History Thread: Andrew Johnson’s Dignity

Andrew Johnson was a stubborn man. From his hardscrabble childhood in North Carolina, when he escaped from indentured servitude; as an unschooled Tennessee tailor who taught himself (helped by his wife Eliza) to read and write, developing a taste for classic literature and the poetry of Alexander Pope; as a self-made man who, dismissed as a “scrub” by his social betters, took revenge by launching a career in politics. Aping the populism of Andrew Jackson, Johnson joined the Democratic Party, serving as a Congressman, Governor and Senator so venomous in denouncing the Southern planter class that a rival compared him to a snake who “would hide in the grass and bite the heels of rich men’s children.”

Sometimes, Johnson’s stubbornness read as courage. He was the only Southern senator not to resign after Fort Sumter, rendering him a pariah in his home state. Shortly before the outbreak of war he underwent a perilous train journey through eastern Tennessee and Virginia, hounded by secessionist mobs at every stop. At Lynchburg, Johnson confronted one such mob threatening to hang him; impressed by his glowering countenance, the mob momentarily relented. Later, several ruffians broke into Johnson’s cabin, one of whom struck him in the face. The Senator brandished a revolver and forced them out, defiantly barking “I’m a Union man!” at his tormentors as the train pulled away from the station.

Andrew Johnson

Johnson established himself as a leader of the War Democrats. In Washington, he joined the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, outdoing even his Republican counterparts in scourging incompetent generals and politically suspect officers. In 1862, after Union forces captured Nashville, President Lincoln appointed Johnson military governor of Tennessee, where he instituted a government that recruited white Unionists for the military while fighting guerrillas and crushing dissent. Impressed, Lincoln named Johnson as his running mate in 1864, dumping Maine abolitionist Hannibal Hamlin in favor of a National Union ticket.

Johnson’s shortcomings, however, soon became apparent. As Governor of Tennessee he scoffed at the Administration’s antislavery mandates: “Damn the Negroes,” he told an aide, “I am fighting these traitorous aristocrats, their masters!” It never occurred to Johnson, a slave-owner himself, that abolition was a viable war aim: he viewed slaves as an extension of the planters he despised. Then came Inauguration Day: Johnson, apparently drunk, pronounced that “your president is a plebeian, and I am a plebeian,” then “ejaculated disconnected sentences” at Lincoln’s cabinet for fifteen minutes before sloppily kissing a Bible. Attorney General James Speed concluded that “the man is certainly deranged”; Lincoln proclaimed his Vice President “a queer fellow.”

Afterwards, Johnson reconciled himself to the anonymity of the Vice Presidency, content with seeing his Unionism vindicated by Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the collapse of Joseph Johnston’s armies in North Carolina. Barely a month later, Lincoln fell to John Wilkes Booth’s bullet; Johnson, who escaped assassination only because the man assigned to kill him preferred alcohol to murder, thus became President. It was, perhaps, the single greatest tragedy in American history.

A dream deferred

Which wasn’t how some Radical Republicans saw it, at first. Long since tired of Lincoln’s equivocations on slavery and his conciliatory attitude towards the South, they took heart in Johnson’s frothy imprecations that “treason is a crime, and crime must be punished.” Reverend W.S. Studley rejoiced that “Andrew Johnson’s little finger will be thicker than Abraham Lincoln’s loins.” Michigan Senator Zachariah Chandler averred that “the Almighty continued Mr. Lincoln in office as long as he was useful, and then substituted a better man to finish the work,” adding that Booth’s bullet was a “godsend” to the Radicals.

Others weren’t so sure. Thaddeus Stevens, Pennsylvania’s sulfurous egalitarian, had warned Lincoln against naming Johnson in the first place: “Can’t you find a candidate for Vice President…without going down to one of those damned rebel provinces to pick one up?” Stevens shared Chandler’s dislike of Lincoln’s hesitation, his desire to assimilate rather than punish the South. But he had no illusions about Johnson who, within a few weeks of taking office, gratuitously insulted Stevens by declining his counsel on Reconstruction. “I see our worthy president fancies himself a sovereign power,” Stevens lamented, saying Johnson’s dismissal of racial equality “sickens me.”

Thaddeus Stevens

Black leaders were even less impressed. Frederick Douglass had shared the Radicals’ frustration with Lincoln, whom he once called “tardy, cold, dull and indifferent.” Yet Douglass grew enamored with the Great Emancipator, finding Lincoln one of the few white men he knew capable of learning from blacks and changing his mind about race. It was through discussions with black leaders like Douglass that Lincoln abandoned his support for colonizing freedmen to Africa, and openly embraced abolition as a central war aim. “No man who knew Abraham Lincoln could hate him,” Douglas recalled, “but because of his fidelity to union and liberty, he is doubly dear to us, and his memory will be precious forever.”

Douglass took measure of Johnson soon enough. During a conference in February 1866, the President lectured Douglass and a delegation of black ministers that “the colored man and his master, combined” plotted to keep poor whites “in slavery,” claiming that Douglass (an escaped slave whose sons had served in the Union Army) had “never periled life, liberty or property.” Not that he disliked blacks, Johnson insisted; indeed, he’d been such a kind master to his own slaves that he was “their slave instead of their being mine.” Douglass politely averred that “we did not come here expecting to argue…with your Excellency,” trying to steer discussion towards Negro suffrage. But Johnson barked “I’m not finished” and insisted that freedmen must leave the South. When Douglass noted that this would be impossible, Johnson abruptly terminated the meeting.

“Those damned sons of bitches thought they had me in a trap!” Johnson ranted to his son George afterwards. “I know that damned Douglass; he’s just like any n****r, and he would sooner cut a white man’s throat than not!” Douglass plea for civil rights and black suffrage infuriated the man who’d proclaimed himself “for a white man’s government in America.” Douglass was more measured, if no more charitable in assessing the President. “Whatever Andrew Johnson may be,” he said later with masterful understatement, “he certainly is no friend to our race.”

Frederick Douglass

Evidence quickly accumulated. Johnson granted wholesale pardons to former Confederates. He vetoed civil rights legislation, from the Civil Rights Act of 1866 to the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill offering land and education to ex-slaves. (Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois, one of Johnson’s strongest Republican allies, expressed dismay: “I thought in advocating [the Freedmen’s Bureau] that I was acting in harmony with the views of the President.”) Johnson went further, insisting that any bill passed by Congress was illegitimate since the states of the Confederacy weren’t represented – as they were entitled, he argued, since they’d never legally left the Union.

Republicans who’d hoped for Johnson as an ally were enraged. Thaddeus Stevens responded to Johnson’s sophistry about secession by noting that “the law forbids a man to rob or murder, yet robbery and murder exist.” Moderate Congressman Henry Dawes lamented that “the President is lost to us, depriving every friend he has of the least ground upon which to stand and defend him.” He alienated his own cabinet, particularly Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who directly managed Reconstruction policy. Treasury Secretary Hugh McCullough complained that Stanton attended cabinet meetings “not as an adviser of the President, but as an opponent” who used his post to protect officials from arbitrary firings.

Carl Schurz, the German emigre turned Union general, toured the South at Johnson’s request and was mortified by what he saw. “Men who are honorable in their dealings with their white neighbors will cheat a Negro without feeling a single twinge of their honor,” Schurz wrote. “To kill a Negro, they do not deem murder; to debauch a Negro woman, they do not think fornication; to take the property away from a Negro, they do not consider robbery.” He saw the impact of the South’s “black codes,” which limited freedmen’s rights to travel, vote and work, along with crimes by recalcitrant whites. In Montgomery, Alabama, Schurz personally witnessed “one negro…cut across the throat evidently with intent to kill, and another was shot.”

Ku Klux Klan

Defeated on the battlefield, the South rose again in a bewildering variety of paramilitary groups. From Louisiana’s Knights of the White Camellia to the Red Shirts of South Carolina, these night riders terrorized freedmen and white carpetbaggers who dared to vote, attend school or otherwise flaunt the mores of the South. Most famous, of course, was the Ku Klux Klan; formed in December 1865 (in President Johnson’s home state of Tennessee), the Klan’s ghoulish disguises, secret rituals and nocturnal raids spread violence and terror across the South. Slavery might be dead, General Montgomery C. Meigs observed, but ex-Confederates would return to white supremacy “like dogs to their vomit. They can not enslave but they will outrage & oppress.”

“Outrage and oppress” they did. On April 30, 1866 in Memphis, Tennessee, a scuffle between black Union soldiers and white police officers escalated to a riot. One official vowed that “we will kill and drive the last [blacks] out of the city.” During the resulting violence, in which 46 people were killed and five black women raped, mobs were heard to cheer for “Andy Johnson” and his “white man’s government.” Three months later, a Republican convention in New Orleans was attacked by whites who shot, lynched and beat one hundred delegates, black and white, to death. General Philip Sheridan, assessing the damage, proclaimed it not a riot but an “absolute massacre.”

Johnson’s response was typical: attack Republicans. In August 1866, just before the midterm elections, Johnson launched a campaign to make his National Union Party permanent. The result was the Swing Around the Circle, where Johnson traveled by train to bolster support for his Reconstruction policies. He surrounded himself with military heroes like Ulysses Grant, who’d reluctantly endorsed Johnson’s Reconstruction program, George Armstrong Custer, the dashing cavalryman who’d recently testified before Congress about ongoing bloodshed in Texas, and Admiral David Farragut, the hero of Mobile Bay who, like Johnson, was a Unionist from a Southern state. Their presence didn’t prevent Johnson from embarrassing himself.

Johnson on the stump

It was an extraordinary spectacle. In town after town, Johnson ranted extemporaneously about persecution by his enemies and argued with hecklers. In St. Louis, he whined that “I have been traduced, I have been slandered, I have been maligned, I have been called Judas Iscariot” by his enemies. “If I have played the Judas,” he demanded, “who has been my Christ that I have played Judas with?” When a heckler shouted that he should hang Jefferson Davis, the President shouted back “why don’t you hang Thad Stevens and [abolitionist] Wendell Phillips?” In Cleveland, when the crowd demanded to see Grant, Johnson rounded on the mortified general, insisting that “General Grant is not against me – I am not against him!”

For twenty stupefying days, Johnson’s “swing” continued. Each stop occasioned some fresh outrage. In Indianapolis, Johnson’s speech incited a gunfight between local Republicans and Democrats which left one man dead and several more wounded. In Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a platform overlooking a canal collapsed under the weight of spectators as Johnson’s train rode past, killing six people and injuring three hundred. Senator James Doolittle of Wisconsin, who accompanied Johnson for part of his journey, pleaded with the President to remember the dignity of his office. Johnson’s response: “I don’t care about my dignity.”

The public, however, cared very much. “Was there ever such a madman in so high a place as Johnson?” moaned the New York Times. The Chicago Tribune headlined a verbatim account of Johnson’s speech there as “The Ravings of a Besotted and Debauched Demagogue.” General Grant, who deduced that Johnson invited him along to neutralized his own political prospects, called the President “a national disgrace” and compared the experience to “hearing a man make speeches on the way to his own funeral.” The National Union Party, despite a much-ballyhooed convention in Philadelphia, came to naught; and Republicans swept the midterm elections.

Freedmen’s Bureau

Defeat only strengthened Johnson’s defiance. Convinced the government was infested with disloyal bureaucrats, he launched a nationwide purge of the civil service. In the Postal Service alone, Johnson sacked 1,600 employees in the last few months of 1866. He replaced them, Senator William Fessenden of Maine wrote, with “Copperheads and flunkies” – men like Henry Smythe, the New York customs official who openly bribed Senators to shield himself from investigation. Congressman Calvin Hulbard denounced Smythe’s regime as “the most shameless, flagitious, disreputable, utterly disgraceful…deliberate system of abuse, extortion, wrong, that has been developed in scores of years.” Though the House passed an impeachment resolution against Smythe, Johnson ignored it.

The “malign guillotine of Mr. Johnson” extended to the executive branch, where Johnson replaced dozens of officials with interim appointments not subject to congressional approval. He also hoped to demolish the Freedmen’s Bureau, whose creation he’d opposed and whose director, the one-armed “Christian General” Oliver Otis Howard, he despised. The President planned to undermine the Bureau by replacing Howard with a black director, causing white bureaucrats he assumed were as racist as himself to quit in indignation. Astonishingly, he offered the post to Frederick Douglass, who declined “any obligation to keep the peace with Andrew Johnson.”

Henry Smythe, interim crook

Congress grappled for ways to resist the President. In January 1867 James Ashley, the Ohio Republican who’d been floor manager for the Thirteenth Amendment, introduced an outrageous bill of impeachment accusing Johnson of conspiring with the South to assassinate President Lincoln. Calling Johnson “the loathing incubus which has blotted our country’s history,” Ashley produced two witnesses: Lafayette Baker, a detective who claimed to possess letters between Johnson and Jefferson Davis (which he’d conveniently misplaced), and Lucy Cobb, a “woman of the town” who claimed she’d acted as a conduit between Johnson and Confederate agents. Unsurprisingly, the House Judiciary Committee rejected his resolution.

It was pure humbug, and all who weren’t James Ashley knew it; Johnson raged at Congress’s effrontery, while Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles complained that “a more scandalous villainy never disgraced the country.” Even Thaddeus Stevens branded Ashley’s conspiracy theories “unnecessary and absurd.” Its failure was for the best, many thought; the Constitution’s definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors” was maddeningly vague, too vague perhaps to justify impeachment. And the only presidential impeachment so far attempted, a Whig revolt against John Tyler in 1840s, had gone down in flames.

James Ashley

Even so, Johnson’s foes remained undaunted. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who’d once endured a brutal caning for denouncing “the harlot of slavery” on the Senate floor, claimed the issues remained unchanged. “The President has usurped the power of Congress on a colossal scale,” he charged, “and he has employed these usurped powers in facilitating a rebel spirit and awakening anew the dying fires of the rebellion.” It was Johnson’s policies, not his words or actions (as disgusting as they were), which Republicans felt warranted his impeachment; and with violence escalating throughout the South, the stakes seemed too high to wait until the next election.

Republicans did score a major success, however, in their campaign against the President. In March 1867, Stevens steered through Congress the Tenure of Office Act. This made it illegal for the President to fire a cabinet member without Congress’s consent; violating the Act, the text warned, was a “high misdemeanor,” with a clear consequence of impeachment. The Act was transparently designed to protect Edwin Stanton at the War Department, as he became an increasingly irritating thorn in Johnson’s side. Displaying either Machiavellian foresight or extreme ingratitude, Stanton helped Johnson draft the inevitable veto message, claiming that the Act was unconstitutional.

Still, Johnson refused to relent. He campaigned against passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, which was ratified over his opposition, and the Reconstruction Acts establishing military districts in the South. In August 1867 he sacked General Sheridan from his command in Louisiana and Texas for working to “secure negro supremacy” (read: protecting blacks from violence), along with Daniel Sickles, whom he accused of mistreating white southerners under his charge. He also “suspended” Stanton as Secretary of War, though what exactly this meant was clear to no one. Stanton, for his part, announced that he intended to remain “in harness” and continued reporting to the War Department.

Massacre in New Orleans

General Grant, whom Johnson tapped as Interim War Secretary, attempted to intercede. Grant was increasingly disgusted with Johnson but still sought to keep peace with his commander-in-chief. First privately, then in an open letter, Grant warned that “the unreconstructed element in the South” would view firing Sheridan and Sickles as “as a triumph.” In private, Johnson told Grant that his comments were so “obnoxious” that they didn’t warrant a response. He did respond in another fashion, however, offering William Tecumseh Sherman a promotion to Lieutenant General in an effort to humiliate Grant. Sherman refused to betray his friend, lamenting that “the President don’t comprehend Grant.”

On December 3rd, 1867 Johnson sent an inflammatory message to Congress. This message was likely penned by Jeremiah Black, a Pennsylvania Democrat who, as James Buchanan’s Attorney General, vigorously enforced the Fugitive Slave Act and more recently had damned the Civil War as a “violent intervention with the internal affairs of the states.” Johnson’s message, dubbed “a masterpiece of vitriol and venom” by Brenda Wineapple, accused the Radical Republicans of plotting “negro domination,” invoking the terrifying prospect of freedmen who might “rule the white race, make and administer State laws, elect Presidents and members of Congress.”

The great difference between the two races in physical, mental, and moral characteristics will prevent an amalgamation or fusion of them together in one homogeneous mass. If the inferior obtains the ascendency over the other, it will govern with reference only to its own interests for it will recognize no common interest–and create such a tyranny as this continent has never yet witnessed. Already the Negroes are influenced by promises of confiscation and plunder. They are taught to regard as an enemy every white man who has any respect for the rights of his own race. If this continues it must become worse and worse, until all order will be subverted, all industry cease, and the fertile fields of the South grow up into a wilderness. Of all the dangers which our nation has yet encountered, none are equal to those which must result from the success of the effort now making to Africanize the half of our country.

“Johnson wielded a sort of reverse Midas touch,” historian David O. Stewart writes. “One by one, his political schemes turned to dross.” For all his energetic invective, the President failed to win supporters and alienated many of his allies. Republicans, aside from a few conservatives who still identified Johnson with Lincoln, considered him an enemy; northern Democrats thought him an embarrassment, worth defending only to affect their own programs. White southerners took comfort in Johnson’s actions, knowing he would do everything possible to hamstring Reconstruction, but currently they had no vote in Congress.

Martha Johnson Patterson, Daughter-in-chief

Johnson’s inner circle drew smaller. He leaned increasingly on his children, particularly his alcoholic son George (his personal secretary) and Martha Johnson Patterson, his polished, pretty daughter who served as de facto First Lady (Eliza Johnson being too ill to make public appearances). Of his cabinet, he only trusted Secretary of State William Seward and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, Lincoln holdovers who despised the Radicals. When he sought outside counsel, Johnson turned to conservative Democrats like Jeremiah Black (Welles, observing how the Pennsylvanian encouraged Johnson’s worst tendencies, tactfully called Black “not…a good and sound adviser for the President”) and Congressman Fernando Wood, who as Mayor of New York tried to engineer that city’s secession after Fort Sumter.

Things weren’t entirely bleak, though, for in early 1868 Johnson made a joyous discovery. While rummaging through the White House pantry, the President found a family of white mice! Despite his daughter’s efforts to exterminate them, Johnson befriended the rodents, feeding them grain and water and shielding them from Martha’s cats, poisons and mousetraps. “The little fellows give me their confidence,” Johnson boasted, “and I give them their basket and pour upon the hearth some water that they might quench their thirst.”

Perhaps if Johnson had given Congress, the military and black men and women the same consideration he extended towards his “little fellows,” he would have avoided impeachment. As it was, he forced the issue with Congress, and his own Secretary of War, resulting in a constitutional crisis with few parallels in American history.

Sources and Further Reading

This article draws upon Douglas R. Egerton, The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era (2014); Gene Smith, High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Impeachment and Trial of Andrew Johnson (1977); David O. Stewart, Impeached: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy (2009); Hans Trefousse, Andrew Johnson: A Biography (1989); and Brenda Wineapple, Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis and Compromise, 1848-1877 (2013) and The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation (2019).