According to the C-Span historians, the two presidents who served right before and after the Civil War were the worst in history. I agree that James Buchanan was a failure in every way, but Andrew Johnson doesn’t quite belong in the cellar. He was an unsatisfactory president, not an abysmal one.
He was a virulent racist, and no one wants to go to bat for someone like that. But he is misjudged in ways that need correction. I will assess Johnson on the same basis I do the other presidents: on what his policies did for the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty. His racism obviously matters, but only to the degree that it intrudes on his policies for the detriment of society.
Let’s get this part out of the way. Johnson was one of three presidents (four including Trump, at the time of this writing) who faced impeachment proceedings. Like Bill Clinton, he was impeached by the House but then acquitted by the Senate. Richard Nixon resigned before the House could impeach him. Nixon was only one who deserved to be impeached, as Watergate was a serious Constitutional offense. Clinton was rightfully acquitted: lying under oath about a sex scandal was a crime, but not a high crime or misdemeanor against the state. As for Johnson, the impeachment against him was a joke. All he was doing was rightfully defending the Constitution. And Congress hated him for it.
He vetoed the Tenure of Office Act of 1867, which prohibited a president from firing presidential office holders without the approval of the Senate. The Radical Republicans had passed this law only because they feared that Johnson would fire Edward Stanton, the Secretary of War — who was the Republicans’ spy in Johnson’s cabinet. Congress overrode his veto; Johnson, undaunted, fired Stanton in February ’68, and days later, the House impeached him.
Johnson rightfully argued that the whole affair was crassly unconstitutional, using precedents going back to 1789. As a check on presidential power, the Senate must approve presidential appointees, just as the Constitution requires. But a president should certainly be able to remove an officeholder without anyone else’s approval; a president needs people he can trust, pure and simple. (The Supreme Court finally vindicated Johnson’s reasoning in 1926.) It’s no surprise that Johnson was acquitted, even by Senators who loathed him.
For obviously, the real reason why Congress wanted Johnson gone is because he opposed their harsh Reconstruction policies in the South. Johnson’s impeachment was about politics, and only nominally for “crimes against the state”. He and Congress had a completely different view of how the South should be treated after the Civil War.
Reconstruction after the Civil War
Johnson, like Lincoln before him, believed in a kind Reconstruction policy in the South. Lincoln had wanted to welcome the southerners back into the union with minimal punishments and requirements, and that’s what Johnson pushed for after his boss’s assassination. He granted amnesty to white southerners who took a loyalty oath, and proposed to appoint governors to the defeated states; under their direction, new constitutions would be drafted abolishing slavery. However, Johnson thought it was far more important to re-integrate the South than to integrate African Americans, whom he considered inferior. In the first two years of his term, he vetoed legislation that would have helped blacks considerably. Most deplorably, he advised the states not to ratify the 14th Amendment, which established the full citizenship of blacks.
The Republican Congress, dissatisfied with Johnson, wanted a harsh Reconstruction policy — one that would socially re-engineer and completely overhaul a South that wasn’t even close to being ready for such change. They succeeded in implementing such a policy in March 1867. With the Military Reconstruction Acts, the south came under northern military rule for a whole decade. This was a grievous mistake.
And here is where Johnson is misunderstood. The common wisdom is that Johnson’s lenient policies in 1865-66 led to southern arrogance and the birth of the KKK. But the KKK had begun (on Christmas Eve, 1865) as a mere social club. It was only after the harsh military occupation in 1867 that the KKK evolved into something else. From 1868-72 the Klan became the band of terrorists we think of today, precisely in backlash against northern militancy.
The Republicans were right that a northern presence was needed in the South. Someone had to make sure that African Americans were integrated properly and their voting rights established. Johnson was no help there; he opposed slavery but didn’t care a whit about improving things for the blacks in any meaningful way. But Johnson was right (as Lincoln had been) that a military presence was a terrible idea. Whenever the U.S. tries nation-building strategies (“building democracy” at gunpoint), it fails. It failed in the South, just as it would later fail in countries like Vietnam and Iraq.
The North won the war, but the South unfortunately won the Peace. What should have happened after the war, in my view, is something between Lincoln and Johnson’s overly kind attitude to the South, and the severity of Republican Reconstructionism — a moderate course that could have brought gradual change in the South without backlash against African Americans. This is what Ivan Eland suggests:
“If southern states had respected the repeal of slavery, black voting rights, and civilian federal officials carrying out federal functions in the South, they could have been restored to representation in Congress. Universal pardons, with rare exceptions for war atrocities, could have been given to Confederate rebels. However, draconian military rule, social re-engineering of the South, and attempts at confiscation of southern land and property should have been avoided. Instead of confiscating the land belonging to southerners, both presidents Johnson and Grant should have identified the considerable amount of unowned land in the South and distributed it to African Americans.” (Recarving Rushmore, pp 133-34)
Had we gone in a direction like that, the KKK may have died in its crib, Jim Crow never come to pass, and the plight of African Americans made considerably less arduous.
Times were good under Johnson. If historians rank him in the cellar, some economists put him on Mount Rushmore. One such ranking places him among the four best presidents for national economic growth (along with Warren Harding, Ulysses Grant, and James Monroe). To be fair, Johnson had the luxury of being a post-war president, when there was a large transfer of resources from the government back to the private sector. But he still made remarkably good fiscal choices and fought inflation.
Also to his credit, he purchased Alaska from the Russians in 1867. And despite all his racist vetoes of progressive legislation, he signed the extension of the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave public land in five states (Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida) to white and black settlers, on a completely non-discriminatory basis.
Andrew Johnson is hard to pin down. For a peace rating he deserves credit for opposing a military occupation of the south, but I downgrade him severely for advocating this cause in a completely racist way that called down the wrath of Republican military measures. For prosperity he’s near perfect, but I give him 15 instead of 20 points, because he had an easy advantage being a president after a major war. His liberty rating is appalling (for all his racist vetoes, and for lobbying states to not ratify the 14th Amendment), but I throw him 2 points for for the extension of the Homestead Act, and 4 points for holding his ground against the ridiculous and unconstitutional attempt to impeach him.
Peace — 8/20
Prosperity — 15/20
Liberty — 6/20
TOTAL SCORE = 29/60 = Poor