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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,303

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This is the grave of Andrew Johnson.

Born in 1808 in Raleigh, North Carolina, Johnson grew up in poverty. His father, or at least alleged father since many thought he was from an affair his mom had, died young. His mother apprenticed him to a tailor at the age of 10 and this became his craft. It wasn’t until he was in the apprenticeship that he learned to read. But he became relatively learned, as once he learned, he was pretty voracious in his desire for knowledge. But he eventually ran away from his apprenticeship, which was illegal. In fact, there wasn’t a gigantic difference per se between this and slavery, at least in terms of the legal ability to quit your job. When he ran away, his master put out a reward for his return like you would a slave. Not that this made Johnson anti-slavery though, let’s be real clear here.

In fact, Johnson would rise as a tailor, moving to the east Tennessee town of Greeneville, where he became a slaver himself. Ironically, it was Abraham Lincoln’s cousin Thomas who married he and his wife in 1827. He, by all accounts, was a good tailor and he made a good bit of money, which he invested in real estate and in humans. He bought his first slave in 1843 and would build his stock of humans to ten by 1863, when he freed them to advance his political career after the Emancipation Proclamation made this Unionist understand it was time.

Johnson got involved in local politics shortly after moving to Greeneville in the late 1820s. He was active in the new state constitution that cracked down on rights for freed slaves after Nat Turner’s Rebellion. He first won a seat to the state legislature in 1835. At this time, his political ambitions were more about whatever would get him elected than any kind of real principle, and he shifted between the Whigs and Democrats for a decade before finally coming down on the Democratic side in the late 1830s. He was elected to the state senate in 1841, where he was known for his excellent oratory. Remember as well that people were bored much of the time. Seeing a good orator was a big part of early 19th century political culture because it gave you something to do. So Johnson was able to build a following because he was good enough at this that people would just come hear him even if they didn’t care that much about what he was saying.

In 1842, Johnson won election to Congress, a long time goal of his. By this point, he was a pretty typical Democrat, though he wasn’t necessarily in favor during much of his time there. He was a prickly guy, to say the least, and he and James Polk hated each other, so he didn’t get the kind of patronage power he wanted. Polk really hated Johnson. Here is Polk’s diary entry from the end of his presidency:

Among the visitors I observed in the crowd today was Hon. Andrew Johnson of the Ho. Repts. [House of Representatives] Though he represents a Democratic District in Tennessee (my own State) this is the first time I have seen him during the present session of Congress. Professing to be a Democrat, he has been politically, if not personally hostile to me during my whole term. He is very vindictive and perverse in his temper and conduct. If he had the manliness and independence to declare his opposition openly, he knows he could not be elected by his constituents. I am not aware that I have ever given him cause for offense.

Polk was awful too, but this gives you a sense of what an asshole Johnson was as well.

The one area where Johnson did deviate somewhat from some Democrats was over railroad policy, which he supported pretty strongly. Being isolated in east Tennessee, not even then on anyone’s radar screen as a place for massive economic development, probably made a difference here. Johnson was mostly supportive of the Compromise of 1850, though he did vote against the banning of the slave trade in DC.

One thing interesting about Johnson is that he really did believe in more democracy in the nation, at least for white men. He pushed for a constitutional amendment for direct election of senators all the way back in the 1850s. He also, way for it, wanted a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College. Andrew Johnson was a horrific president and equally awful person, but at least remember this.

Johnson lost his reelection battle in 1852 due to Democratic infighting, which he engaged in plenty as the Polk reference shows. But he didn’t stay down for long. He ran for Tennessee governor in 1853 and won. He made some deals with Whigs and that helped put him over the top. It wasn’t a very powerful position–the legislature had the real power in that state–but it kept him on the map. He did push hard for the state to fund public education and convinced the legislature to pass a bill to do it. He really wanted to be nominated for president in 1856, but didn’t have much play and went ahead and reluctantly supported James Buchanan, who he didn’t much care for. And then Democrats, who won the state legislature that year, sent him to the Senate.

Johnson in the Senate was very much a man of the white working class. The rich hated him and he hated them. That included the planters who dominated southern politics. He immediately defied the South by pushing his version of what would become the Homestead Act in 1862. And then came secession.

Johnson always supported slavery. He had no tolerance for abolitionists at well. But that was hardly a southern position. Most northern whites also hated abolitionists in 1861. We frequently forget that the main critique of slavery had nothing to do with the conditions of life for slaves. Whites couldn’t care less. It’s that slavery hurt white people by creating an indolent upper class that ruled society in an anti-democratic state that had no room for middling whites. Even though Johnson was a slaver himself, this was an argument he could at least understand. Plus he despised the rich planters on a very personal level.

So Johnson railed against secession, giving a speech that said, in part, “I will not give up this government … No; I intend to stand by it … and I invite every man who is a patriot to … rally around the altar of our common country … and swear by our God, and all that is sacred and holy, that the Constitution shall be saved, and the Union preserved.” This made him much more a hero in the North than the South. But in east Tennessee? That was white farmer and working class country. Johnson was one of them. They didn’t really want civil war, or many did not anyway. He was solidly in the political mainstream for that part of the country.

Johnson became the most prominent southern Unionist in the Civil War, which made him tremendously influential. He was in Lincoln’s ear all the time. In March 1862, with enough of Tennessee having been taken back by Grant’s forces to govern it, Lincoln named Johnson Military Governor of Tennessee. Confederates, who at that time had Greeneville, confiscated his home and turned it into a military hospital as revenge. It was because of Johnson that Lincoln excepted all of Tennessee from the Emancipation Proclamation. He was always looking out for his own political future, no question about that. But, as discussed earlier, Johnson finally came to the conclusion that slavery was over and he even recruited Tennessee ex-slaves into the military.

All of this made Lincoln name Johnson as his VP in 1864. This was quite obviously the greatest mistake of Lincoln’s presidency and perhaps in the entirety of American political history. But that wasn’t so clear in 1864. Lincoln thought he was going to lose. The Democratic Party, openly pro-slavery, dominated the politics of many northern states. Again, even in 1864, a majority of northern whites in many states hated abolitionists. Johnson could give Lincoln a lot more anti-Black cover than Hannibal Hamlin and so the latter was replaced with the former.

Then Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.

We don’t really need to go over all the details of the Johnson presidency. He is not the worst president in American history–Donald Trump is clearly the winner of that race at this point. But before 2017, you could realistically argue between Johnson and Buchanan. Either way, he was a total disaster. Johnson’s hatred of the rich was a lot less closely held than his belief in white supremacy and it didn’t take him long to show that. He undermined Reconstruction and in doing so, gave the South life to commit massive violence and terrorism without consequence. By the time Congress got around to doing something about this in 1867, overriding all of Johnson’s vetoes on these issues, two full years had passed, the South had reorganized, and momentum for an aggressive Reconstruction, always pretty limited due to the very small support for Black rights among northern whites, was really small.

A few other issues here–it’s amazing how clueless Johnson was about how this would play in the North. He completely misread how his politics translated in the North. What the Civil War had done was create great animosity toward the South. A couple hundred thousand dead Union soldiers and the assassination of Lincoln will do that. Johnson was right that most of the North still didn’t care about Black rights, and he probably could have ridden that horse pretty far with some savviness, but he simply didn’t have that. What the North wasn’t going to do was allow Alexander Stephens back into Congress and the KKK to start slaughtering people. What was the point of the war again if this was going to happen? So Johnson just totally blew it.

Pretty soon, Johnson had alienated almost the entire Republican Party, except for William Seward, who despite being a personal patron of Harriet Tubman, supported Johnson’s war against a meaningful Reconstruction. Plus Democrats despised him as a traitor to white supremacy and the South. Meanwhile, Johnson quickly hoped to spin his white supremacy into his own full term to the presidency in 1868. It probably didn’t help that by this time in his life, Johnson was a massive drunk and was delusional for any number of reasons that the whiskey exacerbated.

It is interesting to consider what would have happened had Republicans convicted him for violating the Tenure of Office Act. It’s true enough that this law, designed specifically to strip Johnson of any real power, was unconstitutional. But as we know from Alito and friends, what is constitutional is all about who holds power, not any principles. Johnson’s impeachment passed and he only won a reprieve by one vote, probably because the radical abolitionist Ben Wade would have become president and that was too far for some Republicans by 1868. A conviction would have upheld the Tenure of Office Act, which would have meant that Congress had ultimate authority over both hiring and firing Cabinet officials. Would have been a totally different government. Though to be fair, every president after Johnson until Theodore Roosevelt was so weak anyway that maybe it wouldn’t have mattered so much in the end. It was an era of Congressional power.

I suppose it’s worth noting the other issues of the Johnson years a bit. This was the moment when Seward bought Alaska off the Russians, which was derided at the time, but of course was one of the great foreign policy coups of American history. He pushed to expand the Homestead Act to the South, which Republicans and he could easily agree upon, and signed the bill to do this. Congress passed a very weak eight-hour day law for federal workers that Johnson was fine in signing. It wasn’t at all effective, but still, it’s a moment in our labor history for a president who doesn’t get connected to it. When John Catron, then on the Supreme Court, died, Congress, unwilling to let Johnson pick a replacement, just eliminated the position.

Well, we could go over the details of Johnson’s presidency even more, but this post is so long anyway and knowledge of Reconstruction and its failures has become well enough known among liberals in the last two decades that general knowledge of the era is higher than it has ever been. This is a very good thing, especially after a century of historians writing white supremacist apologies for it that dominated both political parties, with FDR naming his favorite Dunningite public historian ambassador to Spain just because the president liked his books so much, for example.

Johnson was universally despised by basically everyone by the end. Well, except for Seward, who still loved everything about him. He fought hard for the Democratic nomination in 1868 but got all of four votes at the convention, all from Tennessee. That was hardly a rejection of Johnson’s policies. Democrats nominated Horatio Seymour, who ran the most openly white supremacist campaign in American history, at least until 2016. It was just that everyone hated Johnson. Grant refused to even ride in the carriage with him, the tradition when presidents changed. Johnson meanwhile refused to attend the inauguration. Also, Johnson closed his presidency by pardoning Jefferson Davis and all the other Confederates. Of course he did. He also held a huge party for the children of leading members of the Washington world. Grant refused to let his kids attend. It was a bitter, angry time.

Johnson then returned to Tennessee, drank a lot, and stewed in his bitterness. He was long past Greeneville by this point and was bored out his mind. He tried to return to the Senate in 1869, but lost by two votes in the Tennessee legislature. This made him even more bitter. He almost died of cholera in 1873, but survived it. He lost much of his fortune in the Panic of 1873 as well. But he made it back to Washington in the end. He started allying himself with the growing dissatisfaction of farmers with the Gilded Age and with that support, got the state legislature to send him back to the Senate in 1875.

But by this time, he was dying. He had a stroke shortly after his election. That did not stop his drinking either. The way he died was classic Johnson. He heard that a campaign in Ohio governor was leading to the candidates slamming him by name. Unable to let that go, he went to Ohio to give a speech denouncing his enemies in the state. Then he had another stroke and dropped dead. He was 66 years old.

Andrew Johnson is buried at Andrew Johnson National Cemetery, Greeneville, Tennessee.

If you would like this series to visit other presidents, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. I have almost collected them all, but Harry Truman is in Independence, Missouri and Dwight Eisenhower is in Abilene, Kansas. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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