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The Papers of Andrew Johnson: vol. 12, February - August 1867.

One approaches the task of commenting upon the latest volume of the Andrew Johnson Papers with a certain trepidation. The project has been underway since 1956, twelve volumes have appeared, and reviewers have long since exhausted original insights about the correspondence of our much-maligned seventeenth president. Still, this volume is of particular interest, coinciding with the passage and implementation of black suffrage under the Military Reconstruction acts. These are dramatic events, and to an unusual extent for such collections, the work does hold the reader's attention.

The introduction is brief but reasonable, though skeptical readers may detect a slight partiality toward the subject. Johnson's effort to preserve the institution of the presidency is conveyed with sympathy. Congressional restrictions on the army are characterized as "extraordinary" the tenure of office act as a "blatant" attempt to diminish the president's power (xii-xiii). While the Republican Congress did exercise a "tightening grip" on Johnson, his conduct had a great deal to do with the unusual proceedings. One of his advisers actually warned him not to comment on political matters, even in private, without a script (289). To the editors' credit, they conclude with a forthright admission of Johnson's political bankruptcy and penchant for provocative behavior.

As for the documents themselves, they seem well chosen and intelligently annotated. Regrettably, the president's own writings are quite sparse, and one gets little sense of the private man. Still, the incoming letters, almost entirely from supporters, hold several features of interest. Nineteenth century politics revolved around patronage, but it is instructive to be reminded of how all-pervasive this concern was. Correspondents seldom wrote him about anything else. Most compelling are the plaints of supporters of Johnson's abortive centrist third party, the National Union movement of the 1866 campaign. Johnson had abandoned them to ally with the Democrats, leaving them furious. Another striking point is the racial hatred expressed by Johnson's supporters. Almost nothing contradicts the depiction of them as wholesale racists - one searches hard for any indication of concern for the emancipated slaves. Johnson himself, however, comes off a bit better. There are a few references to personal contributions by the president for charities benefiting the freedpeople.

The documents do demonstrate some arresting features. One refers to rumors - spread by allies - of sexual favors to Johnson in exchange for presidential pardons. Another letter offers, apparently in earnest, to bribe someone on Johnson's behalf to avert a scandal. Several obscure missives suggest political espionage by the president. One letter might even suggest involvement by Johnson in the Lincoln assassination. One frustrating feature of the editorial policy of the volumes is that some of the most striking allegations receive little annotation, leaving it to the reader to evaluate the credibility unaided. The editors might also have found the space to explain that the "Canadian Cherokee Delegation" refers to a river in Oklahoma, not the nation (136).

These caveats aside, this is a fine collection that should be of interest to a range of scholars. For Southern historians, there is a bounty of firsthand reports on the Reconstruction process, especially from Johnson's native Tennessee. Scholars of the African American experience will find this a cross-section of hostile commentary on the social changes accompanying enfranchisement. This compilation provides access to political viewpoints that have not received much sympathy in recent years.

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Author:Fitzgerald, Michael W.
Publication:Civil War History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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