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The Tailor-Made President: Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson may have been the poorest president ever, at least in terms of his humble beginnings. He was born in North Carolina to impoverished parents, and his father died when Johnson was just 3 years old. He never went to school and instead became a tailor’s apprentice at the age of 14.

Johnson taught himself to read and became involved in politics at the age of 17. When the Civil War broke out, he became military governor of Tennessee. In 1864, the Republican Lincoln picked the Democrat Johnson to be his vice presidential running mate. The thought was that a pro-Union Democrat would balance the ticket and attract more votes.

But when Lincoln was killed, the country was left with a stubborn and ill-tempered president who had none of Lincoln’s gift of leadership. Johnson didn’t like blacks, didn’t like rich Southerners, and didn’t like the Republican-controlled Congress.

In 1866, Johnson took what was called a “Swing around the Circle,” traveling around the Northern states to campaign for Democrats running for Congress and against the 14th Amendment, which would give blacks full citizenship.

Johnson’s “Swing around the Circle” was a disaster. The president was booed and jeered by Northern crowds who viewed him as a pro-South bozo. The Republicans dominated the election and had such overwhelming majorities in Congress that they easily passed any bill they wanted — and then just as easily overrode Johnson’s vetoes.

Pushed by Radical Republicans, such as Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Congress passed a series of Reconstruction acts designed to force the South into line.

One Reconstruction act, passed in 1867, divided the South into five military districts, each governed by a general and policed by the army. To be allowed to reenter the Union and get rid of military rule, Southern states had to agree to ratify the 14th Amendment. They also had to modify their state constitutions to give African Americans the right to vote.

This stipulation was particularly galling to Southerners, because many Northern states didn’t allow blacks to vote.

Adding salt to the wound, Congress also approved and sent to the states the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed all adult males everywhere the right to vote. This amendment was passed to ensure the Southern states didn’t go back on their promise to give blacks the ballot (and also because the Radical Republicans were embarrassed to be from Northern states that didn’t let African Americans vote).

Enough Southern state legislatures were dominated by carpetbaggers, former slaves, and other people whose loyalties were to the Radical Republicans to ensure the amendment’s ratification. However, Southern states gradually got around the law anyway by requiring blacks to pass difficult “literacy” and “citizenship” tests before they could vote.

The 15th Amendment also greatly angered many American women, who found that they were now second-class citizens to black males as well as white ones when it came to voting.

One result of giving newly freed slaves the right to vote was that they elected some of their own to state legislatures. The resulting black-white governments in some states created sound, fair tax and education systems; built roads and levees; and gave property rights to women.

In other states, the government was dominated by leeches and thieves of both races, although white politicians were by far the worst offenders. One carpetbagger governor managed to “save” more than $4 million on an annual salary of $8,000 a year.

Radical Republicans weren’t satisfied with being able to overturn Johnson’s vetoes. They wanted him out of the White House, which, according to the Constitution, would then fall to the leader of the Senate, Ohio’s Benjamin Wade.

To get what they wanted, the Radicals laid a trap. Congress passed a bill that required the president to have Senate approval before he could fire any of his appointees. Johnson, who believed the act was unconstitutional, promptly took the bait and fired his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, whom he considered a Radical Republican stooge.

Following Stanton’s dismissal, Congress impeached Johnson in late February 1868 for violating the law, and the Senate put him on trial. The country regarded the whole situation as a great melodrama: Tickets to the Senate gallery were the toughest buy in town.

On May 16, 1868, the first of three votes was taken to remove Johnson from office. All three were 35 to 19 — one short of the two-thirds needed. Seven Republican senators voted against removing Johnson from office.

All of these men sacrificed their political careers by voting against Johnson’s removal, but they may very well have preserved the U.S. government. Removing Johnson solely on political grounds could’ve created the basis for a congressional dictatorship, whereby Congress could dominate the presidency by threatening to dump any president who didn’t go along with its wishes.

The trial may also have marked the beginning of the end of Northern interest in Reconstruction. Many Northerners were as prejudiced against blacks as many Southerners. They were sick of the issue and wanted to put the war, and its aftermath, behind them.

“The whole public are tired out with these autumnal outbreaks in the South,” wrote a federal official to a Southern governor, in refusing to provide military aid when the KKK interfered in local elections. “Preserve the peace by the forces of your own state.”
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