Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Andrew Johnson: A lucky-unlucky president

Harper's Weekly of Thaddeus Stevens making his final argument
to the house during Johnson's impeachment hearing.
When Andrew Johnson was selected to be Senator from Tennessee in 1857 he did not have ambitions of becoming president.  Yet circumstances would unravel as to set up a situation whereby he would luck into the Vice Presidency and, six months later, the Presidency. However, his time in that office was tenuous at best, or quite unlucky despite his honorable intentions.

He lived in a part of Tennessee where there were no large plantations and no wealthy land owners. So he had no ambitions to pass laws that benefited large businesses and merchants.  This was the job of the Whig party, which grew a large following in Tennessee.

Johnson, on the other hand, was sort of what we would now refer to as a libertarian.  However, back in his day they were referred to as Jacksonian Democrats. They supported farmers and small businesses, or what many refer to as commoners.  He was opposed to regulations and taxes, believing commoners could manage their affairs better than the government.

So he had a nice job as U.S. Senator from Tennessee when the Civil War Started.  He had succeeded in talking legislators in his state from seceding from the nation until the Battle of fort Sumpter between April 12-14, 1861.  It was at this point that tensions grew to a point that, despite his pleas to stay in the Union, Tennessee seceded.

Despite this, Johnson became the only Senator from a Confederate State to stay loyal to the Union and stay at his post.  This must have been the hardest decision he ever had to make.  He was lambasted and ridiculed by other legislators from Tennessee, many of whom had been his friends.  But it also proved to be a brilliant decision at the same time, as he was loved by members of the Union.

One person who was well aware of Johnson's heroics was Abraham Lincoln.  During his first term as President, Lincoln appointed Johnson Military Governor to Tennessee. Johnson was honored to take the job, although he would soon discover that it was an arduous task mainly because he had little authority over Union soldiers, and because there remained many Confederate supporters in the state.

It must be understood that at this time their were two factions of the republican party: Moderate Republicans and Radical Republicans.  Moderate Republicans were lead by Abraham Lincoln, and this consisted of the majority when Lincoln was elected in 1860 and 1864.

During reconstruction, Radical Republicans agreed with Lincoln that the seceded states should be admitted back into the Union, although on Congress's terms,not the presidents. Radical Republicans believed the seceded states should be punished, and their social structure uprooted. In the meantime, they wanted newly emancipated blacks to be protected by Federal powers.

In 1864, Moderate Republicans contented that their party was for all Union supporters.  So, for one election only, they became the Union Party.  Hannibal Hamlin had been Lincoln's Vice President, but moderate republicans, concerned about Lincoln's re-election chances due to the war, thought Andrew Johnson would
appeal to voters in border states.  So Johnson became the logical choice as Lincoln's running mate -- even though he was a slave owning southern democrat (he owned a few slaves).

This decision didn't sit so well with Radical Republicans in the North, one of whom was Thaddeus Stevens, who believed the republicans should have found a candidate "without going down into one of those damned rebel provinces," Steven's said.

George B. McClellen was the best logical choice of the democrats.  He had gained fame as General of Union Troops at the start of the war, although he had lost the faith of the President, who replaced him with General Ulysses S. Grant.  The problem with McClellan is he did not support the Democrat position that the war should come to a swift end.

It didn't really matter that the republicans chose Johnson to be the VP, or that the democrats chose McClellan as their presidential nominee, because just prior to the election word was spread of General Sherman's triumphant victory in Atlanta.  This seemed to be all that was needed to carry Lincoln into a landslide victory in the general election, earning him 212 electoral votes to McClellan's 21.

However, six months after the election, on April 15, 1865, Lincoln was dead and Johnson was sworn in as President. This was an unlucky moment for Lincoln, Johnson, and the nation.  However, this was how Johnson, a democrat and slave owner from the south, became president when republicans controlled Washington.

Initially every thing seemed to work out just fine for Johnson, as he intended to push forth the plans already set in place by Lincoln.

Just prior to his death, Lincoln authorized a ten percent plan, whereby he would allow elections after ten percent of voters made an oath of allegiance to the United States.  Radical Republicans in Congress hated this plan claiming it was too lenient, and so they passed a bill requiring a majority vote before voting could take place.  Lincoln pocket vetoed this bill.

Like Lincoln, Johnson, likewise wanting to quickly restore southern states to the Union.  He believed that they did not win the war, and therefore never truly left the Union.  Based on this idea, he believed former Confederate states should be recognized by the Union as soon as they formed a government.  At the very least, Lincoln and Johnson believed a speedy resolution of the messes made by the Civil war would ease tensions within the Union.

Let us say that Johnson was very supportive of the idea of a quick period of reconstruction.  He believed any efforts to resolve any civil rights issues, such as suffrage, of the newly freed slaves (referred to as freedmen) would only act as distractions.  He figured these issues would be resolved over time by each individual state.

So, even with Congress out of office until December, Johnson set in place his plan at reconstruction.  He figured that, if everything went his way, that he could have most of the work done before Congress was back in session.

Among Johnson's first actions as president was to grant pardons to all former radicals who took an oath of office.  He made Confederate leaders, and all wealthy men (those who made over $20,000), obtain a special pardon from the President. Either way, Johnson believed this would quickly mend scars.

Initially his plan went well and was supported by the greater portion of the American populace.  All they wanted was for the Confederacy to be abolished, for those in power to admit defeat, that slavery be ended, and that living conditions for African Americans be improved.

Like Johnson, civil rights for blacks, such as the right to vote, were not on top of the agenda.  In fact, this made sense considering many northern states at the time still didn't recognize freedmen as citizens.  This issue didn't come to the forefront until Congress was back in session in December of 1895.

Until then, Johnson's plan was allowed to continue as an experiment. But even while it seemed on the surface to be working, it wasn't.  Because it was so lenient, many southern leaders allowed back into their old positions of power were making laws that made it difficult for blacks.  For instance, some laws required former slaves to work on farms on an annual contract they could not quit.  These became known as Black Codes.

When Congress reconvened in December of 1865, Radical Republicans, lead by Charles Sumner and Stevens, decided Johnson's plan was too lenient. They decided harsher punishments were needed to assure the old Confederacy was abolished, and more guarantees were needed to guarantee the rights of the newly freed slaves.

Members of both the House and Senate refused to seat any former member of the Confederacy. While many southern states had already submitted new constitutions, these were set aside and relatively ignored. The House and Senate then got together and created the Joint Committee on Reconstruction and decided all plans for reconstruction must be approved by this committee.

Congress passed a bill enlarging the Freemen's Bureau that was created during the Lincoln Administration to help newly freed black men and women.  It consisted of northern teachers, ministers and former government officials.  They provided food, shelter and an education to help freedmen adjust to life outside of plantations.

President Johnson vetoed the bill claiming it was a violation of state's rights.

Congress passed the Civil Rights Act that guaranteed the basic rights of freedmen.  It said that all persons born in the United States would be classified as U.S. citizens, including African Americans.  It also established the rights of blacks to own land, make contracts, and to "enjoy the full and equal benefit of all laws."

President Johnson vetoed the bill claiming it was a violation of state's rights.

Making matters worse for Johnson was the midterm election.  It was at this time that voters turned out in groves in support of the radical republican agenda, giving radical republicans a majority in both the House and Senate.  This gave them enough votes to override any of the president's vetoes.  They then proceeded to:
  • Override Johnson's veto of the Civil Rights Act, thus establishing the Civil Rights Act of 1866
  • Override Johnson's veto of the Freedman's Bureau
  • In the fall of 1867 they created their own plan for reconstruction that began by placing  southern states under military rule
  • They passed the Civil Rights Amendment, or the 14th Amendment, and required that southern states must ratify it before being allowed back into the Union. Despite Johnson's opposition, it was ratified by each state in July 1868.
  • They passed a bill requiring all of Johnson's Military orders be approved by Grant.  They wanted to make sure he didn't hire military generals who were sympathetic to the south. 
  • They passed the unconstitutional Tenure of Office Act that restricted the president's ability to dismiss or appoint members to his own cabinet.  This was an ardent violation of separation of powers.
Of course it didn't take long for Johnson to violate the Tenure of Office Act.  Secretary of War Edward R. Stanton openly supported the Radical Republican agenda, and he even reported to Congress on secret White House matters.  Johnson had no choice but to dismiss him from office.  In his place he hired General Grant.  He did this while Congress was not in session, so they could not object.

When Congress reconvened, Radical Republicans ordered the president to re-hire Stanton, and Johnson reluctantly agreed. Still, on February 21 he again defied Congress and fired Stanton.  This time he chose General Lorenzo Thomas for the position.  Stanton refused to leave his office, even to the point of barricading his door.

Radical Republicans saw this as an opportunity to get Johnson out of office, so three days later the House voted to impeach him, making this the first impeachment of a sitting president.  He was tried in the Senate in the Spring of 1868, and was acquitted by one vote.

Later, as part of his farewell speech, Johnson said, "It will be recorded as one of the marvels of the times that a party claiming for itself a monopoly of... patriotism... endeavored, by a costly and deliberate trail, to impeach one who defended the Constitution and the Union... during his whole term of office."

So Johnson vetoed bills because he wanted to protect state's rights.  For this we have to give him a little credit. Still, he is generally deemed a failure, at least on the domestic front, because he failed to recognize that white southerners were probably not going to respect the civil rights of African Americans without being forced to do so.  In fact, the same was probably true of some northerners as well.

While his domestic policy was a failure, his foreign policy was sort of a success.  Secretary of State Edward H. Seward, with Johnson's encouragement, brokered a deal whereby the Russian Empire would allow the U.S. to purchase Alaska.  He did this to counter Canada, figuring that it would eventually force Canada into American hands.  Johnson approved the deal. This would turn out to be a significant foreign policy of Johnson's.

This purchase would prove beneficial to the national security of the nation during the Cold War.  It would also prove beneficial about 13 years after the purchase (and five years after Johnson's death) when gold was discovered in Alaska.  Many years later, in 1968, oil was discovered there.

Seward believed that the U.S. would liberate Canada from Britain.  However, in the same year Britain gave Canada Home Rule, meaning if the U.S. invaded Canada they would be invading a sovereign nation.  While Seward's plan of Canada becoming part of America never came to fruition, the purchase of Alaska would eventually pay for itself 100 times over.  Likewise, while this was unknown at the time, it would also mean the end of American expansionism.

So, chances are, if not for the encouragement of Johnson on this issue, Alaska may have ultimately ended up in the hands of the British or Canada.

Understanding the republicans would go in another direction, Johnson petitioned to be the democratic presidential nominee in 1968.  They would strongly consider him before deciding to go with the governor of New York, Horatio Seymour.  The republicans went with a still very popular Civil War General by the name of Ulysses S. Grant.

So Johnson can be considered a horrible president mainly because he had little control over a Radical Republican Congress.  Radical Republicans supported Ulysses S. Grant for President in 1868, and so this would limit Johnson to one term.