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President Andrew Johnson and the Reconstruction of Black Oppression

The “damned sons of bitches thought they had me in a trap! I know that damned Douglass; he’s just like any nigger, and he would sooner cut a white man’s throat than not”--President Andrew Johnson, February 1866

Blacks emerged from slavery largely uneducated, possessing scant accumulated resources, and facing new forms of anti-black prejudice and discrimination. By any estimation they faced a grim and foreboding situation, with unreliable white allies eager to resume their normal peacetime concerns. Some former abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, declared victory for the cause of abolition and dissolved the American Anti-Slavery Society. Fate, however, was unkind to African Americans when the assassin John Wilkes Booth fatally shot President Abraham Lincoln who had only minimal security despite the known threats in the capital of a nation just emerging from a bloody civil war. His vice-president and successor, Andrew Johnson, was a unapologetic racist whose visceral anti-black prejudice had a profound influence on the development of his political policies. The shadow he cast during what were perhaps the most precious years for black political, economic, and social development would be the cause of setbacks felt for years to come.

During this period African American political fortunes were almost inseparable from that of their northern and Republican allies. Yet, the softness of white northern support for black political rights was quite evident. In repeated electoral tests among the white voters of the north, referenda on black voting rights were narrowly defeated in state elections. Few could support such radical measures as that proposed by Congressman Thaddeus Stevens that would have given 40 acres of land to every adult black freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. This measure would have given the newly freed slaves an opportunity to achieve economic self-sufficiency and independence from the rule of their former slavemasters. Unfortunately, the accession Andrew Johnson to the presidency combined with the expected resistance to black advancement by the former slaveholders. The rapid restoration of the former slaveholders’ political rights doomed any prospects for massive land distribution to the former slaves.

New forms of economic and social relationships arose between blacks determined to carve out a decent life for themselves and resistant former slaveholders focused on re-creating a slavery-like system of coerced labor. During a busy period in which African Americans attempted to reorganize their lives in light of their new freedom perhaps the most important item for business for individuals and families was to move off the old plantation where they were enslaved. Black clergy during this period advised blacks to begin their freedom by moving off of the old plantation and then to seize their freedom in an assertive manner. Often the ex-slavemasters immediately resorted to force in order to keep blacks from leaving the plantation generally gaining the cooperation of the authorities in this effort. In other cases, the newly emancipated people refused to leave the plantation and adamantly insisted that they deserved part of the land by virtue of the centuries they and their ancestors had labored on it. Tenancy emerged as a labor relationship which allowed for greater autonomy, fuller family development, and enhanced prospects for upward social mobility via the accumulation of small amounts of wealth.

Families were established, reunited and renamed. Returning black soldiers brought with them new experiences, ideas and attitudes that generally centered around a determination to forge a better life by taking advantage of options formerly closed to them. The thirst for education and acquisition of skills abounded during this period. Similarly, there was a concomitant political thrust that was only curbed by means of violence. By 1867 this organization, which was founded in the North during the Civil War, was one of the most powerful mobilizing forces in the push for black civil rights. While many whites left the organizations as increasing numbers of blacks joined, some whites remained. The Union Leagues practiced armed self-defense in reaction to the anti-black violence that plagued the South during the era. Not unexpectedly, whites became alarmed as the stories of blacks drilling with arms spread. However, the Leagues performed a multiplicity of tasks in filling some of the many gaps in services needed by blacks. The Leagues helped erect schools and churches, meet emergency needs, and ensure political rights.

Andrew Johnson: The Odyssey of a Poor White

After taking office as president and finding “stout” Negroes at work on the White House grounds, President Andrew Johnson immediately inquired as to whether white men had been replaced by these blacks. Johnson openly stated his view that whites, and whites alone, should govern the South. While by the end of his life Lincoln had progressed to the point of viewing black enfranchisement favorably, Johnson experienced no such progressive evolution of his political morality.

In a June 1864 speech, Johnson expressed his horror at being charged with favoring black-white equality. Nevertheless, later Johnson offered to be the “Moses” of the emancipated African Americans. He stated, “humble and unworthy as I am, if no better shall be found, I will indeed be your Moses, and lead you through the Red Sea of war and bondage to a fairer future of liberty and peace. . . “ W. E. B. DuBois noted that those were the remarks of a man who had said more than once, “Damn the Negroes” in reference to black equality. DuBois asserts that a key difference between Johnson and Lincoln, was that the latter president, despite his racial prejudice, viewed blacks as human not as sub-human as his successor Johnson did.

Johnson championed the poor white population, but displayed a particular hostility toward African Americans. His political thought and action with respect to blacks was in the true tradition of Jacksonian democracy which promised elevated social status and broadened political enfranchisement for poor whites on the basis of the enslavement of African Americans. Throughout his long political career Johnson embodied this principle. Even after the emancipation proclamation in 1864, Johnson asserted “this is a white man’s government“when confronted with a question concerning his opinion of black emancipation.

Born in a two-and-a-half story log cabin in Raleigh, North Carolina to Jacob and Mary Johnson December 29, 1808, his servant parents could offer him precious little by way of resources. In December 1811 during a festive affair at Hunter’s Mill outside of Raleigh a canoe overturned in a pond, and Jacob Johnson heard cries for help. Jumping in he rescued two men in the icy pond, one of them was the locally prominent, Colonel Thomas Henderson, editor of the Raleigh Star. Shortly afterwards, however, having been exposed to the frigid waters and coldness, Andrew Johnson’s father Jacob died. Despite his mother’s valiant efforts to support Johnson and his brother William by setting up a hand loom and weaving business, she felt compelled to apprentice the boys to the man his father saved, the grateful Colonel Thomas Henderson. Henderson died shortly thereafter and William and, then Andrew, were apprenticed to the town’s tailor, J. J. Selby. Considering his son’s later emphasis on class differences pitting rich whites against poor whites, Johnson’s death as a result of saving this prominent individual and two others from drowning might shed light on the origins of Andrew Johnson class animosity toward wealthy southern whites.

This began a difficult period for the youth as he was overworked and severely restricted for months seemingly without end. Too poor to be educated in a schoolhouse, Johnson toiled over a needle and thread day after day until an incident led him to run away. Like many a young slave, Johnson was insulted, humiliated, and then beaten. Obligated to work twelve hours a day at whatever tasks he was assigned to by his master, Johnson fled after he engaged in an incident of vandalism in the company of his brother and at least two other apprentices.

Although Johnson returned eventually to serve out his apprenticeship, Selby demanded a security bond the penniless youth could not afford. To make matters worse, he prevented Johnson from acquiring any other employment. Unschooled, the Johnson boys suffered from the indignities of typically poor in a area dominated by those he considered “aristocrats.” Once after the boys had strayed onto a private estate of a wealthy family they were chased and whipped all the way home. Destitute, they were called “poor white trash” and the experiences shaped Andrew Johnson’s later political career helping him empathize with the struggles of poor and working people. While Johnson played with blacks as a child, the financial and social insecurities of the poor whites combined with the thoroughly ingrained racism often made individuals fiercely and instinctively anti-black.

The Johnson boys ended up in Carthage where Andrew worked as a tailor briefly. They had to move on to South Carolina since Johnson was still wanted in North Carolina. Staying in Laurens, working illegally, suffered from his rootlessness and illegal status, Johnson decided to return to attempt to clear his name with his still legal master. Unfortunately, the man demanded a huge sum of money from Johnson to free him from his apprenticeship. Without being cleared Johnson could not work as a tailor, or anywhere else in the state, and was forced to leave the state. Eventually he decided to permanently move across the mountains to Tennessee. With another tailor and his own mother and stepfather, the traveling party, according to the legend, heaped all of their worldly possession on a two-wheeled cart propelled by a blind pony.

Moving from town-to-town with the aid of his journeyman tailor skills, Johnson eventually settled in Greeneville where he had learned that the town’s tailor was retiring. After opening his own shop under the sign “A. Johnson, Tailor,” the seventeen year old began his rapid rise financially, socially, and, most importantly, politically. Aided by the spread of Jacksonian democracy with its broadening of the franchise to include non-property owning white men, Johnson’s tailor shop became the center of political debate and discussion. After his was elected an alderman, Johnson quickly rose to become the town’s mayor. Honing his considerable natural talent and love for oratory, Johnson began to set his sights on higher horizons while remaining true to his convictions to ordinary white working people.

In Johnson’s Tennessee free blacks and slaves represented only one-twentieth of the population, anti-black laws were still in force. To the extent that he was able, Andrew Johnson helped erect the edifice of anti-black institutional racism. Early in his career, for example, he voted in favor of a law that forbade non-enslaved blacks to own grocery stores, bars, or other types of enterprises. The prevailing sense of racial social justice among slaveowning and non-slaveowning whites that blacks should never be able to compete with whites in the economic sphere. This was tied to a sense of bitter resentment stemming from a sentiment that the slaves’ “alliance” with the master led them to trample over poor whites. Consensus also existed that blacks should be universally underprivileged and lower in status than the lowest status white. Early on, Johnson was motivated by a profound sense of resentment stemming from his treatment as a poor white and in 1836, in the Jacksonian spirit, he promised revenge after being socially abused due to his low status by perceived “stuck-up aristocrats.” Johnson vowed that one day he would “show them.”


President Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson, 17th President

1865 to 1869

Birth: December 29, 1808, Raleigh, North Carolina

Death: July 31, 1875

Education: None

Religion: Unaffiliated Christian

Profession: Tailor, Politician

Political Party: Democrat, National Union

Primary Form of Relationship with African Americans: Slaveholder/Politician

Important Online Works

American Presidents: Life Portraits, Andrew Johnson, CSPAN



Andrew Johnson’s deep antipathy for African Americans can be seen in his response to a bill that would have expanded the franchise. This measure, according to Johnson, would:

. . . place every splay-footed, bandy-shanked, hump-backed, thick-lipped, flat-nosed, wooly headed, ebon-colored negro in the country upon an equality with the poor white man.

Johnson's political career took off as a Democrat following his 1845 victory in a campaign for a seat in the U. S. House of Representatives. Later, as a congressman, styling himself as the representative of the “common” white man, he assailed the “upstart, swelled headed, iron heeled, bobtailed aristocracy.”

The pro-slavery Johnson’s loyalty to the Union and his courageous actions in confronting the secessionists in Tennessee brought him fame in the North and notoriety in the South. Fleeing to Washington for his safety, Johnson became a symbol of the loyal border state politician and drew closer to Lincoln. With the firing on Fort Sumter, Johnson views towards those he regarded as slaveholding “aristocrats” grew even more harsh. As military governor of Tennessee from 1862 to 1864 he repressed Confederate activity within the state and put himself in personal danger on several occasions. Threatened with siege several times by surrounding Confederate troops Johnson remained in Nashville stating at one point, “I am no military man but any one who talks surrender I will shoot.”

At the Republican Convention in May 1864, Johnson was chosen as Lincoln's running mate, replacing Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin in a bid to broaden the Republican presidential ticket to appeal to pro-slavery Democrats. By including the slaveholding border state ex-Democrat Johnson, the Republicans felt they had a better chance to defeat the Democrats whose candidate was the often disgruntled General George B. McClellan. The general, widely criticized for his vacillation and lethargic command of key Union troops rode a tidal wave of backlash fueled by the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and the difficult progress the of the Union war effort. Almost one year later, the April 1865 assassination of President Abraham Lincoln suddenly thrust Johnson into the White House. Johnson's position against African American progress was clear.

By 1865, however, Johnson maintained that the federal government had no role in fostering black suffrage in the ex-Confederate states. “States rights,” once again became the rallying cry slogan of the opponents of black civil rights. In order to soften his image and gain room to maneuver politically, Johnson did counsel the governor of Mississippi in 1865 to grant the vote to black men who were both the owners of property and literate. Johnson felt that his political position against black suffrage was politically advantageous partly due to the outcome of a referendum among whites of the District of Columbia on black voting rights. Nearly unanimous, by the vote of 7,369 to 36, D. C. whites rejected black political rights.

Another troubling aspect of President Johnson’s attitude toward African Americans was evident from his May 1865 lecture of blacks. Johnson told the assembled African Americans that they have to get rid of this “idea among them that they have nothing to but fall back upon the government for support in order that they may be taking care of in idleness and debauchery.” Later that fall, he patronizingly told an audience of black veterans that ”. . . freedom is not simply the principle to live in idleness.” Johnson’s advice included moral strictures such as the need to avoid places of vice and ill-repute. Despite Johnson’s moral advice to African Americans, he himself created quite a controversy when he slurred his way through his vice-presidential inauguration speech while in a drunken stupor.

After Frederick Douglass led a delegation of African-Americans to the White House for a meeting with Johnson, the heated discussion continued even as the session ended. Douglass told the president “you enfranchise your enemies and disfranchise your friends.” Douglass spoke at length contending that any such racial war as Johnson mentioned could be averted by the granting of the franchise to blacks. Johnson then declared that blacks should consider emigrating to another country. Douglass shot back that this would be impractical and quite unlikely given the lack of freedom of movement, an accompaniment of the continued slave-like oppression blacks were subjected to. The ex-slaveholders, moreover, were desperate for labor. Johnson, maintaining that blacks had been pampered under slavery and were now being pampered by the federal government, stated that the government gave black “every facility.” The two leaders continued to exchange remarks as they departed.

The fallout from the confrontation was not long in coming. Immediately, President Johnson spewed out a stream of negative comments about Douglass. He commented soon after the meeting to a New York World reporter that the “damned sons of bitches thought they had me in a trap! I know that damned Douglass; he’s just like any nigger, and he would sooner cut a white man’s throat than not.” The delegation of African Americans also issued a statement following the meeting with the president. This statement, dissected Johnson’s justifications for the continued disfranchisement and concluded that any hostility existing between poor whites and blacks was “entirely reciprocal” and were a result of the divide and conquer tactics used by the slaveholders. They asserted that the poor whites were the “slavecatchers, slavedrivers, and overseers” who committed many crimes against blacks during slavery. Now, however, slavery was forever gone and there was no “cause of antagonism.” If such an hostility exists as Johnson alleged, they maintained, then it would be even more unjust to “disarm the black man politically” noting that:

Experience proves that those are oftenest abused who can be abused with the greatest impunity. Men are whipped oftenest who are whipped easiest. Peace between races is not to be secured by degrading one race and exalting another, by giving power to one race and withholding it from another. . .

President Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Bill engendering such a backlash that it led to the first overturning of a presidential veto in the history of the United States. The fissure between the president and the Republican Party widened considerably after these events. The tumultuous post-Civil War year of 1866, however, was also electrified by the massacre of black activists in Memphis where some forty-six were slain and seventy-five wounded. Later, in July 1866, a Unionist Constitutional Convention met in order to map a strategy to enfranchise blacks and disfranchise former Confederates. The overwhelmingly black group of delegates was attacked by an heavily armed mob of former Confederates aided by the police force. The federal army was mysterious away from the scene allowing some thirty-eight convention delegates to be murdered while scores were wounded.

The response of President Johnson to this raw terrorism designed to drive African Americans away from the political arena was one that was sympathetic to the perpetrators of the violence. Far from considering dispatching the army to ensure that black rights were respected, Johnson felt that such federal troops were a humiliation that white Southerners need not be subjected to. Johnson’s role was important in the fact that a massive roundup of ex-Confederates never occurred despite a war that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. The Confederate rebel forces, unrepentant, were accorded unparalleled leniency following their defeat.

Equally serious for any prospect of an improvement in the overall quality of black life was the passage of a series of laws designed to constrict black liberty. The objectives of these measures were to secure a coerced workforce that existed at the subsidence level, maintain white domination, and deprive blacks of political, social, and economic rights. The state government was granted the role of enforcing the supremacy of whites in all areas of life, and an played a particularly important role in maintaining blacks as a reliable source of coerced labor. Whites of the South were almost wholly united in rejecting black suffrage. These undemocratic and repressive ideas clashed head-on against those of blacks who were aiming for full civil rights in every sphere of life. Foremost among their aspirations was that of owning land which could foster their independence and prosperity. Without these essentials African Americans realized that emancipation would ring hollow. A decades-long struggle ensued culminating in a new post-slavery racial order in the South.