Monday, 25 April 2011

“Andrew Johnson” by Annette Gordon-Reed (Times/Henry Holt)

Gordon-Reed-AndrewJohnsonThe Unwanted 17th President

A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian recounts the tale of the unwanted president who ran afoul of Congress over Reconstruction and was nearly removed from office.

Andrew Johnson never expected to be president. But just six weeks after becoming Abraham Lincoln's vice president, the events at Ford's Theatre thrust him into the nation's highest office.

Johnson faced a nearly impossible task—to succeed America's greatest chief executive, to bind the nation's wounds after the Civil War, and to work with a Congress controlled by the so-called Radical Republicans. Annette Gordon-Reed, one of America's leading historians of slavery, shows how ill-suited Johnson was for this daunting task. His vision of reconciliation abandoned the millions of former slaves (for whom he felt undisguised contempt) and antagonized congressional leaders, who tried to limit his powers and eventually impeached him.

The climax of Johnson's presidency was his trial in the Senate and his acquittal by a single vote, which Gordon-Reed recounts with drama and palpable tension. Despite his victory, Johnson's term in office was a crucial missed opportunity; he failed the country at a pivotal moment, leaving America with problems that we are still trying to solve.

Andrew Johnson inherited the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination, at a most difficult time in United States history. That they were so different from each other, with such different mindsets and skills, proved a disappointment for those who had supported Lincoln’s vision, and a tragedy for those Lincoln had sought to serve most. In this slim volume, Annette Gordon-Reed gives a quick-paced account of the life of America’s 17th President.

Johnson was “a near polar opposite of Lincoln in his leadership style and temperament”. Unsurprisingly, Reed often compares the two presidents, stating that “America went from the best to the worst in one presidential term.” The author explains how both had similar origins in “hardscrabble” early lives, but where Lincoln learned and bloomed through his experiences, Johnson was “wounded” by his struggle to reach respectable society, and Reed suggests it was Johnson’s inability to let go of his early trials that “crippled him inside” and laid the foundations for his ultimate presidential failure. Johnson carried with him a life-long self consciousness of his roots, seemingly afraid of being ‘found out’ and spurned for it.

“Books, a familiar vehicle of escape, were like a drug to him. He read voraciously as if he were trying to fill his head with all the things he had missed in his impoverished childhood.”

One could argue that, in some matters of character, Johnson was George W Bush’s predecessor. I’m not suggesting Bush was a racist, but rather in certain areas of decision-making and character, the two were remarkably similar. Specifically, as the author explains, “when [Johnson] took a position, with seeming pride, he stuck to it no matter how catastrophic.” In all his political offices, Johnson “offered his stubbornness as evidence that he was a man of principle when, in fact, he was simply afraid to be wrong. Or, at least, he was afraid to be seen being wrong.”

Throughout his life, Johnson had a peculiar relationship with the Southern Planter class. He was both jealous and resentful of it, born in poverty, downtrodden by the wealthy, but oh-so-eager to enter into its ranks. “As his actions during his presidency suggest, Johnson’s much-vaunted hatred of the southern planter class was born of deep envy and a form of unrequited admiration. It was the burning hatred of a lover spurned and scorned.” For example, President Johnson’s “vindictive” treatment of disgraced Confederate grandees, making a great show of forcing them to come to him in order to effectively “beg” for re-admittance into the United States – after this show of obeisance, Johnson acted with “great alacrity”, his psychological need sated.

Johnson’s reconstruction proposals and preferences were bizarre and contradictory for a man who had despised the Southern Planter class/aristocracy, but also in line with his inherent racism and belief in the inferiority of blacks. He clearly still saw the US as having a “white man’s government”, and was totally supportive of that. His opposition to black suffrage was at odds with the Republican Party’s platform, who saw that the only way for blacks to guarantee their freedom was by allowing them to become part of the governmental process (also, they offered a potentially massive increase in voters likely to support those who gave them the vote – i.e. the Republican Party).

“Observers were stunned that the man who had evinced such a lifelong hostility toward the southern gentry, who he called traitors, should suddenly want to put men who had taken up arms against the United States back in control of the South. Thousands upon thousands of northern soldiers had died trying to remove this class of men from power, and Johnson rushed to put them back in place.”

His treatment of the Southern Planter class in the wake of the Civil War was not a unique occurrence. Johnson’s style could be quite brash and combative, and he “did not always know when to bring his inner attack dog to heel. Instead of disarming people, he began to offend as much as impress with his verbal assaults.”

Johnson’s inherent racism was particularly evident in his mixed support for cheap land for the poor. As a congressman, and through the Homestead Bill, he supported making newly opened land cheap for poor white labourers, in the hope of giving them more freedom and security (not to mention access to credit). However, as president he was decidedly opposed to similar measures that would have benefited newly-freed, poor blacks. Specifically, in 1865, Johnson rushed to prevent successful implementation of proposed land reform, which would have given newly freed blacks the same opportunities offered to poor whites in Johnson’s own proposed (but ultimately whittled-down and pared-back) Homestead Bill. “Land ownership meant independence.”

“The killing off of land reform ensured that the vast majority of southern blacks would be unable to achieve personal independence and would have to work for their former masters, now back in the saddle courtesy of Johnson.”

While Johnson remained a supporter of slavery in theory, Gordon-Reed suggests that his rhetorical turn-around was more to do with politics than any personal enlightenment; also, Johnson's genuine love for the Union and his desire to keep it intact may also have driven his policy-switch, as he saw slavery as a guarantee for disunion.

“Throughout the entirety of his political career he did everything he could to make sure blacks would never become equal citizens in the United States of America. Tragically, he was able to bring the full force and prestige of the American presidency to the effort.”

The author gives an interesting account of Johnson’s unfortunate inauguration as Lincoln’s second vice-president; his “imbecilic” comportment (he was drunk), and the possible reasons behind it. This was certainly interesting. The author seems to get a lot of satisfaction tearing Johnson down for what was, admittedly, the appalling state of the man now a heart-beat away from the presidency. But, I felt this (and the occasional other passage) took a little too much relish is knocking him down. In a series that has, on the whole, attempted a scholarly detachment towards its subjects if a favourable approach is not possible, this volume has a distinctly different tone, and for that reason struck a bit of a disappointing chord with me. There are many other presidents who have condoned or even perpetrated reprehensible policies or actions – they haven’t been brushed under the rug in any of the volumes thus far released as part of the series, but neither do they sit back and take pot shots at the president in question.

It’s refreshing that the author hasn’t glossed over the more negative aspects of Johnson’s life and presidency (it would have been impossible to do so for the latter), but the author’s justified disgust at Johnson's actions as president unfairly colour the treatment of his earlier career and life. Much of what he did was courageous (even if it did turn out to be a political ploy, as it did yield some positive results) – such as being a Southern Senator so at openly and vocally at odds with the secessionist sentiment in the South. One cannot doubt or argue that his professional and political rise was highly impressive and the stuff of American political myth and dreams – truly, he was a by-the-bootstraps success, which was far harder in those days than in many decades since (some would argue that social mobility has once again ground to a halt). His presidential record is abysmal, but a lighter touch might have been welcome for his earlier life. Gordon-Reed does make reference to the existing prejudices of the day, and it is clear that Johnson had a particularly ingrained racist streak, but the explanation is perfunctory and dismissive. Too much attention is paid to the ‘gossip’ aspect of his life – which is somewhat understandable, given the dearth of Johnson’s own writing (he just didn’t really leave anything – much of the writing and correspondence we have of Johnson’s life is comprised of letters ‘To’ Johnson, rather than ‘From’ the man).

Overall, this is an interesting and very well-written volume. It had none of the dry passages one finds in some of the other books in the series, and the author’s prose is lively and accessible. Johnson is a president I didn’t know that much about, and the author has managed to include an excellent amount of detail in such a short biography. If you are either a fan of the series, or have an interest in the president, this is a very good place to start.

Despite the sometimes odd tone (if I’m honest, I still can’t quite place what it was that I sometimes didn’t like), I would definitely recommend this book. This book should also work as an introduction to Annette Gordon-Reed’s writing (which is very good, and it’s not at all difficult to see how she won a Pulitzer Prize) – a starting point before diving into her more substantial works, such as The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008).

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