Andrew Johnson: 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.
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
It was enacted April 9, 1866, and was the first United States federal law to define US citizenship and affirmed that all citizens were equally protected by the law. It was mainly intended to protect the civil rights of blacks. This legislation was enacted by Congress in 1865 but vetoed by President Andrew Johnson. In April 1866 Congress again passed the bill. Although Johnson again vetoed it, a two-thirds majority in each house overcame the veto and the bill therefore became law.
Tenure of Office Act of 1867
It was a United States federal law (in force from 1867 to 1887) that was intended to restrict the power of the President of the United States to remove certain office-holders without the approval of the Senate. The law was enacted on March 3, 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. Congress repealed the act in its entirety in 1887.
The passage of the Tenure of Office Act was a trap Congress knew the stubborn Johnson would challenge. When he dismissed the secretary of war violating act, that gave Congress the excuse for impeachment. Johnson was unwilling to meet or listen to critics, which destroyed his own presidency.
In February of 1868, the house voted to impeach Johnson. The trial in the Senate would see if high crimes and misdemeanors amounted to removal from office with a two thirds majority needed to remove Johnson. Tickets to the trial was the social event in Washington DC. In the end, Johnson avoided conviction and removal of office by one vote. Johnson would serve the rest of his term quietly; afterwards, becoming the only former president to be elected to the Senate.
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.
Ulysses S. Grant would follow him.
It all started with George Washington.