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Published:March 2nd, 2008 12:10 EST
History Corner with Krzys Wasilewski

History Corner with Krzys Wasilewski

By Krzys Wasilewski

President Andrew Johnson was a figure dogged by controversy. On the one hand he worked towards reconciliation with the South and called for more rights for the black population. On the other, he publicly demanded Jefferson Davis and other Confederate leaders be hanged only to confide to his friends that he believed the United States was and should remain a country of white people.

Equally controversial to the policies of Andrew Johnson was the way in which he assumed the presidency. A conspiracy organized by several supporters of the Confederation decided to kill the federal government's three top figures: the president, Abraham Lincoln; the secretary of state, William Henry Seward; and the vice president, Andrew Johnson. The five-men conspiracy chose Good Friday, April 14, 1865, to execute their plan. The president was fatally wounded at Ford's Theater during the third act of Tom Taylor's play, Our American Cousin. At about the same time another assassin broke into Seward's mansion and, failing to shoot him, stabbed him in the neck and face, scarring the secretary for life. The luckiest of the three turned out to be the vice president. On that day, Andrew Johnson was staying at the Kirkwood House Hotel in Washington, just like his would-be-killer, George Atzerodt. But this German-born Confederate sympathizer lacked the cold blood of his two other colleagues and needed alcohol as his crutch. Unfortunately for the Southern cause, his head was as weak as his heart and Atzerodt had drunk too much to walk normally, let alone find his target and pull the trigger. With Lincoln dead and the secretary of state seriously wounded, Andrew Johnson was sworn in on the next day, April 15, as the seventeenth president of the United States.

The presidency was the culmination of Andrew Johnson's American Dream. In the words of the New York Times from August 1, 1875, Johnson's “career was remarkable, even in this country; it would have been quite impossible in any other.” He was born into a poor family, on December 29, 1808, in the provincial town of Raleigh, North Carolina. Four years later Andrew lost his father who drowned while trying to rescue a journalist from a local newspaper. Despite being the youngest of three children (the oldest, William Patterson, was born in 1804; the only daughter, Elizabeth, was born two years later), the future president had to grow up very quickly and assume the duties of breadwinner. At the age of ten, Andrew entered the tailoring profession, apprenticing to one of Raleigh's craftsman. Deprived of even the most basic education, Johnson would probably have remained an unschooled ignoramus, had it not been for one noble man who often read aloud classics to Andrew and his co-workers. From these unusual lectures Johnson understood the power of words and made up his mind to learn how to read and write. It took him a few years and hundreds of sleepless nights to master this difficult art, but when he could finally transcribe his own thoughts, Andrew decided to leave his hometown and start a new period in his life. He shuttled between North Carolina and Tennessee for a couple of years until he settled down in the latter, in the picturesque town of Greenville. There, Andrew, then 19 years old, married a shoemaker’s 18-year-old daughter, Eliza McCardle, who not only became his wife, but also a tutor, teaching him literature and mathematics.

Before Andrew Johnson was chosen by Abraham Lincoln as his running mate in 1864, he had served his town, state, and country as a mayor, state senator, congressman, governor, and senator. Although he was a skillful and energetic legislator throughout all the levels of his political career, it was this latest post, however, that brought Johnson nation-wide popularity. Being a Democrat and Southerner at heart, Johnson was first and foremost a patriot, perceived in Washington as one of the few prominent Southerners who wanted to save the union. When the Civil War broke out, unlike other senators from the South, Johnson decided to continue his tenure, vociferously denouncing the secessionists and defending the constitution. This won him the trust of the Lincoln Administration. In 1862, the president appointed Johnson as military governor of Tennessee with an order to pacify the rebellious state. The Civil War period differed significantly from the years when Johnson served Tennessee as an elected governor. This time there was neither fanfare nor joy awaiting the government nominee in his state residence, which additionally had to be guarded by unionist soldiers. Shortly before assuming the office Johnson was almost lynched when discontented protesters traced and blocked his cart. Only to his cold blood and loaded pistol did Johnson owe the fact that he survived the incident intact. After two years of turbulent rule, Tennessee was returned to civil administration and Johnson, with his job done, left for the capital city. On June 7, 1864 – three months after the Union's victory at Gettysburg – the National Republican Convention decided to re-nominate Abraham Lincoln for president; Andrew Johnson replaced Hannibal Hamlin as a vice president candidate.

Living in the shadow of a great president is never easy. For Andrew Johnson, who throughout all his political career had never refrained from openly speaking his mind, the life of a second in office seemed a tedious task. On March 4, 1865 – the day of Lincoln's swearing-in ceremony – Johnson managed to steal the limelight from the president by showing up drunk and stumbling over his oath. Foreign dignitaries could not believe their eyes when the vice president stood up to address the audience for the second time, obviously forgetting that he had already done it several minutes earlier. Papers across the country wrote about the incident, politely reminding that it wasn't the first time Andrew Johnson had shown an inclination towards alcohol. It is hard to imagine two more contrasting personalities than the president and his deputy. In comparison with Lincoln's quiet, almost pedantic manner, Johnson seemed to be a man of action, “a plebeian and thank God for it.” Regardless of this potentially explosive mixture, both men successfully led the country through its darkest period, striving for its unity and well-being.

The time of truth for Andrew Johnson came on April 15, 1865. The swearing-in ceremony took place at Kirkwood House, the same hotel where, a day earlier, George Atzerodt had failed to kill the vice president. “I feel incompetent to perform duties... which have been so unexpectedly thrown upon me,” said Johnson still shocked by Lincoln's assassination and the enormity of the situation he had to face now. According to the witnesses, Johnson pronounced his oath “very distinctly and impressively.” Putting the Bible down, Chief Justice Chase, who administered the ceremony, turned to Johnson and said, “You are President. May God support, guide and bless you in your arduous duties.” But the beginnings were difficult. Despite his experience in national politics, Johnson lacked the fame and respect of President Abraham Lincoln. The latter led his nation through the worst calamity in its history; Johnson's job, however, was equally if not more insurmountable – he had to unite, politically and socially, two warring sides. Contrary to his predecessor, the new president was Democrat whereas Congress was in the hands of radical Republicans who demanded Confederate leaders be hanged and Union forces pacify the rebellious South.

At first, it seemed that Johnson, despite being a Southerner and Democrat, would work in concert with the radicals. Three days after taking his oath of office, Johnson said that “[t]he times we live in are not without instruction. The American people must be taught -- if they do not already feel -- that treason is a crime and must be punished; that the Government will not always bear with its enemies; that it is strong not only to protect but to punish.” It didn't take a great mind to understand that the president was attacking the South and its leaders who had betrayed the Union and constitution. Johnson even went as far as offering $100,000 for President Jefferson Davis and similar sums for the Confederation's other top figures. What a surprise it was when, contrary to previous declarations, on May 29, the president issued amnesty to everyone involved in the rebellion regardless of their crimes. The amnesty allowed such people as Alexander Stephens of Georgia, the former vice president of the Confederacy, run for Congress and win a seat. Together with his six former administration members and four Confederate generals, Stephens was now to represent the country against which he had rebelled. But it wasn't the end of the Reconstruction. Soon after the controversial amnesty act, Johnson again left Congress flabbergasted when he dismissed military governors and restored civil administration to the southern states. Although future historians would admit that Johnson did the right thing by quickly bringing the South back to the Union and working towards reconciliation, his contemporaries saw it in a completely different light. Republican newspapers began to question the incumbent's decisions. What happened to the president's unhesitating policies and promises? Was it true that those trenchant declarations about punishing the traitors were just mere words made by the president to placate the opposition?

But for Congress it wasn't time to ask questions; it was time to act. In June of 1866, the Republican-dominated Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, securing basic rights of every citizen – whether native-born or naturalized – and giving voting rights to all males who were 21 years of age and older. The Amendment, due to extensive Johnson lobbying, was rejected by all the states but one, Tennessee. The first year of the Johnson administration ended in an undeclared war between the president and Congress, which overrode Johnson's three important vetoes: the Military Reconstruction Act, Command of the Army Act, and the Tenure of Office Act. The latter demanded that the president must receive the Senate's support before he could fire any of his secretaries. This enraged Johnson. He summoned Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to the oval office and informed him that he wanted his resignation, replacing him with General Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War hero. The Senate, however, wouldn't budge and asked the president to keep Stanton. Unadjusted to political mudslinging, Grant quietly withdrew his nomination and the department of war was once again in the hands of Stanton. This cease fire lasted for six months until, on February 21, 1868, Johnson decided to repeat his maneuver and named General Lorenzo Thomas as the new secretary. Knowing that he could count on the backing in Senate, Stanton refused to comply and barricaded his office. Three days later, the House of Representatives with a majority of 79 votes called for the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.

Congressmen came up with eleven impeachment articles. The first eight of them related to the president's breaching of the Tenure of Office Act. In other words, Republicans were avenging Secretary of War Stanton who was still striving to keep his office. Article 9 was connected to the firing of military commanders and demanded that “the said Andrew Johnson may be put to answer the high crimes and misdemeanors in office herein charged against him, and that such proceedings, examinations, trials and judgments may be thereupon had and given as may be agreeable to law and justice.” Articles 10 and 11 accused the president of declaring and affirming “in substance, that the Thirty-ninth Congress of the United States was not a Congress of the United States authorized by the Constitution to exercise legislative power under the same […].” The impeachment loomed large when the Senate began its trial and senators, one by one, leaned towards removing the president from his office. The trial under the chairmanship of chief Justice Chase began on March 5, 1868, and lasted over two months. President Johnson refused to appear at the Capitol; on the day of the voting, May 16, he stayed in the White House, while his aids were dispatched to the Senate floor. In three consecutive attempts to impeach the president from May 16 to May 26, Andrew Johnson was saved by one vote, cast by a young radical Republican Edmund G. Ross. For his courageous performance, Ross was awarded with the position of Southern superintendent of Indian affairs and managed to talk the president into employing his brother as a federal mail agent.

Soon after Republicans failed to impeach the president, Secretary of State Edwin M. Stanton voluntarily resigned from his post. One year later Andrew Johnson refrained from the presidential election and was replaced by more popular and radical Ulysses S. Grant. Before he left for his mansion in Greenville, however, Johnson granted amnesty to everyone who had taken part in the Southern rebellion. Despite being disappointed with politics, he was far from retiring. Twice did he run for Senate and Congress and twice he failed. He succeeded in 1875 only after the Tennessee Legislature chose him to the Senate in a highly-contested election. In his new role, Johnson returned to his controversial style, becoming one of the most vocal critics of the incumbent administration, accusing Grant and his cabinet members of corruption and incompetence. This new role served him well; Johnson seemed to have regained the vim and vigor that epitomized his early years at the Capitol. Then suddenly on July 31, 1875, a paralytic stroke ended his life during his visit to his daughter's home.

Andrew Johnson, who said, “Who, then, will govern? The answer must be, Man – for we have no angels in the shape of men, as yet, who are willing to take charge of our political affairs.”