Andrew Johnson (1865 – 1869): The 17th Retrospective
“Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” – Ellis, No Country for Old Men (2007)
Andrew Johnson was the first Vice President to assume the presidency because of assassination. He would always be seen by many as a “pretender to the throne”: Johnson was a Southern, slave owning Democrat who was the only Senator from a seceding state to remain with union. He was selected to broaden the appeal of the ticket in 1864. Johnson had no formal education and trained to be a tailor. He never attended school and he taught himself how to read.
Slavery and Civil Rights
Despite his ownership of slaves, Andrew Johnson became a critic of slavery after Abraham Lincoln freed Southern slaves. In a speech on January 8, 1864, Johnson said:
Slavery is the cancer upon the body politic, which must be rooted out before perfect health can be restored.
Later in 1864, as Military Governor of Tennessee, Johnson freed the slaves of Tennessee, declaring that “slavery shall, by God’s good help, no longer pollute our State.” Johnson promised his Black audience:
I will indeed be your Moses, and lead you through the Red Sea of war and bondage, to a fairer future of liberty and peace. I speak now as one who feels the world his country, and all who love equal rights his friends.
Ironically, however, Johnson himself never supported equal rights. Before the American Civil War, he argued that the federal government had no authority to prohibit slavery in U.S. territories. Johnson opposed the end of slavery in the District of Columbia, or even a ban on bringing additional slaves into the district. In Johnson’s view, Black people were best off as slaves:
The black race of Africa [is] inferior to the white man in point of intellect — better calculated in physical structure to undergo drudgery and hardship — standing, as they do, many degrees lower in the scale of gradation that expresses the relative relation between God and all that he has created than the white man.”January 31, 1844, speech
The negro here in the state of slavery [is] in a far better condition than the native African at home …. the negro is an inferior type of man, and incapable of advancement in his native country.”Speech on July 24, 1857
In the former speech, Johnson warned that giving black people the right to vote “would place every splay-footed, bandy-shanked, hump-backed, thick-lipped, flat-nosed, woolly-headed, ebon-colored negro in the country upon an equality with the poor white man.”
Throughout his career, Johnson believed that White people should have total control of the U.S. government:
It is upon the intelligent free white people of the country that all Governments should rest, and by them all Governments should be controlled.”U.S. Senate speech on July 27, 1861
I am for a white man’s government, and in favor of free white qualified voters controlling this country, without regard to negroes.”Speech on January 21, 1864)
The blacks of the South are … so utterly ignorant of public affairs that their voting can consist in nothing more than carrying a ballot to the place where they are directed to deposit it.”Third Annual Message to Congress, December 3, 1867
For Johnson, slavery was the result of one race “having more brains and more intellectual power than another,” an “organic” condition that started “with the very germ itself.” Based on this belief, Johnson once prayed for Whites:
I wish to God every head of a family in the United States had one slave to take the drudgery and menial service off his family.”
Memphis Riots of 1866
The Memphis Riot of 1866 was a series of violent events that occurred from May 1 to 3, 1866 in Memphis, Tennessee. The racial violence was ignited by political, social, and racial tensions following the American Civil War, in the early stages of Reconstruction. After a shooting altercation between white policemen and black veterans recently mustered out of the Union Army, mobs of white residents and policemen rampaged through black neighborhoods and the houses of freedmen, attacking and killing black soldiers and civilians and committing many acts of robbery and arson.
Federal troops were sent to quell the violence and peace was restored on the third day. A subsequent report by a joint Congressional Committee detailed the carnage, with blacks suffering most of the injuries and deaths by far: 46 black and 2 white people were killed, 75 black people injured, over 100 black persons robbed, 5 black women raped, and 91 homes, 4 churches and 8 schools (every black church and school) burned in the black community. Modern estimates place property losses at over $100,000, suffered mostly by black people. Many black people fled the city permanently; by 1870, their population had fallen by one quarter compared to 1865.
Public attention following the riots and reports of the atrocities, together with the New Orleans massacre of 1866 in July, strengthened the case made by Radical Republicans in U.S. Congress that more had to be done to protect freedmen in the Southern United States and grant them full rights as citizens. The events influenced the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which granted full citizenship to African Americans, as well as the Reconstruction Act, which established military districts and oversight in certain states.
Investigation of the riot suggested specific causes related to competition in the working class for housing, work, and social space: Irish immigrants and their descendants competed with freedmen in all these categories. The white planters wanted to drive freedmen out of Memphis and back to plantations, to support cotton cultivation with their labor. The violence was a way to enforce social order after the end of slavery.
New Orleans Massacre of 1866
The New Orleans Massacre of 1866 occurred on July 30, when a peaceful demonstration of mostly black Freedmen was set upon by a mob of white rioters, many of whom had been soldiers of the recently defeated Confederacy, to a full-scale massacre. The violence erupted outside the Mechanics Institute, site of a reconvened Louisiana Constitutional Convention.
The Republican Party of Louisiana had called for the Convention, as they were angered by the legislature’s enactment of the Black Codes and refusal to extend voting rights to black men. White conservative Democrats considered the reconvened convention to be illegal and were hostile towards Republican attempts to gain increased political power in the state. The massacre “stemmed from deeply rooted political, social, and economic causes,” and took place in part because of the battle “between two opposing factions for power and office.”
According to the official report, a total of 38 were killed and 146 wounded, with 34 of the dead and 119 of the wounded black. Unofficial estimates were higher. Gilles Vandal estimated 40 to 50 blacks dead and more than 150 wounded. In addition, three white convention attendees were killed, as was one white protester.
During much of the American Civil War, New Orleans had been occupied and under martial law imposed by the Union. On May 12, 1866, Mayor John T. Monroe, a Democrat who had ardently supported the Confederacy, was reinstated as acting mayor, the position he held before the war. Judge R. K. Howell was elected as chairman of the convention, with the goal of increasing participation by voters likely to vote for removal of the Black Codes.
The massacre expressed conflicts deeply rooted in the social structure of Louisiana. It was a continuation of the war: more than half of the whites were Confederate veterans and nearly half of the blacks were veterans of the Union army. The national reaction of outrage at the Memphis riots of 1866 and this riot nearly three months later, helped the Radical progressive Republicans win a majority in both houses of Congress in the 1866 midterm elections. The riots catalyzed support for the Fourteenth Amendment, extending suffrage and full citizenship to freedmen, and the Reconstruction Act, to establish military districts for the national government to oversee areas of the South and work to change their social arrangements.
The 1866 elections gave Republicans a majority in Congress, enabling them to pass the 14th Amendment, federalizing equal rights for freedmen, and dissolving rebel state legislatures until new state constitutions were passed in the South. Republican coalitions came to power in nearly all of the Southern states and set out to transform Southern society by setting up a free-labor economy, using the U.S. Army and the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Bureau protected the legal rights of freedmen, negotiated labor contracts, and set up schools and churches for them.
Thousands of Northerners came to the South as missionaries and teachers to aid the South’s reconstruction, as well as businessmen and politicians. Opportunistic Northerners who sought to exploit the Union’s occupation of the South for their own political, economic, or social gain were commonly referred to by Southerners as “carpetbaggers,” due to their use of large carpet bags for luggage at the time.
The Pulaski riot was a race riot that occurred in Pulaski, Tennessee on January 7, 1868. While the riot appeared to be based in a trade dispute of the previous summer between Calvin Lamberth, a white man, and Calvin Carter, an African American, it was provoked when Lamberth shot a friend of Carter’s over rumored comments about the former’s black mistress. After Lamberth shot Carter’s friend, Whitlock Fields, numerous other armed whites came from nearby houses and attacked Carter and seven other black men at a nearby black-owned grocery store.
Although the constable arranged a ceasefire, after the freedmen gathered at the door of the store, some eighteen whites rushed and shot at them at close range. They murdered one man, mortally wounded another, and injured four. No white was injured or prosecuted. The incident was investigated by the Freedmen’s Bureau office of Nashville, Tennessee.
The 1868 St. Bernard Parish Massacre
In 1868, St. Bernard Parish was home to one of the deadliest massacres in Louisiana history. The St. Bernard Parish massacre occurred during the Reconstruction era, days before the Presidential election of 1868.
As black men gained the right to vote, white Democrats of the parish feared losing their majority. Armed groups mobilized to violently silence these recently emancipated voters to win the election in favor of Democrat Horatio Seymour over Republican Ulysses S. Grant. A Seymour victory meant the end of Reconstruction over the South and the return of Louisiana to home rule. Many freedmen were dragged from their homes and murdered. Others fled to the cane fields to hide from the perpetrators.
The use of violence to suppress Republican votes was successful. Grant only received one vote from St. Bernard Parish, despite having a Republican majority. The reported number of freedmen killed varies from 35 to 135; the number of whites killed was two (one was killed in an attempt to help the victims.
The Opelousas massacre occurred on September 28, 1868 in Opelousas, St. Landry Parish, Louisiana. Beginning with the execution of 27 black prisoners, whites conducted widespread attacks of African Americans in the vicinity, and are believed to have killed in total up to 200-250 from September 28 until November 3. At the time, whites referred to events as the Opelousas Riot, as if caused by an outbreak of violence by blacks, and a minority of historians continue to refer to it by this name.
The Camilla massacre took place in Camilla, Georgia, on Saturday, September 19, 1868. It followed the expulsion of the Original 33 black members of the Georgia General Assembly earlier that month. Among those expelled was southwest Georgia representative Philip Joiner.
On September 19, Joiner led a twenty-five-mile march of several hundred blacks (freedmen), and a few whites, from Albany, Georgia, to Camilla, the Mitchell County seat, to attend a Republican political rally on the courthouse square. Estimates of the number of participants range from 150 to 300.
The local sheriff and “citizens committee” in the majority-white town warned the black and white activists that they would be met with violence, and demanded that they surrender their guns, even though carrying weapons was legal and customary at the time. The marchers refused to give up their guns and continued to the courthouse square, where a group of local whites, quickly deputized by the sheriff, fired upon them. This assault forced the Republicans and freedmen to retreat into the swamps as locals gave chase, killing an estimated nine to fifteen of the black rally participants while wounding forty others.
“Whites proceeded through the countryside over the next two weeks, beating and warning Negroes that they would be killed if they tried to vote in the coming election.” The Camilla Massacre was the culmination of smaller acts of anti-Black violence committed by white inhabitants that had plagued southwest Georgia since the end of the Civil War.
The massacre received national publicity, prompted Congress to return Georgia to military occupation, and was a factor in the 1868 U.S. presidential election. The Camilla Massacre remained part of southwest Georgia’s hidden past until 1998, when Camilla residents publicly acknowledged the massacre for the first time and commemorated its victims.
Constitutional Amendments Passed
- The Fourteenth Amendment (Amendment XIV) to the United States Constitution was adopted on July 9, 1868, as one of the Reconstruction Amendments. Often considered one of the most consequential amendments, it addresses citizenship rights and equal protection under the law and was proposed in response to issues related to former slaves following the American Civil War.
States Admitted Into The Union
- Nebraska became the 37th state March 1, 1867 from the Nebraska Territory
Just Like Jackson
Politically, he looked to Andrew Jackson believing the federal union must be preserved and is often referred to as the last Jacksonian. He thought of himself as the voice of the common man, or should I say the common white man as he was probably the most racist president we ever had, openly referred to blacks as savages and barbarians who belonged back on the plantation while the public sphere belonged to whites.
The Civil War Was Over
Johnson’s legacy would be based on the Reconstruction crisis, and how the south would be brought back into the union. How would our nation be defined? Who would be a citizen and what rights would they have? Radical Republicans, led by Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner thought the south should be punished, and former slaves should be made free citizens and given the right to vote.
Presidential Reconstruction Plan
In April of 1865, the south laid prostrate and were willing to accept any terms. They expected thundering revenge and punishment, but Johnson didn’t treat them as a conquered region. He offered amnesty for most ex-confederates and quick acceptance into the union. Freed slaves were not guaranteed citizenship or the right to vote.
Johnson was on the wrong side of history, morality and politics as he was unable to recognize that the Civil War changed the nation. Emancipation carried the obligation to protect the rights of slaves before restoration of the south could be complete.
In opposition to Johnson, they started passing reconstruction acts, including an extension of The Freedmen’s Bureau (1868), a measure begun under Lincoln to aid the transition of blacks into freedom. Johnson vetoing bills Congress passed would become the norm. His 29 vetoes shattered the previous record of 12. Johnson was overturned by Congress 15 times which is still a record.
The Civil Rights Bill of 1866
The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was the first United States federal law to define citizenship and affirm that all citizens are equally protected by the law. It was mainly intended, in the wake of the American Civil War, to protect the civil rights of persons of African descent born in or brought to the United States.
The Act was passed by Congress in 1865 and vetoed by United States President Andrew Johnson. In April 1866 Congress again passed the bill to support the Thirteenth Amendment, and Johnson again vetoed it, but a two-thirds majority in each chamber overrode the veto to allow it to become law without presidential signature.
John Bingham and other congressmen argued that Congress did not yet have sufficient constitutional power to enact this law. Following passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, Congress ratified the 1866 Act in 1870.
Tenure of Office Act of 1867
The Tenure of Office Act was a United States federal law (in force from 1867 to 1887) that was intended to restrict the power of the president to remove certain office-holders without the approval of the Senate. The law was enacted on March 2, 1867, over the veto of President Andrew Johnson. It purported to deny the president the power to remove any executive officer who had been appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate, unless the Senate approved the removal during the next full session of Congress.
The act was significantly amended by Congress on April 5, 1869, under President Ulysses S. Grant. Congress repealed the act in its entirety in 1887, exactly 20 years after the law was enacted.
His impeachment was initiated on February 24, 1868, when the United States House of Representatives resolved to impeach Andrew Johnson, the 17th president of the United States, for “high crimes and misdemeanors”, which were detailed in 11 articles of impeachment. The primary charge against Johnson was that he had violated the Tenure of Office Act, passed by Congress in March 1867 over Johnson’s veto.
Specifically, he had removed from office Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war whom the act was largely designed to protect. Stanton often sided with the Radical Republican faction that passed the act, and Stanton did not have a good relationship with Johnson. Johnson attempted to replace Stanton with Brevet Major General Lorenzo Thomas. (Earlier, while the Congress was not in session, Johnson had suspended Stanton and appointed General Ulysses S. Grant as secretary of war ad interim.)
Johnson became the first American president to be impeached on March 2–3, 1868, when the House formally adopted the articles of impeachment and forwarded them to the United States Senate for adjudication. The trial in the Senate began three days later, with Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presiding. On May 16, the Senate did not convict Johnson on one of the articles, with the 35–19 vote in favor of conviction falling one vote short of the necessary two-thirds majority. A 10-day recess was called before attempting to convict him on additional articles. On May 26, the Senate did not convict the president on two articles, both by the same margin, after which the trial was adjourned without considering the remaining eight articles of impeachment.
The impeachment and trial of Andrew Johnson had important political implications for the balance of federal legislative-executive power. It maintained the principle that Congress should not remove the president from office simply because its members disagreed with him over policy, style, and administration of the office. It also resulted in diminished presidential influence on public policy and overall governing power, fostering a system of governance which future-President Woodrow Wilson referred to in the 1880s as “Congressional Government”.
Johnson discredited the presidency, and his intransigence empowered Congress to take a greater role in formulating major national policy. Johnson’s fecklessness would have a lasting impact on the executive branch as a series of weak presidents would follow for the next 30 years. Johnson is an example of the people effectively voicing their disapproval of the executive “overstepping” his bounds through actions of the Congress and Senate.
- Affidavit of Philip Joiner: Albany, Georgia, 1868 Sept. 23. (n.d.). Digital Library of Georgia. https://dlg.usg.edu/record/dlg_zlcu_cam022
- Andrew Johnson. (n.d.). UnderstandingPrejudice.org. https://secure.understandingprejudice.org/draft/slavery/presinfo.php?president=17
- Camilla massacre. (n.d.). New Georgia Encyclopedia. https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/camilla-massacre
- The Civil Rights Act of 1866. (2013, January 28). Teaching American History. https://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/the-civil-rights-act-of-1866/
- Edwin M. Stanton (1814-1869). (n.d.). Mr. Lincoln and Friends. https://www.mrlincolnandfriends.org/the-cabinet/edwin-stanton/
- Horatio Seymour. (2019, February 27). William G. Pomeroy Foundation. https://www.wgpfoundation.org/historic-markers/horatio-seymour/
- (n.d.). IdeaExchange@UAkron. https://ideaexchange.uakron.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1003&context=conlawakron39th
- Legacy of Thaddeus Stevens. (n.d.). Thaddeus Stevens College. https://stevenscollege.edu/legacy-of-thaddeus-stevens/
- Lorenzo Thomas. (n.d.). The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson. https://www.andrewjohnson.com/11biographieskeyindividuals/LorenzoThomas.htm
- MADEO. (n.d.). Sep. 28, 1868 | White mobs massacre Black community in Opelousas, Louisiana. A History of Racial Injustice. https://calendar.eji.org/racial-injustice/sep/28
- March 3, 1867 Tenure of Office Act passed setting the legal basis for the Johnson impeachment. (2019, November 24). The Reconstruction Era. https://thereconstructionera.com/march-3-1867-tenure-of-office-act-passed-setting-the-legal-basis-for-the-johnson-impeachment/
- Robinson, M. A. (2020, February 27). Pulaski, Tennessee race riot, 1868 •. Welcome to Blackpast •. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/pulaski-race-riot-1868/
- Salmon P. Chase. (n.d.). Tulane University. https://www.tulane.edu/~sumter/Chase.html
- Whipple, E. P. (2019, January 22). The Johnson party. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1866/09/the-johnson-party/518748/
- Woodrow Wilson’s congressional government: Yesterday, today, and tomorrow. (n.d.). Wilson Center. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/woodrow-wilsons-congressional-government-yesterday-today-and-tomorrow
Ulysses S. Grant (1869 – 1877) would follow Andrew Johnson.
Abraham Lincoln (1861 – 1865) preceded Andrew Johnson
Zachary Taylor (1849 – 1850) assumed the Presidency after the Mexican War
Woodrow Wilson (1913 – 1921) would guide the United States through World War I.
Jimmy Carter (1977 – 1981) would be the only Democratic President for 25 years post Civil Rights.
George W. Bush (2000 – 2008) is the final President in our series.