Leave a comment

Tyranny and despotism can be exercised by many, more rigourously, more vigourously, and more severely, than by one. Andrew Johnson

It is plain that an indefinite or permanent exclusion of any part of the country from representation must be attended by a spirit of disquiet and complaint. It is unwise and dangerous to pursue a course of measures which will unite a very large section of the country against another section of the country, however much the latter may preponderate.        Andrew Johnson

American history is full of unintended consequences and almost invariably the genius of compromise exercised in one generation collapses to created the almost insurmountable crisis of the next. The abolitionists as a political force had about as much political power as their philosophical fellow travellers the transcendentalists – which is to say that they may have been a big noise in New England but received little more than lip service anywhere else and, like most social reformers, were unceremoniously shown the door if they interfered with profits.

Along comes Lincoln – servant of the railroads – which, of necessity, made him a nationalist. But the railroads are not trusted because of too many sharp practises and too many bankruptcies on short lines. There is no way their “candidate” could hope for more than a Senate seat and Lincoln had already lost that race to Stephen A. Douglas so the next best thing is the presidency. Here is Lincoln, the true political animal, at work. Commandeer the new Republican party, wrap yourself in the flag of “freedom” and get the highly organized cadre of abolitionists working for you and then – even though you are not on the ballot in 10 Southern states – squeak out an electoral victory with a mere plurality of the vote.

Then comes Lincoln’s failed presidency. A disastrous war, near national bankruptcy and probably a few too many backhanders to salvage both. The chances of Lincoln – who was no starry-eyed optimist believing in true equality in the American political system for freed blacks – leading a union “restored” by the Civil War were between slim and none. Elements of the radical Republicans who cynically saw using the votes of freed blacks to perpetuate themselves in power and of the business Republicans who wanted to continue the profiteering schemes they had developed during the war joined with a lunatic fringe to assassinate Lincoln.

Enter Andrew Johnson in that proud tradition of American vice-presidents after Andrew Jackson had wanted to hang John C. Calhoun he was that cross between has been and never was that populated the office until the age of the imperial caddy after Truman. That would have been fine except he thought, having taken the oath, he was president and ironically his viewpoints of reuniting the nation were probably more in line with Lincoln’s than the radicals. His opponents had an entirely different vision of northern free states and southern colonies and did their damnedest to throw him out.

The fact that Stewart’s book contains the phrase, “the fight for Lincoln’s legacy,” is the tell that he shares the vision of the radical republicans and is willing to ignore the role of the business republicans – aka the carpetbaggers – so this is by no means a balanced view of Andrew Johnson, his trial or his presidency. But like so many histories – at least the ones that are honest with source material – it has its own unintended consequences. It is possible to read it and arrive at totally different – if not diametrically opposed – viewpoints from the author’s thesis and it is possible to use it as a springboard for expanding research on the topic and finding that the tailor from Tennessee did a much more credible job at the end of the day than his critics have ever acknowledged.

Impeached : the trial of President Andrew Johnson and the fight for Lincoln’s legacy David O. Stewart  United States , Politics and government , 1865-1869  New York : Simon & Schuster, 2009 Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. x, 447 p. : ill. ; 25 cm.      Includes bibliographical references (p. 345-426) and index. An account of the attempt to remove Andrew Johnson from the presidency.  Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

In 1868 Congress impeached President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, the man who had succeeded the murdered Lincoln, bringing the nation to the brink of a second civil war. Enraged to see the freed slaves abandoned to brutal violence at the hands of their former owners, distraught that former rebels threatened to regain control of Southern state governments, and disgusted by Johnson’s brawling political style, congressional Republicans seized on a legal technicality as the basis for impeachment – whether Johnson had the legal right to fire his own secretary of war, Edwin Stanton.

The radical republican, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, played Brutus and led the impeachment drive, abetted by his own Cassius behind the scenes – the military hero and president-in-waiting, General Ulysses S. Grant. The only credit that redounds to Grant is that he did not lead a coup-de-tat. The Senate trial featured the most brilliant lawyers of the day, along with some of the least scrupulous, while leading political fixers maneuvered in dark corners to save Johnson’s presidency with political deals, promises of patronage jobs, and even cash bribes. Johnson escaped conviction by a single vote.

Stewart challenges the traditional version of this pivotal moment in American history. Rather than seeing Johnson as Abraham Lincoln’s political heir, Stewart contends the Tennessean squandered Lincoln’s political legacy of equality and fairness and helped force the freed slaves into a brutal form of agricultural peonage across the South.

When the clash between Congress and president threatened to tear the nation apart, the impeachment process substituted legal combat for violent confrontation. Both sides struggled to inject meaning into the baffling requirement that a president be removed only for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” while employing devious courtroom gambits, back stairs spies, and soaring rhetoric. When the dust finally settled, the impeachment process had allowed passions to cool sufficiently for the nation to survive the bitter crisis.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: