Andrew Johnson's Civil War and Reconstruction.
Since 1960, the reputation of Andrew Johnson's presidency has steadily eroded, a decline that is largely attributable to a revolution in Reconstruction scholarship. Although studies by James Sefton and Albert Castel gave Johnson his due in certain areas (Sefton, Andrew Johnson and the Uses of Constitutional Power [Little Brown, 1980]; Castel, The Presidency of Andrew Johnson [University Press of Kansas, 1979]), the author of the only modern full-length biography, Hans Trefousse (Andrew Johnson: A Biography [W. W. Norton, 1997]), was far more critical of Johnson's Reconstruction policy. According to Paul H. Bergeron, who as editor oversaw the publication of the last eight of the sixteen volumes of The Papers of Andrew Johnson (University of Tennessee Press, 1967-2000), the Tennessean "has been vilified enough" (p. 6). He argues that one can make too much of Johnson's racism, given prevailing attitudes at the time. Moreover, simply to dismiss Johnson as a racist risks overlooking other considerations that shaped his performance as president, including his commitment to preserving executive power and defending his interpretation of the Constitution. Rather, Bergeron asserts, one must set his racism in the context of his other attitudes and attributes, positive and negative, to gain a better overall assessment of Lincoln's successor in the White House.
Bergeron recounts Johnson's career during the 1860s, incorporating his experiences as a senator, military governor, and vice president, as well as his four years as chief executive. As military governor of Tennessee, Johnson's energetic exercise of authority reinforced an already defiant, combative, and, at times, inflexible approach to political life. His actions earned Lincoln's approval: the president offered no objection (and, perhaps, some private encouragement) to Johnson's being named his running mate in 1864. Nearly six weeks after an embarrassing debut as vice president highlighted by a rambling harangue, Johnson assumed the presidency, courtesy of an assassin's bullet.
As president, Johnson embraced a reconciliationist approach toward the former Confederates. For all of his bombast about punishing traitors, he reserved his venom for a select few prominent leaders, while embarking upon a pardon policy that proved most liberal. Accepting the destruction of slavery, he had little interest in advancing the fortunes of the freedmen, bringing talk of widespread confiscation and redistribution of plantations to a dead halt. The only time he showed any interest in enfranchising blacks was to silence his critics by extending the right to vote to a handful of freedmen. Before long, his obstructionism and his vetoes of moderate congressional initiatives placed him at odds with Republicans, while his toleration of white supremacist terrorism convinced many people that achieving a lasting and meaningful reconstruction of the Union required sterner measures. Eventually, in 1868, Republicans pursued impeachment: Johnson survived the process but failed to secure the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. He left office bloodied but unbowed and as defiant as ever. Bergeron claims that in his most important struggle--preservation of the presidency--Johnson prevailed, although one might also point out that Johnson's actions rendered the office vulnerable and left it in such a weak condition that, for decades, his successors struggled to wield executive power constructively.
This volume is most valuable for its succinct summary of Johnson's service as military governor of Tennessee, where his unswerving unionism eventually led him to understand the necessity of ending slavery, reversing his long-standing belief in the peculiar institution. It is less persuasive as a treatment of his presidency, in part because of Bergeron's tendency to defend his subject at nearly every turn. Having conceded Johnson's racism, Bergeron does not always fully comprehend how it shaped Johnson's politics or his interpretation of the Constitution. The narrative relies largely upon the documents collected by The Papers of Andrew Johnson and thus often tends to reflect the perspective of the president and many of his supporters: its incorporation of recent Reconstruction scholarship is, at best, selective and often incomplete.
Bergeron disagrees with those scholars who judge Johnson a failure. Much depends upon the criteria used to reach such a conclusion. Absent Johnson's opposition, Reconstruction might well have turned out differently, although it remains debatable as to whether such extreme measures as the Reconstruction Acts would have ever been needed, had he been more compliant with congressional Republicans' earlier initiatives. Johnson's defiance caused Republicans to turn their attention from establishing a sound foundation for Reconstruction to overcoming the president's efforts to thwart their policies, leaving the resulting, flawed structure to wobble and then collapse in the 1870s. One is left to conclude that the Tennessean's steadfast support of white supremacy prevailed with the triumph of redemption and the suppression of black opportunity in the 1870s. Is this the sort of success one should celebrate?
--Brooks D. Simpson
Arizona State University
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|Author:||Simpson, Brooks D.|
|Publication:||Presidential Studies Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Feb 9, 2014|
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