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ImpeachmentImpeachment of a President: Andrew Johnson, the Blacks, and Reconstruction by Hans Trefousse

Andrew Johnson is one of the most enigmatic and controversial presidents in American history. Depending on one’s perspective and place in time he was either the man responsible for the failure of Reconstruction in the south, or, the man who helped avoid a race war by steering a moderate course between advocates for full civil and political rights for African Americans and those that wanted to keep them in as close to a state of slavery as possible. Johnson has been the subject of many books, by many of the leading scholars of the Reconstruction era, including Eric Foner, who, for my money, is at the top of this list. Each looks at Johnson in different ways, interpreting his actions and the motivation behind them from different points of view. In one respect they all agree, Andrew Johnson was in inveterate racist whose racism shaped his views of Reconstruction and the proper role of the freedmen in the post-Civil War South.

In his book Impeachment of a President: Andrew Johnson, the Blacks, and Reconstruction, Hans Trefousse has produced an extensive and, in my opinion, unique view of Johnson and his presidency. He views Johnson’s motivations from the dual perspectives of Jacksonianism and racism, a perspective I haven’t seen before, and don’t entirely agree with. Trefousse acknowledges, as most scholars do, that Johnson’s intense racism made it impossible for him to “sympathize in any way with policies furthering racial equality. (Trefousse, 5) However, Trefousse departs from conventional wisdom which views Johnson as “inept and stubborn,” by concluding he was in fact sincere in his beliefs and a skillful, uncompromising tactical politician.

Andrew Johnson viewed himself as a “Jackson Democrat.” This implied, among other things, a belief in white superiority, a classical states rights view of the constitution, a rejection of secession as one of those rights, a bottom up view of politics including an often intense distrust of large monied interests, and like Jackson himself, a willingness to stubbornly stand one’s ground in defense of his beliefs, trusting in eventual vindication by the American people. Trefousse does not dig into Johnson’s motivations for his dislike of the slavocracy before the war, something that would not be a characteristic of a Jackson Democrat, but he does ascribe the others to him, and uses them to explain Johnson’s actions throughout reconstruction, especially in relation to the efforts to impeach him.

Andrew Johnson, “like Andrew Jackson, conceived of an America ruled by whites.” (Trefousse, 4) As guaranteed in the constitution, Johnson was devoted to democracy and viewed it as a precious gift. But, in his view the constitution was “written by white men, [and] he believed that its benefits were reserved for whites.” (Trefousse, 4) As Trefousse points out, evidence for this racism is abundant, ranging from disgust at seeing black troops stationed in Tennessee while he was its wartime governor, to his denunciation of the Reconstruction Bill of 1867 he described as a “measure to treat the suffering people of the South under foot ‘top protect niggers’,” to his annoyance at seeing predominantly black laborers working on the White House lawn. (Trefousse, 4) The primary expression of Johnson’s racism during this period however, was his stubborn determination to minimize the role of black’s in Reconstruction, and to maintain the domination of the white race. In furtherance of that goal, all through the Reconstruction period, Johnson acted on these racist principles, taking actions which he believed would maintain white domination in the reconstructed south, including his May 29, 1865 Proclamation of Amnesty which “inaugurated and extremely liberal policy of pardoning ex-Confederates,” and his call for white southerners to hold conventions for the purpose of organizing new state governments, thus disregarding demands for black suffrage. (Trefousse, 11) His racism would not allow a policy of land distribution to freedmen. As Trefousse observes, had Johnson wanted to “maintain the dominance of the white race… [he]…could not permit the transfer of land to the freedmen.” (Trefousse, 15) Consequently he established a policy of returning confiscated land to their Confederate owners in an effort to deny freedmen the opportunity to become landholders. In early 1866 Johnson vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau bill, primarily for racist reasons, and in 1867 he vetoed the Civil Rights bill partially for constitutional reasons, but also because “it offended his racial sensibilities since it proposed to outlaw all discrimination between the races.” (Trefousse, 26) And, in 1866 he opposed passage of the fourteenth amendment to the constitution whose moderate purpose was to insure the equal treatment of all citizens under state law. As with the Civil Rights bill, Johnson objected partially on substantive grounds, but also because it gave rights to blacks which he did not believe they should have. In taking these uncompromising stands, Johnson passed up numerous opportunities to compromise with moderate and conservative Republicans that may have enhanced his political position. Instead, he chose to stand his ground, certain “that history and his country would ultimately recognize the purity of his actions.” (Trefousse, 6) Instead, while he was President, “[Andrew Johnson] would utilize the entire resources of his high office to keep the South a white man’s country.” (Trefousse, 29)

While racism was the primary reason for Johnson’s opposition to the equitable treatment of freedmen, it was not the only one. Another, Trefousse argues, was that Johnson, like Andrew Jackson, was devoted to an indissoluble Union and to the Constitution. He held a classic states rights position as did Jackson ascribing to the individual states sovereignty in most matters. He drew the line at state nullification of federal law and secession, neither of which he believed were sanctioned by the Constitution. This explains his loyalty to the Union; a view at odds with the majority of his former constituents in Tennessee. It also partially explains a number of his actions during Reconstruction including his veto of the Freedman’s Bureau bill, the Civil Rights bill, and his opposition to the fourteenth amendment. All of these actions Trefousse argues, were based on Johnson’s view of the proper role of the federal government; specifically, his belief that the constitution did not give the federal government power to define the terms of suffrage in the various states. It was also evident in the way Johnson worked to minimize the effects of military Reconstruction, replacing generals who were viewed as too radical. It was perhaps most dramatically demonstrated by his challenge to the Tenure of Office Act. Designed to restrict Johnson’s control of federal patronage, the act forbade the dismissal of any Presidential appointee still in the term of their appointment without Congressional approval. Johnson, anxious to rid himself of Secretary of War Stanton, and in an apparent desire to test the act’s constitutionality, removed him from office, setting up a confrontation with Congress. Republicans in the House of Representatives, who had been looking for an excuse to Impeach Johnson, used his violation of this act to do so. After shameful and unethical behavior on both sides, Johnson was ultimately acquitted by one vote in the Senate.

Where Trefousse departs from many other historians’ analysis of Johnson’s actions during this period, is in his interpretation of Johnson’s apparent stubbornness in the face of Republican pressure. Usually dismissed as the actions of a vindictive and recalcitrant politician, Johnson’s unwillingness to go along with Republican reconstruction efforts were actually politically calculated to achieve a very specific result. Every action he took, from purposely alienating his own ostensible allies by refusing to compromise on even the most moderate attempts to give basic civil and political liberties to freedmen, to risking impeachment over his violation of the Tenure of Office Act, was calculated, argues Trefousse, “to accomplish his own goals – to thwart Radical Reconstruction and maintain white supremacy in the South, “policies he truly believed would eventually be seen by history as correct.

At times it seems Trefousee has a sneaking admiration for Johnson. This is understandable. Certainty can be an appealing quality in a politician – at least initially. However, from the tenor and tone of the book as a whole, particularly in his extensive discussion of Johnson’s racism, Trefousse does not appear to have a high opinion of Johnson as a statesman. It is certainly clear he believes Johnson’s behavior during the Reconstruction period was harmful to the country. He notes more than once that because of the eclipse of the Southern ruling class, had Johnson acted more decisively, overcoming his racist attitudes, that “it would have been comparatively simple to enfranchise at least some of the Negroes in the former Confederacy,” (Trefousse, 7) Andrew Johnson was a Jacksonian living in a post-Jacksonian world and was unable to view things any other way.

 

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