Andrew Johnson’s Legacy Still The Center Of Debate

I came across this story regarding the legacy of one of the worst presidents, in my opinion, this country has ever had.

In this story we learn, “Many historians adopted a negative view of the ex-president in the years that followed the Civil War, mostly for his handling of Reconstruction. Historian William Dunning, a leader of that school of thought, called Johnson incompetent. Johnson’s standing rose among scholars in the 1920s. Biographies sprung up in libraries across the nation declaring the tailor from Greeneville the “defender of the Constitution” who protected the South from vengeful northern Republicans. In the 1960s and 1970s, when historians turned their focus to issues of social justice and civil rights, Johnson’s reputation sank again. In the academic world, it’s remained low ever since.”

At the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site, “pieces of the guardian-of-the-South sentiment remain intact.” We learn, “Many of the center’s illustrations tout him as the ‘voice for the working class’ and as the ‘constitutional president.’ ‘Johnson’s faith in the ordinary working man manifested itself throughout his political career,’ notes one display. It goes on to explain Johnson’s push for public lands for homesteading, belief in conservative fiscal spending and opposition to the electoral college. Over the years, public officials and a handful of professors praised the site for its historical accuracy and pleasing aesthetics. The Johnson site does, however, have its critics, most of them professional historians who believe the site glosses over a bevy of scholarship from the last half century — scholarship, they say, that pegs Johnson a white supremacist even in a era of slavery and bigotry, as well as a lousy president, perhaps the worst in U.S. history.”

One of those critics is Professor Andrew Slap of East Tennessee State University. “As for the ‘defender of the Constitution’ label popular among historians from the 1920s through the 1950s, Slap said: ‘A whole generation of scholars have taken issue with that interpretation.’ He said the films shown at the site ‘hearken back to the traditional interpretation’ of Johnson as hero. It’s a ‘disservice,’ he said, ‘to wipe the issue of white superiority’ from displays and interpretations at the park. Slap and other scholars point to private letters and public speeches as evidence of Johnson’s failures as president, as well as his hostility toward newly freed slaves.”

A prime example occurred after Frederick Douglass visited Johnson at the White House. “After meeting with abolitionist Frederick Douglass and a delegation of black leaders, Johnson remarked to his secretary: ‘The damned sons of b___ thought they had me in a trap! I know that damned Douglass; he’s just like any [n-word], and he would sooner cut a white man’s throat than not.’ (The late historian William Gienapp included this quote in his documentary collection on the Civil War and Reconstruction, as have many other historians.)”

According to AJNHS superintendent Lizzie Watts, “The fact is, a lot of new-age historians simply don’t do a lot of primary research on Johnson. When you’ve heard how bad he is over and over, it’s easy to believe it.” Another defender at the site was the late Dr. Robert Orr. “Orr performed volunteer work at the site and occasionally advised Watts on some of Johnson’s political positions. He, as well as many of the interpretations at the historic site, argue that Johnson advanced the cause of emancipation for enslaved African Americans. Both Orr and the historic site place an emphasis on what they dubbed Johnson’s warm-hearted treatment of slaves, as well as Aug. 8, 1863, the day the future president freed his slaves.”

We read in the story that “Exhibits at the visitor center note correctly that Johnson vetoed two pieces of legislation, the Civil Rights Bill of 1866 and the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill of 1866. Both granted numerous civil rights to African Americans, including the right to own property and to testify in court. (The Republican-controlled Congress overrode Johnson’s vetoes.) According to the exhibits, Johnson issued vetoes ‘based on his interpretation of the Constitution with respect to the rights of the states.’ Left out of that commentary was Johnson’s ‘deep-seated racial prejudices’ that [Professor Eric] Foner spoke about in 2008. For historians critical of Johnson, that’s the accompanying — often left out — piece to the ‘strict constitutionalist’ view: white supremacy guided Johnson’s politics.”

According to Superintendent Watts, “Civil rights seem to be the main reason that so many historians are down on Johnson. But sometimes we forget that this was the most dramatic time in American history. I will say that I think the more primary research you do on Johnson, the more you will come to understand his positions.”

While I have no doubt that the more primary research you do on Johnson the more you understand his positions, that’s not a good thing for Johnson’s reputation. Brooks Simpson worked on Johnson’s papers and read more deeply in primary sources on Johnson than most historians, and I would wager more deeply than Superintendent Watts. He calls putting Johnson on the ticket in 1864 “Abraham Lincoln’s Biggest Mistake,” and calls the day Johnson took office as President of the United States “The Worst Day in American History.”

I’ll go with that interpretation.

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One comment

  1. Shoshana Bee · · Reply

    This post led me on a long and winding path into the world of Johnson. I appreciate the renewed interest in Johnson due the election season (and obvious parallels to a particular candidate), and even more importantly: aspects of Johnson have surfaced that I never examined before, such as the “Swing Around the Circle” speeches. Enough about the “real” Johnson was contained in the small amount of speech content that I took in, and further reading on Dr. Simpson’s blog convinced me beyond a doubt that indeed, Johnson was thee worst US president, ever (or should I say “thus far”?) I am having a very difficult time at this point in seeing any redeeming qualities as compared to the overwhelming repugnance of Johnson’s personal views and how they played out in his policies.

    Once again, I am appreciating this blog for encouraging me to explore topics that I may not have otherwise looked into.

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