Ulysses S. Grant, Admiral David G. Farragut and Cabinet members William H. Seward and Gideon Welles along with him, presumably to lend credence to his views. Unfortunately, the trip turned into a public relations nightmare when the president fell into his old stump-speaking style. The talks turned vicious as Johnson delivered harangues about “Thad Stevens and his gang.” Civility broke down completely as the president responded in kind when hecklers cried, “Shut up, Andy!” and “You be damned!”

As the year wound down, the public’s mood remained tense, the anti-Johnson camp continued to grow and whispers of impeachment began. Johnson’s outbursts even frightened his friends. They advised him to refrain from being drawn into any more extemporaneous speeches that played into the hands of his enemies, but the president did not desist. After a speech in Illinois, the Chicago Tribune labeled his interplay the “crowning disgrace in a disreputable series.” All that was lacking for impeachment to begin was a solid legal cause. A cause was soon suggested.

Early in 1867, Representative James M. Ashley of Ohio introduced a congressional resolution to impeach Johnson for high crimes and misdemeanors. Specifically, Ashley charged Johnson with the usurpation of power and “violation of law by corruptly disposing of the property of the United States”; improperly using the appointing, pardoning and veto powers; and “interfering in elections.” In accordance with procedure, the House referred the resolution to the Judiciary Committee.

The Judiciary panel examined all allegations and, five months later, voted to adjourn for lack of evidence. Buoyed by the committee’s vote, Johnson continued his pugnacious ways. In August, he decided to challenge the Tenure of Office Act.

Passed the previous year, the act was designed specifically to weaken his presidential powers by curtailing the chief executive’s right to remove or dismiss any officers who had been approved by the Senate. Previously, presidents had retained the right to dismiss anyone in the government or military service without seeking the permission of Congress.

In truth, the legality of the act was questionable and needed to be reviewed by the Supreme Court. Johnson’s challenge to the act concerned his feud with Edwin Stanton. Johnson learned through other Cabinet members that Stanton was undermining his policies and making disparaging remarks about his administrative capabilities. With that in mind, Johnson decided to dismiss the war secretary. Stanton, citing the Tenure of Office Act, refused to resign.

But Johnson did not stop there. In the ensuing weeks, he removed three high-ranking military governors from their positions—George H. Thomas, Philip H. Sheridan and Daniel E. Sickles. That further angered the president’s enemies, and after months of jousting between Johnson and Stanton, the question of impeachment was once again raised. By a count of 128 to 47, the House voted to impeach. A committee was organized to draw up specific charges.

Although the unprecedented ensuing trial was an indignity to the president, Johnson for once maintained his calm and discharged his presidential duties with spotless deportment. He entertained foreign dignitaries at the White House, made no inflammatory speeches or comments to the press and remained at home during the trial as his team of attorneys handled the case.

Finally, after three months, the day arrived for the Senate to vote on the resolution of impeachment. Thousands of people flocked to the Capitol, and tickets to the Senate gallery rapidly ran out. At exactly noon, May 16, 1868, Chief Justice Samuel P. Chase took his chair. There was absolute silence as the roll was called and the votes were orally cast. As expected, the voting followed strict party lines—except for seven Republicans who resisted party pressure and voted for the Democratic president’s acquittal. Those seven votes made the difference. The final vote was 35 to 19—exactly one vote short of the two-thirds necessary for conviction.

Johnson’s Legacy

Although Johnson had been acquitted, his power, popularity and reputation were greatly diminished. When the Democratic presidential convention met in July 1868, the incumbent president was not even nominated to run again. The convention’s pick, former New York Mayor Horatio Seymour, was defeated in the presidential contest by Republican Ulysses S. Grant.

When Johnson left office in March 1869, it marked the first time in 30 years that he did not hold public office. But when he returned to Tennessee for his imposed retirement, Johnson had no idea of the turmoil yet to come his way.

As the ex-president toured the state on a speech-making trip designed to renew his old political contacts, disaster struck. His eldest son, Robert, who had battled alcoholism most of his life, committed suicide. The bereaved Johnson quit his tour and returned to his home in Greeneville.

By the end of the summer, Johnson had sufficiently recovered from his grief to run again for the U.S. Senate. The controversial ex-president led the early voting for the nomination, but his old enemies remained active, and in the final tally he lost the nomination by four votes.

In 1872, Johnson decided to try again for Congress. But his luck was still running bad. Although never known as a womanizer, Johnson was accused of having an intimate relationship with his neighbor’s wife, Emily Harrell. Although the charges were subsequently proved false, the disgraced Mrs. Harrell committed suicide. Johnson pressed on with his campaign, but he ended up finishing a distant third and even lost the vote in his home county.

The following year, Johnson—fast becoming a modern-day Job—suffered yet another affliction. During the summer, a cholera epidemic struck Tennessee, and the ex-president was taken ill. At the age of 65, he was not considered strong enough to survive. Johnson himself thought the end had come. He made his farewells to family members and prepared for the worst. But amazingly, he recovered.

Johnson felt he had literally been given a new lease on life, and he made the most of it. In 1874 he decided to make a final stab at winning a Senate seat. His old enemies surfaced with more charges from his presidential days, and he was attacked by leading national newspapers. The New York Times complained that it was “not pleasant to see the only living ex-president racing around the country after a job he is not likely to get.”

This time, however, fortune smiled on Andy Johnson, and after his eight years in exile, the state Legislature voted on January 26, 1875, to return him to the Senate. For once, Johnson was nearly speechless. Hearing the good news, he stammered, “Well, well, well, I’d rather have this information than to learn that I had been made President of the United States. Thank God for the vindication.”

It was to be Johnson’s last triumph. When the Senate adjourned in the spring after a special session, he delayed returning home for a much needed vacation. Restless as ever, he decided to make a political swing through Ohio. On the way, he suffered a stroke at his daughter’s home in Carter County, Tenn., and on July 31, 1875, just six months after his vindication, Andrew Johnson was dead.

Adapted from Personality: Andrew Johnson, originally published in the May 2001 issue of America’s Civil War.

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